Saudi Arabia’s Big Bet in Yemen
Saudi Arabia is looking for an exit from Yemen. While a Saudi withdrawal is unlikely to end Yemen’s civil war, the Saudis are likely to proceed if Iran can keep the Houthis onside.
With the new Taliban regime in Kabul, Saudi leaders are likely to remain cautious and keep a close eye on power dynamics. But they are likely to keep some channels of communication open with the Taliban to promote stability in the region.
The relationship between the Gulf Arab states and Afghanistan has long been volatile and sometimes controversial. From the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan to the skyrocketing rise of the Taliban, the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks, the fall of Mullah Omar’s regime in the wake of the U.S.-led war on terror, and the messy withdrawal of the international coalition’s forces, Gulf-Afghan ties have been characterized by ebbs and flows. After the 9/11 attacks, the Gulf states sought to distance themselves from Afghanistan, especially from the terrorist networks linked to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Gulf leaders feared that the transnational appeal of radical Islamist ideology might cause insecurity in their home countries and the region. While Afghanistan is separate geographically from the Arabian Peninsula, the country’s political turmoil and instability directly affect Iran and Pakistan, which are the Gulf’s next-door neighbors.
Saudi Arabia particularly has vested security, economic, and humanitarian interests in the political future of Afghanistan. To further these interests, the kingdom has exerted varying degrees of influence on Afghan power dynamics over the past several decades.
Although official ties between the House of Saud and Afghanistan date back to the 1920s, the two countries kept their diplomatic engagement low profile. The intensity of Saudi-Afghan relations significantly changed in 1979, when an unprecedented wave of political turmoil irreversibly altered the status quo and transformed the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia.
Mass protests led to the overthrow of the decadeslong rule of the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran in February 1979. The Iranian Revolution meant the abandonment of a secular system of governance and the inauguration of a new regime, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who anchored the Islamic Republic on the principles of vilayet e-faqih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist) and foundations of Twelver Shiism. In November and December 1979, an extremist religious group carried out a 14-day occupation of Mecca’s Grand Mosque. Driven by a messianic mission, the group encouraged the Saudi population to rise up and overthrow the monarchy and establish an anti-Western, Islamist regime. The siege of Mecca was a head-on attack on the religious and political legitimacy of the House of Saud. Meanwhile, on December 25, 1979, the Soviets launched a full-scale military invasion of Afghanistan. With the regimes of Syria, Iraq, and the Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) already gravitating around Moscow’s orbit, the fall of Kabul seemingly tilted the regional balance of power in favor of the Soviet Union.
These three iconic events carried symbolic and pragmatic consequences that altered Saudi Arabia’s threat perception. The kingdom, spearheaded by King Khalid bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, reacted by stepping up its activism to promote a regional system more in tune with its strategic interests and security priorities. Saudi Arabia paid more attention to Afghanistan and began to engage in its domestic politics. This engagement has been driven by three main factors:
While the first element gradually faded due to the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 and the de-emphasis on religion in Saudi foreign policy, the second and third factors still significantly contribute to shaping the trajectory of Saudi-Afghan ties.
As the custodian of Islam’s holy sites of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia has always considered itself the guardian of Sunni Islam worldwide, possessing a moral commitment to champion Islamic causes across the globe. The House of Saud’s drive to unite Muslim states under its religious leadership was revealed with the creation of the Islamic Front in 1965 and was further consolidated in 1969 with the establishment in Jeddah of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, now referred to as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Based on its centurieslong religious credentials, Saudi Arabia aimed to claim the monopoly on the Islamic mantle, but the Iranian Revolution brought a fierce new competitor for the leadership of the Muslim Ummah (community of believers or nation). Saudi leaders felt the kingdom’s spiritual primacy in the Muslim world was threatened by the Iranian revisionist claims and sought to defend its authority by scaling up its pan-Islamic activism on the global arena. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan offered Saudi leaders an opportunity to reassert the kingdom’s supremacy in the religious domain while containing Iran’s ambitions.
