Saudi Foreign Policy: Unity, Stability, and Responsibility

When the Arab uprisings began in 2010, the future of the Middle East looked more uncertain than usual. In the midst of the turmoil, Saudi Arabia was forced to strengthen and clarify its foreign policy. Since then, the Kingdom has structured its foreign policy leadership and its vision for its future around unity, stability, and responsibility.


The unity that Saudi Arabia advocates, and the vision it promotes, is the unity of the Arab Gulf. In the past few years, the Kingdom has made great efforts to prioritize the oneness of the Gulf’s Arab countries and their shared interests over small and transient differences. In the struggle to restore the legitimate government to power in Yemen, the Kingdom has forged a coalition of the GCC countries and likeminded Arab and non-Arab countries to achieve that aim. The purpose has been to prevent the usurpers of power, the Houthis and the forces of the deposed president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, from forcing themselves on the Yemeni people.

As sectarian violence deepens rifts and breaks apart homes and communities across the Arab world, Saudi Arabia’s call for unity has become more urgent than ever. Iraq and Syria are among the countries following the same heartbreaking narrative: citizens with the same shared history, religion, and homeland continue to be torn apart by radical groups exploiting sectarian religious and ethnic divisions for their own gain. Groups like ISIS, the Shi‘i militias in Syria and Iraq, Hezbollah, and the Houthis use religious extremism in order to gain loyalty by providing the young a militant identity, a sense of belonging, and a vision for which to fight. But the unity of radicalism is an illusion; it cannot exist without an enemy. It reaches not toward harmony but toward domination and control. ISIS is a symptom of the disease of anarchy in Syria and Iraq.

But the unity of radicalism is an illusion; it cannot exist without an enemy. It reaches not toward harmony but toward domination and control.

Russia has now added to this bloody scene air strikes aimed at Syria’s moderate opposition, which is fighting ISIS and Bashar al-Assad alike. This is a most unwelcome addition to an already combustible situation. Russian representatives state they are there to fight the terrorists. Alas, together with the United States Moscow is ignoring the father of all terrorists in Syria – Assad. In Baghdad, the legacy of Nuri al-Maliki’s sectarian rule disenfranchised the Sunni Iraqis and allowed ISIS to take advantage of the resultant vacuum to establish rule in Mosul and other parts of Iraq. Fix Damascus and Baghdad, and ISIS will wither away.

Fighting sectarianism is far from easy. Sectarianism thrives on the enmity of others. The kingdom asked fellow Islamic countries in 2012 to build a center that will research and help dismantle sectarian ideologies while promoting intersectarian dialogue. But there is only so much that can be done for countries like Iraq and Syria, where sectarianism has become and remains a valuable political currency. The desire for unity cannot come from the outside alone; it must also come from within.


The dust of the Arab unrest since late 2010 has never truly settled; instead, it has swept into several other nations and has taken new forms. In a region where the decay of regimes has created widespread human suffering, Saudi Arabia commits itself to policies that promote and sustain the integrity of just governments and support citizens in embattled areas on their path to stability.

The past year and a half has seen some Arab countries make progress toward political integrity. Tunisia, for example, held free elections. Egypt is emerging from the tumult of the past few years under the leadership of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. After the success of the presidential elections, parliamentary elections were held.

Bahrain, another state whose recent history has been marked by sectarian clashes and government-opposition tension, held a round of general elections in 2014. The Shi‘i citizens of Bahrain elected representatives to the parliament, despite threats from extreme Shi‘i groups that tried to intimidate them.

Saudi Arabia has been proud to play a role in stemming the threat of sectarian violence, and it will continue to focus its diplomacy on encouraging the development of strong regimes and integrated civil society across the Arab world.

HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal
HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal. Photo: National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations.


In the twentieth century upon the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One, the kingdom accepted the momentous responsibility of Custodianship of the Two Holy Mosques and stewardship of the hajj. Its role as the meeting place of the world’s Muslims and the preserver of its most important holy sites informs every aspect of public and private life. The deaths of so many pilgrims that marred last year’s pilgrimage have spurred the kingdom to dissect the causes of that tragedy and guarantee that it never recurs.

Saudi Arabia is also leading the efforts to stem extremist and heretical interpretations of the Muslim faith as promoted by some from within the kingdom and those outside the country. Saudi Arabia has the wisdom of experience when it comes to fighting terrorism. It has fought extremists on its own soil for decades and has developed some of the world’s most sophisticated counterterrorism techniques.

The world can expect that Saudi Arabia’s advocacy regarding the welfare of Muslims will take first priority in its negotiations with regional powers. The kingdom contributed half a billion dollars to the UN effort to resettle the refugees from the ISIS onslaught on Iraq. The kingdom also helps fund the camps for Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. We have also welcomed more than two million Syrians since 2011.[1] Those who wanted residence permits and qualified for available employment positions were provided all the benefits of work, schooling, and health care, and those who wanted to move on were provided temporary visas.[2]

When it comes to the ongoing conflict in Palestine, Saudi Arabia commits itself to advocating for the dignity and independence of the Palestinian people. With the recent raising of the Palestinian flag at the United Nations, it is Saudi Arabia’s hope that the coming months can move the world toward a unified, organized movement in favor of self-determination and peace in Palestine. Several European parliaments have urged their governments to recognize the state of Palestine, and Sweden, Iceland, and the Vatican have extended that recognition already.

The kingdom also recognizes that part of its global responsibility is to attempt to mend relationships with its neighbors in order to move toward a more productive future. Saudi Arabia welcomes the opportunity for further discussion of Iran’s nuclear program and the benefits it could bring to the Gulf. Yet the kingdom cannot let the fight against ISIS draw attention away from the atrocities of the Assad regime. A friend to Assad is an enemy of the Syrian people and to those who would help them. Unfortunately, Iran and now Russia have aligned themselves with Assad. This is not just politically unwise; it is morally wrong. For Iran and Russia to put themselves on the side of Assad is to put themselves on the wrong side of history.

