March 29, 2010 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 601

Saudi Arabia's Conflicted Policy on the Afghanistan Crisis

March 29, 2010 | By R. Green
Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 601


During the January 2010 London Conference on Afghanistan, Afghan President Hamid Karzai appealed to Saudi King 'Abdallah, asking him to participate in mediation efforts between the Afghan government and the Taliban. His appeal focused media attention on Saudi Arabia's long-standing diplomatic involvement in this country.

This report reviews the roots of Saudi Arabia's involvement in Afghanistan and of its current policy there, which is characterized by several conflicting features: on the one hand, a firm objection to the escalating Western war against the Taliban – a war which endangers Pakistan – and attempts to set the stage for negotiations with certain groups within this movement; and on the other hand, a recognition that the main Taliban leadership has aligned itself with Al-Qaeda and is therefore an enemy of Saudi Arabia.


The motivations for Saudi Arabia's long-standing interest in Afghanistan are threefold: concern for its strategic ally Pakistan, competition with Iran, and considerations of political prestige.

A) Pakistan – Saudi Arabia's Strongest Sunni Ally

Saudi Arabia views the ongoing war in Afghanistan as a threat to Pakistan, which, for many decades, has served as Saudi Arabia's strategic depth in the Muslim world, and whose stability is therefore of the utmost importance to the Saudis. This was related in an article by Al-Watan's editor, Jamal Khashoggi: "Saudi Arabia has a genuine interest to bring peace to Afghanistan because it will help stabilize Pakistan, a strategic ally of the kingdom. [The Saudis] can use [their] connections with Afghan religious leaders to achieve [this aim]."[1] The daily Al-Jazirah likewise expressed Saudi Arabia's concerns about Pakistan, in an editorial published following a series of terrorist attacks in Pakistan cities: "The growth of Taliban terrorist organizations and their spread throughout [strategically] important regions in interior Pakistan is a negative development, not just for Pakistan and Afghanistan, but for the [entire] Indian subcontinent... The security crisis Afghanistan is experiencing, and which Pakistan is currently struggling with, represents a serious challenge to both these countries, as well as to the U.S. and to NATO as a whole."[2]

B) Saudi Arabia's Rivalry with Iran

Saudi Arabia's interest in Afghanistan also stems from its ongoing rivalry with Iran, whose ties to Afghanistan go back centuries. The Safavid and Qajar dynasties (which ruled Iran from the early 16th to the early 20th centuries) both dominated the Herat region in Western Afghanistan and claimed it as part of their empires. Afghanistan also has a large Shi'ite minority (estimated at 20% of the population) and a number of ethnic minorities that speak Iranian languages. Today, Iran views Afghanistan as part of its sphere of influence and as an arena for advancing its political, strategic, economic, and cultural interests.

Saudi Arabia strongly opposes Iran's use of Afghanistan to boost its regional status and set up an additional front of confrontation with the U.S., and the Saudi dailies Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and Al-Watan have pointed to the heavy involvement of Iran in Afghanistan.[3] As a matter of fact, the current conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is just another phase in the long-standing rivalry between them. This rivalry intensified especially after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which generated immense solidarity with Iran in the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia sought to counter this development and restore its supremacy in the Muslim world through two main courses of action, the first of which was a decade-long involvement in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. This war culminated in victory over the Soviets and in the demise of their empire, which greatly enhanced Saudi Arabia's prestige at the expense of Iran's. Second, the Saudis engaged in a global effort to spread Wahhabi Islam throughout the world by financing educational facilities and providing personnel to run them. This too was a Saudi victory, for the Saudi efforts were far more successful than Iran's attempts to export its revolution.

C) Saudi Arabia's Status and Prestige in the Islamic World

Finally, Saudi Arabia sees itself as leader of the Islamic. Mediation in Afghanistan serves a means of improving Saudi Arabia's prestige and status, both in the Muslim world and internationally.

Saudi Diplomatic Activity vis-à-vis Afghanistan

As a new U.S. administration took office and resolved to re-examine its foreign policy in Central Asia, Saudi Arabia made efforts to influence the shaping of this new policy as well as the global (and especially the American) media discourse regarding Afghanistan's future. Indeed, the Afghanistan issue was at the center of meetings held between the Saudi leadership and senior U.S. officials, particularly the summit between U.S. President Barack Obama and Saudi King 'Abdallah.[4]

Even though Saudi Arabia stands against the U.S. war in Afghanistan, as will be explained below, U.S. policy in the matter has been greatly affected by Saudi activity, as demonstrated by the support of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, for any Saudi effort to mediate between the Taliban and the Afghan government.[5] This influence was also reflected in a report published by the daily Al-Watan following a meeting between Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, according to which "Saudi Arabia and the U.S. see eye-to-eye on the [issue of] supporting... Afghanistan."[6]

