Document Type


Publication Date

January 2013

Journal or Book Title

International Studies




When people are asked the question, What is the source of Saudi Arabia’s power? Who would cite factors other than oil? This equation of Saudi power exclusively with its oil wealth is mistaken. Historically, a principal and the most consistent source of Saudi power at the domestic, regional and global levels has not been revenues from oil, but the cultural power that inheres in a Kingdom that is both the capitol of the Muslim and Arab worlds. This soft power accounts for as much, if not more, of Saudi influence than even oil itself. To a large extent, this power explains why Saudi Arabia has remained stout in the face of the shock waves of the Arab Spring. This soft power also accounts for much of the leverage that the Kingdom holds in its region and the world at large. Ultimately, of course, Saudi Arabian power is grounded in both the hard power of its oil wealth and the soft power of its cultural importance. And so the Kingdom is endowed with extensive smart or cosmopolitan power (i.e., the synthesis of soft and hard power). Events in the Middle East and North Africa have confronted Saudi Arabia with some of its greatest challenges as a nation due to the strong ties with the countries in the region and the Saudi’s special eminence among the people of those countries. The political landscape has been transformed by popular movements calling for freedom, social justice and economic opportunities. The serious economic and political turbulence that confronts the region does not promise to ameliorate anytime soon due to the relentless resistance of the old regimes and the fledgling nature of the new political orders that continue to establish themselves. Saudi Arabia, given its special place among these nations, is at the crux of this regional transformation. In the greater sphere of global relations, Saudi Arabia faces a critical and uncertain future with the limitations of an oil economy, the US disengaging from Iraq, and the controversy over a nuclear Iran. On a domestic front Saudi Arabia too has to continue to modernize and prosper in the face of a myriad of political, economic and social challenges. Never has the need for a resolute continuation of the use of its hard and soft power been more pronounced in order for Saudi Arabia to effectively confront its domestic and international challenges. But while much has been said about its hard power, far too little attention has been paid to the role of Saudi soft power. This article is an attempt to analytically balance the power ledger. The article assesses the modern day international, regional and domestic challenges facing Saudi Arabia and analyzes how the nation’s soft power can be employed to effectively deal with those challenges. Section one identifies the general theoretical foundations of soft power. Sections two takes inventory of Saudi Arabia’s principal sources of international and domestic soft power. Section three analyzes the potential of this soft power as a means of confronting the Kingdom’s most pressing challenges and problems. Section four offers brief concluding remarks.