Exploring Iran & Saudi Arabia’s Interests in Afghanistan & Pakistan: Stakeholders or Spoilers - A Zero Sum Game? Part 1: Saudi Arabia

Publication date:
Guido Steinberg; Nils Woermer

Policy Research Papers

April 2013

In the worldview of Saudi Arabian policymakers, Afghanistan and Pakistan lie considerably closer to the Kingdom than a short look at the map would suggest. The coastal regions of the Persian Gulf have long been part of regional trade networks oriented towards South Asia, and relations with cities like Bombay and Karachi have been as close as relations to the Arab countries north and west of the Arabian Peninsula for centuries. As a consequence, the Saudi leadership sees Afghanistan as part of the Kingdom’s immediate neighbourhood and has developed a strong interest in the future of the country since the 1980s, when Saudi Arabia feared a continuation of the Soviet advance towards the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf.

Nevertheless, Afghanistan itself is not the core issue in Saudi Arabia’s policy towards the country. It rather derives its importance for Riyadh from the fact that Saudi Arabia’s relations with Pakistan and Iran are affected by events in Afghanistan. Pakistan is arguably Saudi Arabia’s most important ally after the US, and Iran is seen as the main threat not only to the Saudi regional position in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, but also to the very survival of the Saudi regime. Both the Pakistani and the Iranian dimensions have gained special importance because key Saudi leaders harbour growing doubts about the US willingness to continue protecting the regime of the House of Saud against regional enemies.

As a result, Saudi Arabia supports Pakistan in its Afghan policy and – only partly in coordination with Islamabad – competes with Iran for influence in Afghanistan. Since the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) decision to withdraw its troops from Afghan soil by 2014, Saudi Arabia has developed a new sense of urgency in its policy towards the country. Ever since, Riyadh is increasingly pursuing its aim to avoid a new civil war and establish a government of national unity comprising at least parts of the Taliban, keeping Iran out of Kabul and isolating al-Qaida in Pakistan.