Over the last year and a half, Saudi-mediated secret talks have been held between the Afghan government, under President Hamid Karzai, and the Taliban, with active support from the U.K., which maintained close contact with the Saudi leadership over the matter.[7] These talks had been cold-shouldered by the Bush administration, whereas the Obama administration has approved of and encouraged them. Recently, Saudi Arabia's involvement in Afghanistan was brought out in the open in Karzai's January 28, 2010 speech at the London Conference on Afghanistan, in which he urged Saudi King 'Abdallah to take an active role in the Afghanistan peace process and to serve as mediator between the Afghan government and the Taliban militants: "For the sake of [ensuring] the success of our [peace] process, we hope that King 'Abdallah Bin 'Abd Al-Aziz will graciously support it and participate in directing it." Following these remarks in London, President Karzai visited Riyadh, where he made an official request to King 'Abdallah for his aid. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Feisal responded that his country would comply with this request on the condition that the Taliban break off its ties with Al-Qaeda.[8] It should be noted that Saudi Arabia insists that it has no ties with the Taliban, apparently in response to criticism it has faced in the past over connections with the organization. Foreign Minister Al-Faisal recently stated that no ties whatsoever exist between his country and the Taliban. He said that contact between the two sides was abrogated by Saudi Arabia in response to the Taliban's sheltering of Al-Qaeda, and since then, there have been no ties at all.[9] However, although Saudi Arabia did break off its ties with the Taliban faction led by Mullah Omar, it has maintained ties with other factions.

The Saudi Media Effort

In the course of a public debate in the U.S. over the future of the war against terror in Afghanistan, it was proposed to adopt a new policy vis-a-vis the Taliban, namely to stop the war against this movement and focus instead on Al-Qaeda alone. As part of this debate, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal [10] in which he supported this approach, urging U.S. policy makers to focus their efforts on bin Laden rather than on the Taliban. Al-Faisal argued that the Afghan Taliban is a weak and disorganized group, characterizing them as a loose collection of malcontents opposed to the current government, without any formal hierarchical structure. He hinted that some parts of the organization would be open to dialogue, and even advised the U.S. to drop the term "terrorists" when referring to its members. He recommended launching serious negotiations with the Taliban, while also reaching out to tribal leaders.[11]

The Saudi press attached great importance to Prince Al-Faisal's recommendations – the daily Al-Watan cited them in three separate editorials – and responded angrily to the U.S. administration's rejection of his advice. Al-Watan called for "the opinions of experts in this matter [to] be given consideration, and especially [the opinion of] countries with a long history of expertise in handling the Afghan situation and with an understanding of the Afghan psychology and political approach. In his Washington Post article, Prince Turki Al-Faisal offered American decision-makers clear policy recommendations regarding Afghanistan which it is crucial that they adopt..."[12]

The Saudi Press on the Possibility of Saudi Mediation in Afghanistan

Al-Watan Editor: Saudi Arabia, More than Other Nations, Understands the Afghans

In his Al-Watan article, editor Jamal Khashoggi discussed President Karzai's appeal to King 'Abdallah, and wondered about Saudi Arabia's chances of success in Afghanistan. He stated that, while Saudi Arabia has an advantage in its good relations with Afghanistan, it also has a bitter experience with the extremist Taliban members there. According to Khashoggi, "To advance its current peace initiative, Saudi Arabia can take advantage of the Afghan nation's good memories from the period of Russian occupation and the jihad [against Russia], when Saudi Arabia provided [Afghanistan with] military, diplomatic, and financial support... [On the other hand,] there has been no special connection between Saudi Arabia and the Taliban, except during a temporary trial period of contact lasting only three years... There is no cause to be excessively optimistic, since our experience with the Taliban has been bitter, considering that they – or at least their leaders – operate according to the principle of 'all or nothing'...

"Saudi Arabia's thorough understanding of the situation in Afghanistan, thanks to its [past] activities and experiences there, is the main reason for Karzai's request for Saudi mediation. Saudi Arabia understands Afghanistan's diversity... The Taliban's inclusion in this diverse [political array] would be considered an accomplishment, especially since [this organization itself] is not altogether homogenous... What Saudi Arabia and the region as a whole have to gain, strategically, is the isolation of Al-Qaeda, which, as a result of the ascent of the Pakistani Taliban, poses an ever-increasing security threat to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia's strategic ally to the east. Saudi Arabia must act on this. Aside from a political [victory], the elimination of Al-Qaeda, its attitudes, and its doctrines, signifies first and foremost a victory for Islam. The road ahead is a long one, [and it must be remembered] that the war is not a military one, but a war of ideas and beliefs."[13]

Saudi Criticism of U.S. Management of Afghanistan War

The announcement of Obama's decision to reinforce U.S. troops in Afghanistan [14] and ratchet up their military activities there was greeted in the Saudi press with a wave of criticism over U.S. disregard of the Saudi recommendations for negotiations with the Taliban. [15] Operation Moshtarak, an offensive carried out by combined NATO and Afghan army troops against Taliban strongholds in the south of the country, was likewise met with criticism over the war's continuation. Al-Watan claimed that the NATO offensive would deteriorate the situation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan arena, disrupting the Saudi mediation initiative before it had a chance to gather momentum. The daily reiterated Saudi disappointment at the U.S. rejection of the recommendations made by Turki Al-Faisal, asserting that Saudi Arabia would intervene only on its own terms: "The deteriorating situation in the Pakistan-Afghanistan arena does not bode well. Most analyses [of the situation] suggest that matters will continue to decline... Military intervention and the solution [it offers] represent one alternative, diametrically opposed to the alternative of negotiations. This analysis is relevant to the situation in Afghanistan, where, ten years after the first coalition forces arrived, Al-Qaeda remains active... The most obvious proof of the failure of international policy in dealing with the overall situation is the Afghan president's recent appeal to Saudi Arabia to intervene and mediate in resolving this crisis.