In close coordination with the United States and Pakistan, Saudi Arabia played a crucial role in organizing and supporting the mujahedeen resistance against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Structuring the Afghan militias in a disciplined fashion, however, was not an easy task. Disunity, mistrust, and resentment loomed large among the six main opposition parties that made up the anti-Soviet Afghan camp. Aside from the desire to drive the Red Army troops out of Afghanistan and overthrow Afghan leader Babrak Karmal’s pro-Soviet regime, the mujahedeen did not agree on much. The country remained prone to political fragmentation, weakened by a constant switching of alliances and burdened by infighting among the main militia groups even after Karmal resigned in 1986.
Saudi Arabia’s endeavors to leverage its religious credentials and remedy the fragmentation of the Afghan mujahedeen delivered mixed results. The OIC convened a four-day session at the end of January 1981 in which commanders of the main resistance groups gathered in Mecca and Taif. The Afghan leaders agreed to establish the Islamic Union for the Liberation of Afghanistan, an umbrella organization that regrouped the six main militias under the direction of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf. The Afghan commanders pledged an oath of allegiance to Sayyaf, Prince Turki Al Faisal, director of the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate from 1977 to 2001, recalled in his memoir. “After the conference was finished, we took the group to Makkah, and they swore in front of the Kaaba to work together.” The success in unifying the Afghan factions through Saudi Arabia’s religious authority did not last long. “As soon as the leaders went back to Afghanistan, they totally forgot their oath, ignored Sayyaf, and periodically fought each other,” Prince Turki recounted. The Saudis reconvened the mujahedeen leaders at the Kaaba in May 1982, but despite their efforts, the intermittent outbreaks of intra-mujahedeen infighting and the intense competition for the allocation of material and financial support gradually undermined the cohesion of the loosely defined anti-Soviet coalition.
Widespread hatred and bitterness among the mujahedeen leaders become even more evident after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 and Mohammad Najibullah’s Soviet-backed government was ousted in 1992. In what was supposed to be a post-occupation stabilization phase, the country plummeted into chaos, with the mujahedeen vying for control over Kabul. The last Saudi attempt at “Kaaba diplomacy” dovetailed with the 1993 peace deal sponsored by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who gathered the representatives of the mujahedeen factions in Islamabad, where they agreed to end hostilities and establish a broad-based government. The leaders were then flown to Mecca for a second signing ceremony in front of the Kaaba. When the parties returned to Afghanistan, however, tensions flared once again.
Saudi Arabia funneled around $4 billion in support to the mujahedeen in the 1980s and 1990s, leaving aside unofficial aid from individual wealthy donors and Islamic charities. In the end, however, warlordism, regularly resurfacing ethnic-based rivalries, and radical side switching undermined Saudi Arabia’s protracted financial support and religious influence. Riyadh gradually acknowledged it had little leverage to play a meaningful role in Afghanistan.
Deep-seated antagonism based on sectarian, ideological, and political considerations has fueled a harsh feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Rather than a direct armed confrontation between the two rivals, the aggressive jostling has often played out in different theaters across the region, including Afghanistan.
While Saudi Arabia put significant resources into uniting the Afghan resistance during the 1980s, Iran’s involvement in Afghanistan was limited, as it was busy confronting a military aggression by Iraq and consolidating the Islamic Republic’s structural foundations. In the early stages of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran did not see each other as competitors and even shared the common goal of keeping the communist threat out of the region.
After the Soviet evacuation from Afghanistan, a power vacuum emerged. Global powers lost interest in Afghanistan, creating a scramble for influence among regional and local actors, including Afghan warlords, who escalated their armed struggle. Saudi Arabia feared that Iran would take advantage of Afghan domestic chaos to leverage its linguistic and religious affinities with minority groups, such as the Dari Persian-speaking Tajiks and Shia Hazara groups, to spread the Khomeinist revolutionary ideology. On the other hand, Iranian leaders worried that Riyadh would start a shadow war against Iran using Saudi-backed mujahedeen groups, especially the Islamist fundamentalist factions led by Sayyaf and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a senior commander in the anti-Soviet resistance and leader of the mujahedeen Islamic Party, and later the Taliban of Mullah Omar. Saudi-Iranian interactions in Afghanistan thus entered a more turbulent phase resembling “a contest for influence between Saudi Wahhabism and Iranian Shiism,” according to scholar John Calabrese.
