Saudi Arabia the natural leader of the Muslim world
Saudi Arabia’s leadership role in the Muslim world is shaped by several foreign policy principles: A commitment to all Muslims globally, non-interventionism, support for Muslim deradicalization efforts, and confronting extremism. These principles are based on its obligations toward Islam as a religion, an identity, its history and civilization, and on its commitment to a rules-based international system and to international organizations and institutions.
In fact, Saudi Arabia is where Prophet Muhammad was born, as the Qur’an revealed, and the Islamic civilization started. Over the centuries, and under various leaders, the Saudi commitment to Islam and Muslims solidified, most recently in the country’s Basic Law of Governance (i.e., constitution), which asserts that: “The State shall nourish the aspirations of Arab and Muslim nations in solidarity and harmony and strengthen relations with friendly states.” After Riyadh announced the Vision 2030 blueprint, the country’s grand plan to rebalance its economy, few took note that this document also addressed its cardinal principle, as it stated: “Saudi Arabia… (is) the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds, the investment powerhouse, and the hub connecting three continents.”
More than a billion Muslims turn five times daily toward Makkah to pray, and millions visit the country to perform their religious duties for Hajj and Umrah in the holy city, as well as to complete various pilgrimage rituals at the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah. These rituals pacify souls and give unimaginable symbolic standing to the Kingdom, which takes its responsibilities toward all Muslims very seriously.
As amply documented by numerous scholarly tomes, the continuous flow of Muslims to the country over the centuries has facilitated the development of personal, familial, formal and informal relations and networks between the Saudi leadership, elites and people and Muslims across the world. Saudi Arabia is universally recognized as the key player in international Islamic organizations such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Islamic Development Bank, and the Muslim World League, all of which perform concrete services at the religious, political, social, economic, and financial levels.
These commitments have strengthened Saudi Arabia’s relationship to Islam and its reach, influence and impact on the Muslim world at large, which has, in turn, bestowed on the country immeasurable prestige and soft power that, by some measures, is unparalleled. Consequently, Saudi Arabia has become interconnected and interlocked with the Muslim world.
The Kingdom believes that protecting Muslims — a religious obligation it is critical to underscore — is best fulfilled through international organizations.
Inasmuch as Saudi Arabia is the most important country in the OIC — which defines itself as being “the collective voice of the Muslim world to ensure and safeguard their interest on economic, socio and political areas” — the organization’s commitments to the Muslim world, like the Kingdom’s, have been reaffirmed in various statements and declarations, most significantly in the 2019 “Charter of Makkah.” This declaration, which was developed and endorsed under Saudi guidance and leadership and signed by Muslim scholars around the world, “calls on the world to fight terrorism, injustice and oppression, stating that the duty of all is to refuse the exploitation of people and violation of human rights.” That is quite a concrete pledge that few noticed but that defined and guided the Saudi authorities.
Simultaneously, Riyadh remains a staunch believer in the international system based on non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign countries. It also rejects “pragmatist” preferences or, more bluntly, double-standard approaches to international rules and conventions that, regrettably, are all too common nowadays. Riyadh rejects such double-standard approaches in part because of its pledges to the nation-state system but, far more importantly, due to its religious obligations. For what could possibly be the purpose of false hopes raised in the plight to back selected minorities in some countries, while ignoring the repression and persecution of other minorities elsewhere, save for pragmatic goals? How frequently do we hear outcries on the plight of Muslims in India, for example? Why focus on some countries, like China (although the situation in Xinjiang is very concerning), and ignore other instances of discrimination?
For its part, Saudi Arabia believes that protecting Muslims — a religious obligation it is critical to underscore — is best fulfilled through international organizations such as the OIC, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and multilateral cooperation, rather than through infringements on countries’ sovereignty or through interference in the internal affairs of nation states. A recent example is the Kingdom’s efforts to protect the Rohingya from genocide. As the world silently watched the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the OIC, under the chairmanship of Saudi Arabia, supported Gambia in bringing a case to the ICJ. Gambia referred Myanmar to the ICJ on charges of genocide and the court subsequently unanimously voted to order Myanmar to prevent the genocide of the Rohingya.
Uncertainty and instability characterize today’s world. The economic challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic have created a ripe environment for radicalism, extremism, and exclusionary politics, all of which affect the Kingdom as much as most countries. Riyadh is aware of these contests and is planning accordingly. At such times, and to address serious challenges, the world needs to turn to a ready, able and willing country to engage Muslims for the causes of stability, peace, the promotion of religious moderation and, to tackle the elephant in the room, confronting extremism. The world needs a country that can play that role effectively in the Muslim world, and the fact of the matter is that no country other than Saudi Arabia is in a position to do that without resorting to convoluted redefinitions.
• Dr. Saud Al-Sarhan is Secretary-General of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.