The House of Saud won’t wake up
Brian Downing, Asia Times, April 16, 2011
The once seemingly overwhelming momentum of the democratic movements in the Middle East has been stopped or at least slowed in many countries. The forces behind staunching the tide of change are often domestic in nature, but Saudi Arabia is playing an important supporting role – sometimes behind the scenes, sometimes through open use of force. These actions will have consequences throughout the region for quite some time.
Saudi Arabia and Iran
Once the “twin pillars” of US policy in the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Iran have become increasingly antagonistic over the past three decades. This was especially so after the Saudis supported Iraq’s lengthy and bloody war with Iran in the 1980s, which included a handful of air skirmishes between Saudi and Iranian aircraft.
More recently, Saudi Arabia has helped to build a coalition of Sunni Arab states opposed to Iranian influence and nuclear research. Such is the fear of Iran in Saudi Arabia that it is reportedly willing to grant fly-over rights for Israel to attack Iran.
The House of Saud’s concern with Iran has become a veritable obsession. It can be usefully likened to the obsession US national security institutions had for the Soviet Union during some of the more heated moments of the Cold War when many reformist movements around the world were deemed the machinations of Soviet intelligence officers. A pertinent case in point would be the Central Intelligence Agency’s conviction that the popular uprising that unseated the shah was the work of the Soviet KGB.
Similarly, the House of Saud has badly misinterpreted reform movements both inside the kingdom and throughout the region. The various crowds that assembled peacefully to call for a voice in their future are seen as the nefarious work of Iranian intelligence officers.
However, there is no evidence of Iranian intelligence personnel in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, where the kingdom’s Shi’ite minority is concentrated, or in neighboring Bahrain, where the Shi’ites constitute 70% of the population. In both countries, Shi’ite and Sunni alike called for social and political change. “No Shi’ite, no Sunni, Just Bahraini.” Neither group needed foreign operatives to tell them that their futures were limited by monarchal cliques or that the Shi’ites were looked down upon and excluded from many parts of public life.
Nonetheless, the Saudis responded swiftly and forcefully. They issued dire warnings before the called-for demonstrations of March 11 in their country and security forces immediately set upon groups trying to coalesce that day, intimidating and beating them before they could form the numbers that assembled in Cairo until Hosni Mubarak had to step down. Outside the kingdom, Saudi national guard troops crossed the causeway into Bahrain and helped to crush the protest movement in Pearl Square with considerable loss of life.
The monarchal principle
Elsewhere in the region, Saudi Arabia’s opposition to reformist forces are based less on fear of Shi’ite Iran than on opposition to democratization itself. Saudi Arabia has recently expressed support for the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria, even though the regime rules through an elite comprising members of the Alawite sect of Shi’ism – an elite that largely excludes the Sunni majority. There is an effort to quash representative government in the region, regardless of sectarian identity.
The Saudis supported Mubarak’s control in Egypt and were aghast when the US called for him to step down. There is no sizable Shi’ite population in Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood is overwhelmingly Sunni, with only a tenuous and indirect tie to the Shi’ite Hezbollah through Hamas. Today, the Saudis support the Egyptian army’s efforts to staunch public pressure to press ahead with democratic reform and much prefer that the army asserts control in coming months.
The Saudis, then, are supporting the principle of autocracy in the Arab spring much as the Romanovs did amid the revolutions that swept European capitals in 1848. Metternich fell in Vienna, but the old regimes persisted in Berlin and another Bonaparte would soon establish himself in Paris.
The monarchal principle is bolstered by geopolitics. Support for the Assads in Syria entails an effort to detach it from longstanding ties to Iran. But the young people marching in the streets of the Middle East are not interested in military rivalries or international spats. They want a voice in their futures and in providing opportunities they now lack.
Reformists see the effort to counter Iranian power in the Middle East as an obsession of failing autocrats stuck in atavistic ideologies and as a wasteful misallocation of their countries’ energies and resources. International antagonisms are part of the old regimes of anti-colonial pamphleteers, populist colonels, and Pan-Arab schemers who long held the reins of power but who over the many decades failed to build a future.
Internal Saudi politics
Perhaps the most interesting consequences of Saudi support for authoritarian rule will be the ones that play out inside Saudi Arabia itself, though the opacity of the country will make the dynamics difficult to discern from without. In recent years, the king has established councils (majles) which, though consultative in nature and appointed rather than elected, were seen as signs of commitment to liberalization.