"The tribal areas in southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan have become an independent emirate, or a sort of autonomy, and this must be recognized, albeit tacitly. That is the reality on the ground... which is the reason for Saudi Arabia's demands to reassess the policy being followed, especially the [push for] military resolution, which has exacerbated the mutual violence... Reviewing some of the ideas published by Prince Turki Al-Faisal on this matter, [one will find] the most feasible plan of action for dealing with the ever-deteriorating Pakistan-Afghanistan region.

"[In previous situations] Saudi Arabia has served as mediator in the service of Islam, without any ulterior motives of its own, and is capable of doing the same again, as long as it is in accordance with its own positions and perspective. The latest offensive by NATO forces in Helmand, which was the largest military operation since the arrival of coalition [forces] in Afghanistan, does not very well serve efforts to initiate a Saudi mediation."[16]

Saudi Columnists Harshly Criticize U.S. Policy

Saudi columnists leveled even harsher criticism at the U.S., condemning its military operations in Afghanistan. Al-Madina columnist Sa'id Muhammad Habib accused the U.S. of war crimes in Afghanistan, while lauding the Afghan combatants who, according to his statement, have a history of routing all occupying forces: "[There are] early signs of an immense, resonating defeat that will be dealt to the U.S. and to its NATO-member allies in Afghanistan by that same great Muslim nation... which has stood [throughout history] in arms against every imperialist...

"The difference between the past and the present [situation] lies in military technology: [today] the 'smart' bombs and deadly rockets dropped by the American planes take the lives of dozens and even hundreds of Afghans and Pakistanis in an instant... most of them defenseless civilians... Despite all this, the outcome of the Afghanistan war will reveal, if Allah should will it, the outright failure and defeat [of the U.S. and NATO]... The London Conference revealed the extent of distress felt by the international community regarding America's war on Afghanistan. Notwithstanding all the resources being spent on Obama's 'good' war there, this war is lost, [even] according to the commanders of the U.S. military... The U.S. will not be able to continue its war crimes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other countries, and to operate according to hypocritical policies and despicable double standards, and still maintain the support of the people. Its corrupt policies ensure its defeat. The great nation of Afghanistan will prove its allegiance to Islam, not to the dollar... The prestige of America and NATO will crumble into the dust of Afghanistan, until the U.S. withdraws, receding back into itself. Today the historic role [of the U.S.] has passed to other [nations]. The world recognizes China's status, as it continues defy the U.S., which is arming Taiwan".[18]

*R. Green is a research fellow at MEMRI.

[1] Reuters, February 2, 2010.
[2] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), December 9, 2009. It should be noted that Pakistan's importance to Saudi Arabia became particularly apparent when the Saudi press went out of its way to defend this country following the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November, 2008. See MEMRI I&A No. 478,"Concerned About Pakistan's Future, Saudi Press Rallies to Prevent India-Pakistan Escalation," December 5, 2009,
[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 11, 2010; Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 25, 2009.
[4] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), June 4, 2009. King 'Abdallah also discussed the Afghanistan issue in his meetings with Dennis Ross and Richard Holbrooke. In addition, the issue was addressed at a meeting between Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), April 27, 2009; Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), May 18, 2009; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 8, 2009.
[5] Al-Hayat (London), November 25, 2009 .
[6] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), February 16, 2010 .
[7] The Observer (Britain), September 28, 2008; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 17, 2009. Recently, The Guardian published a report on the attempts of former Arab mujahideen, working in cooperation with Saudi attorneys over the past four years, to make preparations for talks between the Karzai government and the Taliban. According to the report, the Saudi royal family secretly has backed these attempts since 2008.
[8] Al-Hayat (London), February 3, 2010.
[9] Times of India (India), March 1, 2010.
[10] Washington Post (USA), October 8, 2009, .
[11] Al-Faisal also proposed re-drawing the borderlines between Pakistan and Afghanistan and setting up a joint security network shared by Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, with the aim of eliminating Al-Qaeda's leadership.
[12] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 25, 2009.
[13] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), February 3, 2010.
[15] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 2579, "Saudi Criticism of President Obama's Afghanistan Policy," January 20, 2010, Saudi Criticism of President Obama's Afghanistan Policy.
[16] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), February 14, 2010.
[17] Al-Medina (Saudi Arabia), February 6, 2010.

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