Saudi Arabia Defense and Foreign Policy

Foreign policy and defense

According to abbreviationfinder, Saudi Arabia is a nation in Western Asia. Its capital city is Riyadh. The status of Saudi Arabia as the place of Islam is characterized by relations with the outside world. Solidarity with other Muslim countries has long been a cornerstone of foreign policy. At the same time, the country is a regional superpower with Shia Muslim Iran as its counterpart. Security aspects and financial interests lie behind Saudi Arabia’s strategic and economically close cooperation with the United States.

saudi arabia military spending and defense budget

Tensions have recently intensified in the region. Oppositions between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, but also between authoritarian regimes and both liberal reformers and fundamentalist warriors, make the situation in the immediate area extremely unstable. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has actively participated in both Shiite and jihadist adversaries by assisting the government of Bahrain, participating in US-led air strikes in Syria and conducting air strikes in Yemen.

  • Countryaah: Overview of business holidays and various national observances in Saudi Arabia for years of 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025.

The development is partly due to the popular democracy uprising in North Africa and the Middle East from 2011. The uprising caused domestic political unrest in Saudi Arabia and presented the country with a new security policy situation. An important ally was lost when Egypt’s authoritarian regime fell and for a time was replaced by a government dominated by the Islamic Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia regards with suspicion. The relationship has improved since the Brotherhood overthrew in 2013 and Egypt was again given a military-controlled regime.

In the bloody uprising that began in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad, Saudi Arabia has supported arms rebels. Assad belongs to a Shiite Muslim minority and is closely allied with Iran, which competes with Saudi Arabia for dominance in the region. When the Islamic State (IS) extremist group – also opponents of Assad – took up large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014, Saudi Arabia joined the US-led alliance that took up arms against IS. The development led to wear and tear in the relationship with the US. For the Saudi government, it was disappointing that the United States did not wholeheartedly endorse the Assad regime.

Approaching Trump

The cautious thunderstorm that arose between the US and Iran after the change of presidential post in Iran 2013 also worried. Saudi Arabia’s decision in October 2013 to reject the offer of a rotating seat in the UN Security Council was interpreted as indirect criticism of Washington and was seen as a signal that the country has now begun to pursue a more independent foreign policy. However, Donald Trump’s takeover as President of the United States in 2017 meant a new shift with strong mutual support. Trump’s first trip abroad began in Saudi Arabia and both he and King Salman then pointed out Iran as the center of Islamist terrorism.

Cooperation with the United States has been crucial since modern Saudi Arabia was founded and oil was found in the 1930s. The US has bought a large part of its oil from Saudi Arabia, which in turn is dependent on the US for its security. US strong support for Israel has not hindered cooperation. But the state of opinion at home and the development of the region made relations with the United States an increasingly difficult balancing act for the Saudi government after the turn of the millennium.

Disbelief against Iran goes way back in history. When the western-friendly regime in Tehran in 1979 fell for a US-hostile revolution that resulted in a Shi’ite regime in Iran, it was a blow to the US and Saudi Arabia’s joint strategy in the region. The government in Riyadh shares the Western world’s concern for Iran to develop nuclear weapons. When Iran signed agreements with the United States and other major powers on its nuclear energy program in 2015 (see Iran: Foreign Policy and Defense), Saudi Arabia worries that the arch rival would strengthen its role internationally. In 2016, Riyadh severed diplomatic relations with Tehran, since protesters in the Iranian capital stormed the Saudi embassy (see Calendar).

Concerns after the Iraq invasion

During the war between Iran and Iraq from 1980 to 1988, Saudi Arabia supported Iraq. But when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and positioned troops at the Iraqi-Saudi border, the situation changed. The Saudis requested international assistance, and the United States responded with military charging in the area. In February 1991, a US-led UN force had expelled Iraqis from Kuwait. Saudi Arabia broke with Iraq and resumed relations with Iran. Only in 2015 did relations with Iraq resume.

The war of 1990-1991 meant a severe loss of prestige for the Saudi regime because it had to ask the West for help. Several thousand American soldiers remained after the war, with the good memory of the government. Many Saudis and Muslims in other countries were upset that the soldiers were allowed to be stationed near Islam’s most sacred sites.

The terrorist attacks against the United States in 2001 and the subsequent US-led global war on terrorism further complicated the situation. Under US pressure, the Riyadh regime promised to cooperate against terrorism without formally joining the US-led anti-terror alliance. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 also had a major impact on Saudi Arabia. The Saudi regime had to deal with a growing hatred of the US at home; during the invasion, Americans were not allowed to attack from Saudi soil. After the war, US soldiers left the country. Riyadh feared a growing influence for the previously powerless Shiite majority in Iraq. Saudi Arabia has since seen Shiite government officials in Iraq almost like Iranian lackeys.