To build political influence in Afghanistan, Iran focused on establishing a Shia mujahedeen coalition that would offer a credible alternative to the Washington-Islamabad-Riyadh anti-Soviet coalition. It was hoped that this coalition, which would come to be known as the Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan, would unite the loose Shia fighting forces and help create a buffer zone in Afghanistan’s western provinces, especially Herat, that would insulate Iran from the turmoil. Iran discovered, however, much like Saudi Arabia, that uniting the mujahedeen in Afghanistan is a Sisyphean task. The Islamic Revolutionary Movement, a main Shia mujahedeen group led by Ayatollah Asif Mohseni, resisted Iran’s pressures to join the Iran-sponsored umbrella, deeming it heavily biased toward Hazara historical claims. Friction among the factions, diverging political and military agendas, and Iran’s erratic commitment to the Afghan Shias’ cause all impinged on the coalition’s stability and Iranian capacity to consolidate its strategic depth in the country.
Although Saudi Arabia and Iran competed to draw Afghanistan into their spheres of influence, the prospect of achieving a political solution to the Afghan conflict persuaded the two rivals to play down their differences and co-sponsor the Sharif-brokered 1993 peace deal. The Saudi-Iranian honeymoon had a short life, however, and bilateral ties soured with the collapse of the agreement and the rise of the Taliban in the mid-1990s. Frustrated with the unreliability of the mujahedeen groups, especially those led by Sayyaf and Hekmatyar, Saudi Arabia saw in the Taliban a viable alternative to stabilize Afghanistan while preventing Iran from making significant inroads in Central Asia. The marriage of convenience did not last long, as the Taliban proved to be even more challenging to control than the other mujahedeen factions. The Taliban’s rapid growth, ultra-orthodox Islamist posturing, and uncompromising ideological disposition implicitly drew Saudi Arabia and Iran closer, even though they were still publicly at odds.
In the two decades between the collapse of Mullah Omar’s regime in October 2001 and the Taliban’s swift rise to power after the international coalition’s forces withdrew en masse during the summer of 2021, Saudi-Iranian interactions in Afghanistan continued to follow an irregular path. Both countries continued their clientelist approach to Afghanistan, attempting to buy off the loyalty of domestic actors by funneling significant sums of money to them, but the decadeslong competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Afghanistan has highlighted the failure of this patron-client strategy in a country with such a complex political mosaic.
Outside powers, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, have generally chosen their partners following linguistic, cultural, and religious connections. Domestic actors, however, do not always view these primary identity markers as the most important factors when they choose whether to join an alliance. Both countries significantly miscalculated their capacity to keep tabs on their Afghan proxies, overestimating “natural closeness” as a mobilizing and aggregating force and underestimating pragmatic considerations.
Riyadh’s involvement in Afghanistan’s domestic affairs in this period only delivered a limited, costly victory. Saudi Arabia might have stemmed Iran’s influence in Afghanistan, but it was unable to expand its own sphere of political influence meaningfully.
The focus of Saudi action in Afghanistan gradually shifted from countering the Soviet threat and Iranian influence to a fight against radical Islam. Between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, radical Islamist groups carried out an unprecedented number of attacks on Saudi territory. Since many terrorist sanctuaries were based in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia sought to use its communication channels with the Taliban to curb the attacks. Riyadh not only recognized the Taliban’s government but also approached Mullah Omar in an attempt to have him relinquish al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the terrorism campaign targeting the House of Saud. The Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden, and tensions with Saudi Arabia started to rise.