The now geriatric if not doddering sons of Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the warrior-king who founded Saudi Arabia in 1932, have now hastily retreated to an autocratic position. Their sons and perhaps even a few daughters might not see that position as defensible anymore and could well take more active part in the intrigues regarding the inevitable shift of power to the warrior-king’s grandchildren.
Outside the privileged clans of the Saudis and Sudayris, there are tribes who feel excluded from the royal largesse and who see change in the air. More importantly, there are millions of young subjects who see their opportunities as perhaps better than those in, say, Egypt, but nonetheless limited by a political system embarrassingly akin to Bedouin patrimonialism.
Saudi Arabia once faced an indigenous terrorist threat from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. It initially countered the threat in a heavy-handed manner that only exacerbated the matter. But security forces shifted to less harsh methods and found greater cooperation from the public. Soon enough, al-Qaeda was all but eliminated from the kingdom.
It remains to be seen if, in the face of faltering autocracies all around them, the Saudis will revert to harsher methods to maintain political control. It might also be wondered if their harsh opposition to domestic change will erode public respect for an aging patrimonial regime.
Saudi actions, in Bahrain and at home, have increased antagonisms with Iran. Though there is no evidence of Iranian presence or influence in the protest movements in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Iran will feel the need to respond. Prestige is crucial in international affairs and no power will wish to permit even the perception that it has backed down from a rival. Further, Iran deems itself as the defender of Shi’ite interests in the region and will feel obliged to stand with its co-religionists, one way or another.
Over the decades, Gulf tensions have been moderated by smaller states in the region who, though limited in wealth and power compared to Saudi Arabia and Iran, have collectively acted to balance and moderate matters, lest they deepen into a jarring conflict.
Unfortunately, the Saudis have convinced several of the smaller Gulf states that the popular protests were indeed inspired in Iran, leading to several of them joining Saudi Arabia in crushing the Bahraini protesters. Kuwait, though hardly outside the Saudi sway, may be seeking to defuse Gulf tension by working with Shi’ite clerics in Bahrain to seek a measure of political reform there. The US is likely encouraging this effort.
Relations with the US
Saudi opposition to the democratizing tide will put further strain on its relations with the US. The Saudis have long been dismayed by the absence of meaningful US pressure on Israel regarding the Palestinian issue.
Back in 2003, the Saudis cautioned against ousting Saddam Hussein, whom they viewed as a mercurial and untrustworthy neighbor though one who played a critical role in blocking Iran and repressing his Shi’ite majority. The Saudis knew well, even if the Bush administration did not, that democracy in Iraq would bring a Shi’ite majority led by parties begun in Iran during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.
Furthermore, Saudi Arabia is keenly disappointed that the US eased its confrontational stance vis-a-vis Iran a few years a go. The US did so after Iran demonstrated its critical influence over Shi’ite militias that had been battling US forces, and over the previously antagonistic Shi’ite parties that gelled into a coalition under its tutelage. Today, the Saudis find themselves in the uncomfortable position of covertly working with Israel to check Iran.
American pressure for democratization in the Middle East will strike many, in and out of the region, as a position the US takes when it is convenient, but one that should not be taken at face value. However, the present administration’s position on democracy is bolstered by a pragmatic assessment that social change in the Middle East has made autocracy an ossified, useless, and foredoomed institution. The US, and much of the world, now knows this, even if the House of Saud does not.
The American public, preoccupied with economic and budgetary matters, is only mildly supportive of Middle Eastern movements. But the American neo-conservatives, ever cautious of political change that might bring an Islamist party to power, or of any force that could endanger the peace between Egypt and Israel, are increasingly vocal in questioning the motives of demonstrators and the likely upshot of their movements.
Talk radio, newspapers, and news reports contain dire warnings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and of the handful of al-Qaeda forces serving with rebel forces in Libya. The obvious corollary, not always unstated, is that US interests would be best served by supporting the Egyptian army in its ongoing contest with the demonstrators who brought down Mubarak.
Saudi Arabia nonetheless must continue for now to rely on the US for its external security. Its military showed only glimmers of efficacy during the Gulf War of 1991 and the prospects of a formidable collective security arrangement with Gulf states are not promising. Arrangements with Pakistan and China may show promise but are not ready now.
Mercenary forces composed of Iraqi and Pakistani veterans – Sunnis with no ties to the local populations – are known in the region, but the dangers of such forces, which often act in their own interests and not their employers’, have been known to rulers for centuries.
Saudi fears of Iran and a Shi’ite awakening, though overstated and badly so, only underscore the kingdom’s need for at least cordial ties with the only superpower – weary and financially unsound though it is.