The oil industry touches every part of the globe, and when changes occur, Saudi Arabia welcomes the opportunity to explain to the world how its use of oil is in line with its values and goals.

Alongside its spiritual role, Saudi Arabia has been blessed with the responsibility of natural resources – its vast oil and gas reserves. The drop in oil prices has led to speculation about the near-term future of the oil industry and its impact on global policies. Some of this speculation has been measured and reasonable. The oil industry touches every part of the globe, and when changes occur, Saudi Arabia welcomes the opportunity to explain to the world how its use of oil is in line with its values and goals.

The kingdom is the world’s largest exporter of oil, and it takes seriously its leadership role in the regulation of the oil market. Saudi Arabia has the reserves and the infrastructure necessary to weather a drop in prices, as well as the foresight to realize that OPEC’s days as a collective bargaining tool are limited. If there are some who are suffering from the drop in oil prices, they must realize that it is the market – not OPEC – that dictates those prices. When there is more oil in the market, prices go down. The reverse is equally true. The shale oil producers know this quite well. That is why they have shut down uneconomic wells and stopped developing others. When the prices go up again, they will rejoin the fray.

Some will see a conspiratorial flavor to the kingdom’s treatment of these events. The fact is that Saudi Arabia, along with all the other oil producers, is seeking to protect its share of the market. The kingdom considers that oil is a resource, a tool for development, and a bargaining chip to be used wisely in games of diplomacy and war. Saudi Arabia uses its oil resources for the betterment of its own society and as an impetus for political stability and economic growth regionwide; its behavior in the oil market is meant to supplement its domestic and foreign policy. Historically, the kingdom has sought an equitable price for oil. It continues to do that today.

Thus, since 2010 Saudi Arabia has solidified its foreign policy, and it has done so around the ideals of unity, stability, and responsibility. It will continue to emphasize these principles in the face of persistent unrest in the region.


2015 was a year of sorrow for Saudi Arabia. In January, our beloved King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz died. The people mourned his passing because his legacy was one of accomplishment and reform. The fact that we are weathering the downturn of the price of oil is because under his leadership the country accrued the financial reserves that are sustaining us. Also thanks to King Abdullah, in December 2015 women in Saudi Arabia voted to elect women representatives in our municipal councils. There is a whole panoply of issues undertaken by our late king that if I were to enumerate them I would speak for the rest of the day.

King Salman has succeeded to the Custodianship of the Two Holy Mosques. As governor of Riyadh, minister of defense, and crown prince, he shared in all of the Kingdom’s development, reforms, and progress. His choices for crown prince and deputy crown prince will bring us a stable and prosperous future. His meeting of the challenge of the Houthis overturning the legitimate Yemeni government by galvanizing an Arab and Muslim coalition to reverse that illegal action has defined his brave and steadfast style of leadership. His continuing support for the King Abdullah Scholarship Program is indicative of his faith that Saudi youth are our undepletable resource that will carry us forward in the future.

On the night of the twenty-third day of Ramadan, one of the holiest of days on which, according to Muslim belief, God comes nearer to all Muslims to give them the assurance that he is listening to their supplications, He chose to take from us my beloved brother, Saud. He was my mentor and my friend, and I sorely miss his wisdom and his wonderful sense of humor.

For 50 years, 40 of which he was foreign minister, he served five kings, the Kingdom, the Arabs, the Muslims, and the rest of humanity without complaint or inhibition. Even when he was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, he never shirked his work. Whenever we begged him to let up and take a breather, he would look at us, raise his eyebrows, and return to what he was doing, as if to say that he must finish without interruption.

The buying of Aramco shares, the oil embargo, the effort to keep Egypt in the Arab fold after Camp David, the ending of the Lebanese civil war, the ending of the Iran-Iraq War, the wildlife conservation program, the galvanizing of world support for Kuwait after Saddam Hussein’s invasion, convincing Gorbachev not to impede the UN Security Council resolutions to sanction Saddam, the forecasting of the dire consequences of the American invasion of Iraq, the struggle to convince the world to stand up for the Syrian people, and the continuing political battle to gain for the Palestinians their right to freedom and self-determination – all of these events had the imprint of Saud Al Faisal.

The guidance of the five kings he served in all of these issues, and many other issues too numerous to mention here, was always the beacon that led him.

These remarks constitute an edited version of HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal’s keynote address at the 24th Annual National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference, October 14, 2015.


[1] In contrast, the United States has declared a willingness to accept as many as 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016, and Canada has announced the intention to admit 25,000 Syrian refugees by February 2016. Since January 2015, Germany has accepted more than 800,000 refugees.

[2] At an international invitation-only conference in a GCC country in mid-December 2015, a former high-ranking U.S. government intelligence agency representative asked, “Why is it that Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries have not opened their countries to accept Syrian refugees?” The questioner was informed that the reality is the opposite and, further, that such misinformed viewpoints show the extent to which millions of Westerners, and Americans in particular, are the victims of misinformation and disinformation regarding the nature and extent of humanitarian aid and refugee absorption extended to Syrian refugees.

Author: HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal

HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal is chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies and a co-founder of the King Faisal Foundation. He served as ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States from September 13, 2005 until February 2, 2007. He also serves as a member of the board of trustees of the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies and has been co-chair of the C100 Group, an affiliate of the World Economic Forum, since 2003. Prince Turki was appointed an advisor in the Royal Court in 1973. From 1977 to 2001, he served as director general of the General Intelligence Directorate, the Kingdom’s main foreign intelligence service. In 2002, he was appointed ambassador to the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.