When al-Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, the United States questioned Saudi Arabia over its inability to leverage its connections with the Taliban to prevent such attacks. The Saudi-Taliban relationship hit rock bottom in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Riyadh severed diplomatic ties with Kabul and joined President George W. Bush’s war on terror against al-Qaeda and its backers, first and foremost the Taliban.
Saudi Arabia tried to keep a visible presence in Afghanistan and maintain a direct connection with the Afghan population through several multibillion-dollar infrastructure, education, and humanitarian projects. However, from the Taliban to Shia minority groups, including some pro-republican government constituencies, large segments of the Afghan political spectrum grew distrustful of Saudi Arabia, mindful of its decadeslong involvement in the country. Afghanistan’s then president, Hamid Karzai, repeatedly approached Riyadh to mediate with the Taliban, but the talks went nowhere. Saudi Arabia had lost its leverage.
The nomination of Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince in 2017 signified a changing of the guard in Saudi Arabia. This change in leadership at the top and the rise of a younger generation to pivotal positions in the Saudi institutional framework brought about a visible overhaul of traditional power structures and a recalibration of foreign policy. In Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia has pursued a semi-open anti-Taliban policy, distancing itself from its former partner by contrasting the Afghan group’s radical version of Islam with its own more “moderate Islam.” In July 2017, for example, Saudi Arabia hosted a two-day international conference of the OIC promoting peace and stability in Afghanistan. More than one hundred religious scholars from nearly 40 countries participated in the event, which concluded with a declaration condemning the religious illegitimacy of violence perpetuated by the Taliban. The crown prince uses such platforms to try and change widespread international perceptions of Saudi Arabia as a dogmatic, ultra-conservative society. The aim is to present the kingdom’s interpretation of Islam as peaceful and tolerant, especially in contrast to that of radical groups, such as the Taliban. The measures aimed at compartmentalizing the influence of religion in Saudi Arabia have dovetailed with top-down social changes, such as the lifting of the ban on women driving, a more relaxed attitude toward gender mixing at social and entertainment events, and a downgrading of power previously in the hands of the morality police.
Although Mohammed bin Salman has downplayed the role of pan-Islamic references in the country’s foreign policy, the kingdom has sought to leverage its still-relevant leadership credentials in the Muslim world to promote a softened image of its society. Saudi Arabia’s engagement with Afghanistan, and the Taliban especially, over recent years might be seen as part of a broader attempt by the leadership to rehabilitate the country’s standing in the international arena to attract foreign investment and human capital.
With the Taliban takeover in mid-August 2021, the freezing of the Afghan central bank’s overseas assets, and the massive drop in the inflow of foreign aid to the country, a rapid deterioration of humanitarian conditions seemed inevitable. By leveraging its leadership credentials, Saudi Arabia has played a critical role in mobilizing OIC members to scale up efforts to deliver humanitarian relief to the Afghan population. In March 2022, a new director general of the OIC office in Kabul was appointed, and the OIC mission officially reopened in November 2022.
It is unlikely that the Taliban will establish a governance system that is respectful of the many minorities that make up the heterogeneous Afghan demographic fabric and ensure minimum levels of security for the Afghan population in the short or medium term. Given the disastrous events of recent years, Saudi Arabia is likely to remain cautious and keep a close eye on Afghan power dynamics. Saudi leaders are likely to keep some channels of communication open with the Taliban, especially in the name of stability in the region. They will likely work to tackle common concerns, such as the illicit flow of narcotics and weapons smuggling, and try to make sure Afghanistan doesn’t revert back to being a haven for terrorist organizations and the spread of radical Islamist ideologies. However, they seem clearly postured to avoid the entangling type of engagement with Afghanistan they pursued with such ambition and such limited results in the past.
is a researcher who focuses on the security affairs of the Gulf region.
is a senior fellow at TRENDS Research & Advisory in Abu Dhabi, where he is the director of the International Security & Terrorism Program. He is also an advisor at Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy.
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