SOLID FOUNDATIONS

Saudi Arabia 2014 | DIPLOMACY | REVIEW: DIPLOMACY

Saudi Arabia is using its vast wealth to help establish the Kingdom as a secure and stable political and economic powerhouse in the region.

Saudi Arabia was created in 1932 when King Abdulaziz Al Saud unified four separate regions, Hejaz, Nejd, Al Hasa, and Asir under a single mandate. Five kings to date, all sons of King Abdulaziz, have ruled the Kingdom since its inception. The holy texts and traditions of Islam, the Quran, and the Sunnah, are Saudi Arabia's constitution, while the Basic Law, established in 1992 by Royal Decree of King Fahd bin Abdulaziz, mandates that the King must follow Islamic law. The Basic Law also formally established that Arabic is the national language and the capital is Riyadh, while creating a system of social security and documenting the right to private property. Another key piece of Saudi Arabia's governance structure is the Shura Council, the official consultative body to the King. The Shura Council has the power to suggest laws to the King and his cabinet, but only the King may approve them.

The Council is also responsible for the five-year plans that direct the government and its budgets. The Council's influence is further strengthened by its ability to call ministers to consultation, and its role as an interpreter of law. The King appoints its members, and in 2013, 30 women joined the council for the first time in the Kingdom's history.

The Council of Ministers implements policy and runs the nation's daily affairs. The Council of Ministers is chaired by the King, who also appoints the ministers. The Council includes the Crown Prince, who is First Deputy Prime Minister, and 22 ministers, plus seven Ministers of State. Some of the most influential ministers in Saudi Arabia's foreign policy are the Minister of Defense HRH Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, HRH Prince Saud Al Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and the Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, HE Ali bin Ibrahim Al Naimi.

The stability of succession within the royal family is a major priority for every Saudi Arabian leader, and King Abdullah has ensured a smooth transition with wise appointments during his tenure. In 2014, he appointed HRH Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud as Deputy Crown Prince, firmly establishing a third in command and third in line for the throne. He has also appointed a number of his sons to important positions in the government, further ensuring a secure future.

Although Saudi Arabia's structure is clearly centered on the King, the nation has a well-established tradition of dialogue between the ruling family and its subjects. The concept of majlis, where members of the royal family or other important figures in the government or the private sector receive guests and hear grievances or take consultation, is actively employed across the nation. The age-old custom extends from the lowest reaches of authority to the highest, and although it is relatively informal, it has a powerful sway on the decisions made by the King, ministers, and even influential families in the private sector. The majlis system ensures that all voices are heard and considered in the decision-making process, and offers citizens a forum in which to exercise their influence.

Royal family members also frequently distribute charity to less fortunate citizens after requests made in the majlis. This concept of charity is one of the pillars of Islam, and extends to Saudi Arabia's foreign policy. Over the last 30 years, Saudi Arabia has provided aid of over $100 billion to nations around the world. This figure is second only to US foreign aid. In both the US and Saudi Arabia, citizens are major contributors to the total.

The US is a major foreign ally of Saudi Arabia. The two nations have a relationship stretching back to the founding of the modern Saudi state. The American geologist Max Steineke found the world's largest reserves of oil in Dhahran in 1938, under the employment of the California Arabian Standard Oil Company (CASOC). That company was later purchased by the Saudi Arabian government, and is now the Saudi Arabian Oil Company, or Saudi Aramco. Through the oil industry, many American engineers, geologists, and technicians have visited Saudi Arabia since the discovery, and transferred their expertise to Saudi nationals. Their influence is visible in the wide roads and shopping malls in Saudi Arabia and around the Gulf region.

This historic relationship also extends to defense and trade. Saudi Arabia is one of the largest purchasers of US military equipment, and its armed forces work closely with the US to ensure peace and stability in the region. In 2012, trade between the two nations totaled $81 billion, and since 2009, non-defense exports from both countries have nearly doubled, while in 2014 around 111,000 Saudi students attended university in the US. In 2014, US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry visited King Abdullah, a strong indicator of the importance of this longstanding alliance to both countries.

In the region, Saudi Arabia shares its status as a major purchaser of US defense equipment with the UAE and Bahrain, which are also significant trade partners. These countries and others in the Gulf form one of the foundational military partnerships in the region, and have cooperated on important military actions in the past.

Saudi Arabia also enjoys strong trade with the EU, regional allies, and Islamic countries across the world. It has built robust alliances through cooperative organizations, and was a founding member of the GCC, the organization of gulf nations that has liberalized trade in the region and that plans a region-wide railway network. Saudi Arabia is also a member of the WTO and the G20, and is the 11th largest trading partner of the EU. Notable collaborations include European companies winning multi billion-dollar tenders for major infrastructure projects, such as the Haramain high-speed train in Hejaz and the Riyadh Metro, among others.

Asian nations form another substantial trade and diplomatic destination for the Gulf state, with China, Japan, South Korea, and India ranking as the top destinations for Saudi Arabian exports. China in particular has seen rising trade volumes, both in terms of bilateral trade in goods and services and petroleum. Chinese companies have become increasingly competitive in government infrastructure projects, and joint ventures between Saudi and Chinese companies are on the rise. As the balance of global oil supply shifts due to the shale gas revolution and China's oil consumption continues to rise, China is set to be an increasingly important destination for Saudi oil. In 2014, Crown Prince Salman visited Beijing to discuss economic cooperation that may stretch beyond China's status as the top importer of Saudi oil.

Significantly, Saudi Arabia is a founding member of OPEC, the UN, the Arab League, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Through these partnerships, the nation has become a major influence in economics and events across the world. It is considered a leader of Islamic countries, and among other organizations the OIC and the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) are based in Saudi Arabia.

The nation's history and its status as a regional power imply that it takes a leadership position in the economic affairs of the Middle East. It has done so by promoting regional stability, building trade links with a diverse portfolio of nations, and implementing strong policies that have been successful in diversifying its economy. Saudi Arabia is a key player in the world's future, and it is among the strongest G20 economies. The well considered policies, progressive reforms, and the stability of its leadership are all positive indicators for its future.