The internal politics and international relations of the Saudi state in the 1990s were substantially conditioned by the effects of the Gulf War, from which the Saudi Arabia emerged economically impoverished, disheartened in the capacities of its ruling class and crossed by social and religious ferments that they questioned the leading role of moderate and traditional Arabism.
Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (August 1990) and the deployment of Iraqi troops on the Saudi border, King Fahd requested the presence in Saudi Arabia of a multinational force under US command, which initiated operation ‘desert shield ‘for the defense of the country in line with art. 51 of the United Nations Charter. In January and February 1991 the Saudi Arabia then took part with an army of 67,500 men in the war operations, which ended with the liberation of Kuwait and the proclamation of a ‘ceasefire’ between Iraq and the multinational force. After the hostilities, the government of al-Riyāḍ accepted, together with the other countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the US proposal to increase the Western military presence in the region.
The conflict of 1990 – 91, in addition to highlighting serious conflicts within the Arab League, represented an element of profound crisis in Saudi politics and society. First of all, the absolute Wahhabi government, whose legitimacy is closely connected with the role of protector of the Saudi people, openly demonstrated its military powerlessness and its total dependence on the United States. Secondly, the settlement on Saudi soil of armies belonging to the dār al-ḥarb (a phrase that indicates the “countries of war”, that is, of the rebellion against Allah, as opposed to dār al-Islām, “countries of submission to God”) strongly deteriorated the image that the ruling dynasty had attributed to itself as defender of Islam, arousing the discontent of a substantial part of the population. Thirdly, the SA, already economically proven by the support offered to Iraq in the long conflict that had opposed the latter to Iran (1980 – 88) and financially in crisis due to the decrease in oil prices during the 1980s., had to incur an expenditure of about 70 billion dollars for the Gulf War. Finally, the presence of foreigners, and especially the media international, contributed to an unprecedented opening of Saudi society which, although limited in time, proved sufficient to generate expectations of radical changes both in the more liberal and secularized sectors of public opinion and in the religious ones. These expectations resulted in two petitions to the Saudi ruler, in December 1990 and May 1991, one signed by businessmen, writers and journalists, and the other signed by the head of the ulama, spokesman for official Islam, by religious and university professors. Both advocated the creation of an advisory council, the revision of the judicial system and greater social justice, but while in the first a liberal approach prevailed (the emphasis was on the equality of all men before the law, on the improvement of the and on freedom of expression), the second, specified in a memorandum in September 1992, aimed at erasing all traces of the regime’s secularization.
Among the opposition movements of which the two documents were an expression, the most insidious for the government was that of a religious nature, rooted above all in the Naǧd (region of origin of the Wahhabi dynasty) and in urban areas, and widespread in the middle classes with higher education, whose aspirations for social advancement had been frustrated by the economic crisis and rising unemployment. The new fundamentalism decreed the illegitimacy of the Saudi Islamic State on the basis of Islam itself: it denounced a de facto division between the private sphere, regulated by Islamic law, and the public sphere, informed by Western principles of government: a division that had to be bridged by conforming political action, domestic and foreign, to the šarī‚a under the control of religious authorities, and severing relations with countries not belonging to the dār al-Islām.
In response, King Fahd adopted an ambivalent policy. On the one hand, he announced the formation of an advisory council made up of 60 members appointed by the director (effectively introduced in December 1993 and increased, in July 1997, to 90 members) and the reorganization of the provincial administrations in order to limit corruption. On the other hand, it curbed liberal aspirations by restoring rigid censorship and blocking timid attempts at female emancipation in the bud; he also undertook a series of measures aimed at controlling the spread of fundamentalism: in November 1992 he imposed by decree an extensive reshuffle of the Supreme Council of the ulama; in May 1993 dissolved the newborn Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights, a movement that combined in a somewhat original synthesis Islam and civil rights (whose leader Muḥammad al-Masarī, after being arrested and then released, found refuge in London from where he continued his battle against the regime); in October 1994 he approved the creation of a Ministry of Islamic Affairs to reduce the influence of the Supreme Council of Ulama.
At the same time, the government implemented an increasingly repressive policy: the increase in capital executions (122 in 1997, mainly foreigners involved in drug trafficking), the increasingly frequent use of flogging and amputation, the detention of religious and academics guilty of having criticized the regime, they raised the criticisms of international public opinion and humanitarian organizations, as well as those of the Committee for the defense of legitimate rights reconstituted in exile, but they did not serve to eradicate the Islamic opposition which continued to grow and branched into movements different of Sunni and Shiite inspiration, and sometimes giving life to terrorist organizations. The latter were responsible for two attacks in November 1995 and June 1996, which resulted in the deaths of seven civilians (including five Americans) and 19 US servicemen respectively.
According to EZINESPORTS, the Gulf War also brought about significant changes in the traditional orientations of Saudi foreign policy. Formal diplomatic relations were restored in September 1990 with the USSR, after fifty years of interruption, following the condemnation by Moscow of the policy of Ṣaddām Ḥusayn and the endorsement of the UN action; they were also re-established in March 1991, relations with Iran interrupted due to the conflict against Iraq and later due to the controversies relating to the regulation of the influx of pilgrims to Mecca. Conversely, relations with the PLO, Jordan and in general the countries of the Arab League that had not supported the war against Iraq suffered a momentary cooling, but significant improvements took place as early as 1992. King Fahd supported the peace process between Israel and the PLO which began with the agreement on Gaza and Jericho of September 1993 and, in January 1994, he met ‘Arafāt in Riyāḍ. This meeting was followed by another meeting in Mecca in January 1995 and, in April of the same year, the Saudi Arabia was the first Arab country to recognize passports issued by the Palestinian authorities in the occupied territories. Relations with the other countries of the Arabian Peninsula, over which the Saudi Arabia tended to exert its hegemony, were marked by border disputes. In the case of Yemen, with which the Saudi Arabia continued to have conflicting relations due to the ambiguous Yemeni attitude towards the Gulf War and the policy of sanctions, these disputes resulted in armed clashes in January 1995. In July of the following year, a diplomatic agreement was reached on land borders and territorial waters, but the Saudi government continued to keep the borders closed to Yemeni workers. The rapprochement with the Arab countries was confirmed on the occasion of the crises that in February and November 1998 opposed Iraq to the UN commission charged with supervising Iraqi disarmament: in both circumstances the Saudi Arabia denied the availability of its bases for possible actions US military against Baghdād.