Saudi Arabia has become one of the most influential Arab states. The billions it earns from oil production help it assert its interests, but there are growing tensions with its neighbors - including Syria.
The Saudi royal family can always rely on its financial reserves to help assert its interests. These reserves are not, of course, unlimited. But the country's massive income from oil production means Saudi Arabia's rulers can afford to dig deep into their pockets on a regular basis. They certainly still have enough money at their disposal to guarantee Saudi citizens a comparably high standard of living – while at the same time giving generous support to their allies abroad.
Millions for Egypt's Military Council
"The Saudis have traditionally exerted their influence by paying money, or by promising to pay money," says Guido Steinberg, a Saudi Arabia expert with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). In Egypt, for instance, the Saudis are funding the High Military Council, which represents the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
For decades, Mubarak was Saudi Arabia's closest ally in the Middle East. Many Egyptians migrated to the Gulf in search of employment, while Saudis enjoyed spending their vacations in the land of the Pharaohs. Riyadh also invested billons in the Egyptian economy, and it doesn't want to give up its influence in the most populous Arab state now – even if the Arab Spring has reshuffled the political cards.
Fear of losing power
"Saudi Arabia is trying to support the stability of authoritarian regimes," says Steinberg. "They have a common goal: staying in power." He adds that, because their rule has limited legitimacy, they are constantly afraid of losing this power. The Saudis are also suspicious of the Shiite minority in the east of the country. Shiites constitute around 10 percent of the Saudi population. The Sunni majority accuse them of having ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia's arch-enemy and a country that is predominantly Shiite.
Saudi Arabia has long been dominated by Sunnis. Wahhabi Islam, a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam which Europeans usually refer to as Salafism, is essentially Saudi Arabia's state religion, and Wahhabi influence has extended far beyond the borders of the kingdom, although the Saudi Arabian state says it tries - officially, at least - to combat extremism of any kind. However, Guido Steinberg comments that "in some states in the region - those where there is a strong Salafist presence - you can tell that a sub-state movement exists." He cites Egypt and Tunisia as examples.
The Wahhabis are also active outside the Arab world. Over the past few decades, especially since the early 1960s, the Saudis have invested a lot of energy in disseminating this form of Islam. "They went where they knew there'd be little resistance," Steinberg explains. "West Africa, South Asia, South East Asia, but also the Western world and Europe."
Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam. Millions of Muslim pilgrims travel to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina every year, and the country enjoys a high standing with many Muslims worldwide. The Saudi king calls himself the "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques", in a clear effort to stress the source of his legitimacy as ruler. Spreading the Saudi interpretation of Islam serves the same purpose, but it has also led to an increase in the number of terrorist groups who identify with Islam. Their members are recruited almost exclusively from the ranks of Salafists in regions such as the Maghreb, south-east and central Asia - Afghanistan, for example - and the Arabian peninsula.
Tensions between religious groups
In Syria, where politics is dominated by the Alawite minority, Saudi influence has so far been limited. Another reason for this is that Syria is regarded as Iran's most important Arab ally. So it comes as no surprise that here Saudi Arabia chose to support the rebels rather than the authoritarian regime. Unconfirmed reports suggest that both the Saudis and the Emirate of Qatar have delivered weapons to Assad's opponents. This has contributed to the intensification and savagery of the civil war in Syria, further reducing the already slim chance of a political resolution.
Syria has therefore become a battlefield in the regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The tensions between the two religious groups are playing an increasingly large part in the conflict - between Sunnis, whose leadership is claimed by Riyadh, and Shiites, who look to Tehran for guidance. The civil war in Syria has now also become a media propaganda war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the influential television stations Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya on Sunni side.
Important economic partner
The arms race between the Gulf monarchies and Iran has been going on for years. With Tehran trying to establish itself as a nuclear power, Saudi Arabia is reliant on the United States' promise of protection - and on weapons imports from abroad. Its oil billions will certainly help with this. As a major oil supplier and economic partner, Saudi Arabia is too important to the US and to Europe for them to criticize it openly. The Gulf state is the only country capable of increasing domestic oil production in a matter of days, thereby regulating the price of oil. As long as this remains the case, and as long as the money keeps on flowing, Saudi Arabia will continue to be given plenty of leeway to exert its influence - in business, politics, society, and religion.