The House of Saud won't wake up
By Brian M Downing
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
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
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
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.
Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The
Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and
Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at [email protected]
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