Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy influences its humanitarian action: at times aligned with the humanitarian imperative to provide assistance to countries in crisis, but also at times at odds with it. Most notably perhaps in the conflict in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is both a belligerent and a major humanitarian donor.
This paper explores recent structural and contextual shifts in Saudi Arabia’s humanitarian sector, with an emphasis on how its foreign policy has contributed to shaping its engagement in humanitarian action, particularly in the volatile sociopolitical and security environment in the Arab region following the uprisings of 2011. It traces the connections between Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy interests and its humanitarian action, and finds that Saudi Arabia’s role as a humanitarian donor is driven by domestic priorities that also shape its foreign policy and the mode of its engagement with regional and international forces.
The kingdom’s donorship serves as a tool to reinforce its self-image as the leader of the Arab and wider Muslim world, which in turn is essential to the regime’s ability to maintain its rule at home. Yet the world needs Saudi Arabia as a humanitarian actor because of the volume of its funding, as well as its reach and influence in neighbouring conflict and disaster-affected countries that share its cultural norms and traditions, but not in its current form. Saudi Arabia’s development and humanitarian sectors have a long way to go in order to professionalise, institutionalise and, most importantly, develop an identity of their own.