Saudi Arabia Faced with Arab Uprisings: Shaping a Strategy

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Hassan Ahmadian, PhD Candidate
Department of Regional Studies, University of Tehran

Serious threats have been posed to stability of Saudi Arabia and future outlook of the Saudi regime since the beginning of 2011. As a result of the Egyptian uprising, Riyadh has lost its most important ally in a region which is known as the axis of “Arab moderation.” In addition, it is facing unrests in Yemen to the south, and in Oman, Jordan, Kuwait and Bahrain to the north and the west. To make the situation even worse, Saudi Arabia has been very concerned about possible outburst of a public uprising for the first time in its history. Thus, domestic stability, which is the main pivot of the country’s foreign and domestic policies, has been facing a serious challenge.

Two alliances have been maintaining stability in Saudi Arabia ever since the World War II: an alliance with Al-Sheik from within, and another alliance with the United States, from without. That main factor that further cemented those alliances was economic rent of oil. It was the same rent which made Wahhabi clerics affiliated to the government to “fake political fatwas” in favor of Al-Saud family, thus causing rifts in religious system of the country. Vital importance of oil flow to the west also strengthened the bonds which attached Riyadh to Washington.

Both alliances were undermined following 9/11 terror attacks. On the one hand, Washington was alarmed about the effect of internal structure of Saudi Arabia on its national security. Thus, pressures for reforms mounted on the Saudi regime. On the other hand, Saudi regime increased pressures on religious leaders, especially radical clerics, which elicited sharp reactions from middle-ranking Wahhabi clerical figures. Oil revenues, however, served to abate the consequences of September 11 attacks. After a few months, Washington gave precedence to its strategic interests over democratic values. Numerous bouts of oil market shocks provided further ground for cooperation between the two sides. As a result, domestic and foreign pressures on Saudi regime supposedly ceased for many years to come.

The year 2011, however, has been the most challenging juncture in the contemporary history of the Middle East for Riyadh. The distance between Tunisia and the Arab East did not bar the message of Tunisian uprising to reach the latter group of countries. Of course, reaction to that uprising was, at first, unremarkable in Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, the great shock of popular uprisings was beyond the capacity of Saudis to cope with while, on the other hand, Saudi regime did not expect the overthrow of Bin Ali. He was finally deposed and similar uprisings soon swept through Egypt and other Arab countries. As the wave reached the southern rim of the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia decided to give up passivity and took a totally active position in the face of popular uprisings.

Riyadh had to first prevent a possible uprising within its own borders. People of Saudi Arabia are basically different from other Arab countries. Like Bahrain, there have been unrests in areas dominated by Shias. In addition to differences in political, social and cultural awareness among people in member states of (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, Riyadh resorted to a sectarian discourse which it had already made recourse to during Iran-Iraq war and thenceforth during occupation of Iraq (by raising the issue of Shia Crescent) and armed conflicts in Sa’ada, to protect itself against a non-sectarian wave of change.

Meanwhile, the policy adopted by Washington and its impact on strategic views of Riyadh in relation to the United States is of high importance. At present, Saudi Arabia does not consider Washington as supporting stability in the region, but given Obama’s policies toward Mubarak in Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Saleh in Yemen and Al-Khalifa in Bahrain, Washington is considered a potential threat to the very survival of the Saudi regime. Thus, Riyadh finds itself alone in the face of looming threats. In addition to distrust in Washington, Saudi Arabia’s regional allies are reeling in the vortex of incessant political changes and need help. As a result, it is necessary for Riyadh to come up with a more efficient strategy to react to popular uprisings in the region following suppression of limited domestic protests in the “day of rage” which was announced on March 9, 2011. Four major components of this emerging strategy include:

- “Independence from the United States” in dealing with the spate of uprisings. Such independence will also lead to resistance against Obama’s policies. Obama’s address on May 18 clearly proved that Riyadh’s actions are not coordinated with Washington. It seems that under present conditions, the greatest challenge facing Obama’s policy (which aims to pursue Washington’s strategic interests by promoting democratic values) emanates from Saudi Arabia and its new strategy. Although neither side is ready to own up to this difference as it won’t be expedient under the current circumstances;

- Pointing an incriminating figure at foreign threat (from Iran) and following a sectarian discourse to further strengthen the existing bonds among member states of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council (which forms an institutional framework for Saudi interests) and diverting popular uprisings by emphasis on that threat as an excuse to suppress those uprisings;

- Preventing overthrow of monarchial regimes: From the viewpoint of Riyadh, the fall of even a single monarchial regime can rapidly spread to Saudi Arabia. Inviting Jordan and Morocco to join the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council should be analyzed along the same line. Saudi Arabia is trying to convince other allies to use the same carrot and stick policy. The country established a 20-billion-dollar fund under the aegis of the Council to help Bahrain and Oman with their economic problems. When that ploy failed, the “Peninsula Shield Force” was used as stick to suppress freedom seeking people of Bahrain;

- Controlling wave of change in Arab countries through mediation (in Yemen) or establishing powerful ties to new regimes substituting old ones (as in Egypt). The plan to grant 10 billion dollars to Egypt through the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council has been an outcome of this policy.

Saudi Arabia and other member states of the Council are suffering from structural economic and political crises. Although wholesome efforts made to make people silent may be effective in short-term, but in the long run, as public awareness increases, especially after democratic transition in other Arab nations, such efforts will lose efficiency. Therefore, Saudi Arabia is contemplating a broad-based strategy to contain popular uprisings. The success of that strategy in the Arab world will depend on Saudi Arabia’s success in dealing with domestic challenges and challenges faced by other members of the Council. Although economic rent of oil is, again, helping the Saudi regime, it does not seem capable enough to eliminate all future challenges.

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