the war in Iraq descends into sectarian violence between Muslims,
the neighboring kingdom of Saudi Arabia -- the birthplace of Islam
and home to the world's largest Sunni Muslim population -- has remained
largely on the sidelines.
say Saudi Arabia's biggest concern is that unrest and violence
in Iraq will spill over the border, threatening stability in the
"The overwhelming desire is for a unified nationalist Iraq
and above all for some sort of stability for the Iraqi people,"
said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International
Studies. "The Saudi government has strongly supported the
ideas of a national unified Iraq, pushed for reconciliation, avoided
taking sides and supported the Iraqi government."
Meanwhile, Saudi authorities worry the influence of Iran -- a
predominantly Shiite nation -- on Shiite militias fighting Sunnis
in Iraq is threatening the fragile balance of power in the region.
Saudi Arabia wants to prevent the repression of Iraqi Sunnis at
the hand of the majority Shiite population.
Around 27.5 million Muslims live in Saudi Arabia, which includes
the religion's two holiest sites in Mecca and Medina. It holds
the world's largest oil reserves and continues to play a dominant
role in the region even without directly intervening in Iraq.
In 2003, the Saudi government condemned the United States' intervention
in Iraq and refused to contribute troops to the coalition, but
since then has allowed U.S. planes to cross its air space to carry
out attacks. The government has not directly intervened, despite
its interests, in order to maintain a positive relationship with
the United States, a major security partner.
"They don't like the increasing Shiite influence in Iraq.
They don't like the Iranian influence in Iraq. On the other hand,
they're not going to actively support people who are killing Americans,"
said Gregory Gause III, a Saudi Arabia expert at the University
of Vermont in an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations.
Saudi Arabia has become key to Washington's strategy in the Middle
East as the United States tries to create an alliance to counter
Iranian influence. Saudi King Abdullah has taken the lead in other
regional conflicts, notably drafting a plan to resolve the conflict
between Israel and the Palestinians.
But the kingdom hasn't given the United States limitless support.
In the first sharp rebuke of U.S. policy, Abdullah told regional
leaders at the Arab Summit held in March 2007 that "in beloved
Iraq, blood flows between brother in the shadow of illegitimate
foreign occupation and hateful sectarianism, threatening a civil
Joseph McMillan at the National Defense University said that
Abdullah's comment put down markers to distance Saudi Arabia from
the United States.
"They're trying to be on good terms with the United States,
but not so much that they lose their credibility at home or in
the Arab world," he said.
The country's longer term interests in Iraq, according to a report
prepared for Congress, are to ensure that Iraq's oil industry
does not threaten Saudi Arabia's, and to keep Iraq from becoming
a military threat to Arab Gulf states.
A stable Iraq also would help prevent the spread of terrorism
and create a buffer to Iran, according to Cordesman.
While pledging not to contribute money or military force to the
conflict, the Saudi government has acted to ease the humanitarian
needs of displaced Iraqis and has hosted regional conferences
to deal with the violence.
King Abdullah met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
in early March 2007 to discuss sectarian violence in Iraq, but
the meeting did not result in any concrete plans.
While the government sees Iraq as a threat to the regional balance
of power, the Saudi public tends to view the conflict in Iraq
as a sectarian struggle and the American intervention as the occupation
of Arab land, according to Gause.
Individuals are contributing to the conflict by volunteering
as insurgents despite the government's attempts to stop influential
clergy from encouraging young Saudis to fight.
Still, the number of Saudis joining the insurgency is low when
compared to the number of Iraqis fueling the violence. In an April
2006 Center for Strategic and International Studies report, Nawaf
Obaid, an adviser to the Saudi government, estimated that 512
Saudis, or 10 percent of foreign fighters, helped the insurgency
in Iraq from the beginning of the U.S. invasion, in March 2003,
until March 2006, according to Brookings Institution's Iraq Index.
The Saudi government has invested $1.8 billion in closing its
northern border with Iraq, the report said. Units patrol around
the clock and the government has plans to install a security fence
along the border to "keep bad people from going in both directions,"
said McMillan at the National Defense University.
Saudi individuals also contribute money to the insurgents, though
the amount is hard to estimate and transfers are difficult to
trace to single countries.
For its part, the Saudi government has pledged $500 million in
reconstruction aid to Iraq as of Dec. 31, 2006.
But so far, the Saudi government has not forgiven Iraq's $9 billion
debt accumulated during Saddam Hussein's regime, despite calls
from the United States to do so, according to the Congressional
As the U.S. Congress debates future policy in Iraq, Saudi Arabia
has urged the United States not to withdraw troops and has expressed
support for President Bush's increase in troop levels.
Saudi Arabia's future role in Iraq could depend on the Bush administration's
policy. In December 2006, King Abdullah told Vice President Dick
Cheney during a meeting in Riyadh that Saudi Arabia might financially
support Iraqi Sunnis if the United States pulls out.
Obaid, at the time an adviser to the Saudi government, wrote
in a November 2006 Washington Post op-ed that Saudi Arabia would
intervene following a U.S. withdrawal.
The Saudi government disavowed Obaid's column and he was fired
from his government position, but his op-ed emphasized the high
stakes Saudi Arabia faces in the region.
"To turn a blind eye to the massacre of Iraqi Sunnis would
be to abandon the principles upon which the kingdom was founded,"
Obaid wrote. "It would undermine Saudi Arabia's credibility
in the Sunni world and would be a capitulation to Iran's militarist
actions in the region."