Following Saudi Arabia’s handling of the mildly oppositional journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was brought to life at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, cooperation between Washington and Riyadh has instead been questioned from the US. Not least, President Trump’s friendship with the Crown Prince and Trump’s defense of the major contracts between Saudi Arabia and the US defense industry have been criticized.

Cooperation and cracks on the Arabian Peninsula

Out of concern for Shiite Muslim expansion, Riyadh took the initiative of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981, in which five other Arab states in the Persian Gulf are also included – Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Oman. The organization’s joint military force was used in neighboring Bahrain in 2011 to, at the request of the Sunni-dominated government, defeat Shiite Muslim insurgents.

A serious crack occurred in the GCC after the Arab Spring because of Qatar’s open support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In 2014, Riyadh stamped the Brotherhood, which has branches in several Arab countries, and brought home its ambassador from Qatar. So did the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. In June 2017, the conflict intensified sharply, when Saudi Arabia accused Qatar of supporting terrorists and breaking diplomatic relations. Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and other countries in the region followed the Saudi example and Qatar was isolated. Consequently, GCC was also paralyzed.

Border disputes that go back decades have even to some extent disturbed relations with Qatar, as well as with the United Arab Emirates. A rapprochement between Kuwait and Turkey, which led to a joint defense plan for 2019, is also reported to have led to disapproval. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait disagree on two common oil fields.

Support to Muslim countries

Saudi Arabia has increased its influence in other countries in recent decades, including through large financial contributions and favorable loans to poor countries. The recipients are found mainly in the Arab world and Africa but also further afield. The Prime Minister of Malaysia was released in 2016 from suspicions of corruption in his home country, after it was found that the $ 681 million he received prior to a 2013 election was a gift from the Saudi royal house. A Saudi source stated that the purpose was to counteract the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Malaysia, and noted that this kind of payments to other countries were not uncommon.

The Palestinians have received much financial assistance, but at the same time, Saudi Arabia has countered Arab demands for total isolation of Israel. In 2002, Saudi Arabia presented a peace plan that offered normalized Arab-Israeli relations in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories. An attempt to breathe new life into the plan was made in 2007, with clear results. Riyadh has also sought to mediate between rival Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah, and in the domestic conflict in Lebanon. A certain rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel has been observed, especially as a result of both countries’ distrust of Iran. One question is how far that thawing weather can go. The US initiative during Trump’s presidency to push through a peace plan that strongly favors Israel has upset Arab countries,

Saudi Arabia’s relationship with neighboring Yemen in the south deteriorated after the Kuwaiti war in 1991, when Yemen did not support the Allies. Saudi Arabia expelled some 800,000 Yemenites and in the 1994 Yemeni Civil War, Riyadh supported the uprising in the south. Hostile Saudis find a sanctuary in the neighboring country, where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqip) has its stronghold. But in the increasingly unstable situation in Yemen from 2011, it is especially the Shiite Muslims who are concerned about the Saudis. When the rebels pushed the president away and took control of much of the country (see Yemen: Current Politics) in March 2015, Riyadh launched air strikes against them along with several other Arab countries and with indirect support from the United States. Later in the year, the Saudis also joined ground troops in Yemen. Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of supporting the Huthir rebels and the war in Yemen has come to be seen as an indirect war, partly through agents, between Saudis and Iranians. The war has led to a severe humanitarian crisis in the already poor neighboring country.

In the United Nations, Saudi Arabia has repeatedly opposed reports of global warming, as the texts usually contain conclusions that Member States are not taking adequate action against climate change emissions. Climate scientists argue that it is necessary to drastically reduce emissions from fossil fuels – Saudi Arabia’s most important export commodity.


Political unrest in the Middle East has fueled a military upheaval in Saudi Arabia. The country had the largest military spending in the region and the third largest in the world in 2018, according to the Peace Research Institute Sipri. Military spending amounted to 8.8 percent of GDP, and they had nevertheless declined compared to the previous year. The weapons are mainly purchased from the US but also from Europe. In recent years, the country has put more resources on border guard and on counterterrorism forces.

Under the royal house is the National Guard, which is almost as large as the army. The National Guard will protect the royal family and defeat coup attempts or rebellions. An industrial security force was established in 2007 to protect primarily the oil industry. There is also a semi-military border force. The regional cooperation organization GCC had in 2014 At least 30,000 soldiers in a joint force, and according to a decision the year before, the force would be expanded to about 100,000 men, of which a large proportion of Saudis. However, the break with Qatar 2017 means that the future of GCC cooperation is unclear.

Military service is optional.

The United States no longer has troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, but there are a number of US military advisers. In 2013, it was revealed that for two years the United States had a secret air base in Saudi Arabia from which driverless aircraft, so-called drones, could attack targets in neighboring countries.


Army: 75,000 men (2017)

The air Force: 2,000 men (2017)

The fleet: 13,500 men (2017)

Military expenditure’s share of GDP: 10.3 percent (2017)

Military spending’s share of the state budget: 30.4 percent (2017)