How Saudi Arabia Uses International Aid to Further Its Political Ambitions

Charity begins at home. Or so the old saying goes, because for Saudi Arabia, charity almost certainly begins abroad. Between 2007 and 2017, the Kingdom donated $32 billion in aid to a variety of international humanitarian and development projects, while over the past four decades it has donated at least $115 billion to over 90 countries, according to its figures.

Such numbers qualify Saudi Arabia as one of the most charitable nations in the world, with then-Ambassador to the UN, Faisal bin Hassan Trad, boasting in 2015 that it was the most generous country. However, while aid in itself is usually something to be welcome, Saudi Arabia’s largesse is not without its ulterior motives. And in the Kingdom’s case, most of its donations can be tied to its sweeping political aims, which revolve largely around three main axes: extending and strengthening its sphere of influence in the Middle East (and beyond), whitewashing its global image, and ensuring the stability of its regime.

Given that Saudi Arabia has been so active in the sphere of international aid in recent years, it was no surprise to learn that representatives from the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSRelief) met with officials from the World Health Organisation (WHO) on September 2nd to discuss potential cooperation between the two bodies. But while increased involvement in WHO programs is ostensibly a good thing, the seamy, self-serving underbelly of charity – and in particular Saudi Arabian charity – needs to be highlighted.

First of all, Saudi Arabia uses its aid program primarily to put itself into a position where it can exert undue influence on the recipients of its assistance. Accordingly, there are many, many examples of it threatening to withdraw or suspend aid in cases where a country has done something it doesn’t like.
In 2016, the Kingdom halted a $3bn aid package to Lebanon, after Lebanon failed to condemn attacks on Saudi missions in Iran. In 2014, it suspended aid to Yemen after Houthi revolutionaries led a successful uprising against the pro-Saudi government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. And in 2016, it succeeded in pressuring Somalia to cut diplomatic ties with Iran, which the African country did on the same day the Kingdom gifted it $50 million in aid.
Not only is Saudi Arabia pushing for increased leverage over its neighbours, but its aid efforts are also part of a large-scale public relations (i.e. propaganda) drive. This was brought sharply to the fore in October 2018, when leaked UN documents revealed that Saudi Arabia demanded flattering publicity from aid agencies operating in Yemen in exchange for the Kingdom’s role in helping ease the Yemeni humanitarian disaster (for which it was mostly responsible).
More disconcertingly, the 2018 Jamal Khashoggi murder highlights just how insidious Saudi Arabia’s influence has become as a result of its aid budget. Following the journalist’s death, which according to American and Turkish intelligence was carried out under the orders of Mohammed bin Salman, several Arabic nations issued statements in support of Saudi Arabia. These included Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first three of these countries are three of the biggest recipients of Saudi aid, with Egypt receiving $1.84 billion between 2007 and 2017, and Jordan receiving $516.9 million over the same period, according to Saudi government data.
This same data also reveals just how regional Riyadh’s focus is and will continue to be, particularly when instability in theMiddle East threatens Saudi Arabia’s own internal order. As of 2017, seven of the top ten recipients of Saudi aid are Middle Eastern or Arabic: Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan, and Tunisia. More specifically, these are economically and politically unstable countries, with most witnessing a strong Shi’ite Muslim presence that, in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring, potentially threatens to spill over into Saudi Arabia and unsettle the Kingdom’s autocratic Sunni regime.
In other words, Saudi Arabia has the goal of promoting the survival of Saudi-friendly, Sunni-led governments, and of keeping any (Shi’ite) democratic protest forces at bay, which could set very bad examples for the Saudi population (which suffers from acute inequality and poverty, as well as political impotence).
And given that its multibillion-dollar oil revenues flow directly to the royal family, Saudi Arabia is in a unique position to be proactive with aid. The Saudi ruling class can spend revenues according to its interests and aims, rather than according to the inconvenient wishes of, say, a democratically elected parliament that might be more focused on alleviating the conditions of the Saudi populace.
Of course, while it’s tempting and necessary to criticise Saudi Arabia for being self-interested in its use of aid, and for using aid as an excuse not to significantly reform its domestic and foreign politics, it needs to be pointed out that many other nations do much the same thing. Right now, President Donald Trump is planning to reprioritise American aid towards nations that are “friends and allies” of the US and that “support” its international aims. Which is a shame, since as with Saudi Arabia, these aims aren’t always entirely peaceful.