In its modern iteration, Saudi Arabia has been through several crises of varying nature and intensity. But none quite resemble that which a convergence of circumstances have created in the era of the Arab uprisings. A combination of factors including the brutal war in Syria have threatened Saudi Arabia’s alliance with the United States, leaving the Saudi leadership in a precarious global position and opening up questions about its relationship with other Arab states.
The absolutist system of rule that characterizes Saudi Arabia’s political structure today dates in essence to the rule of King Faisal, which began with a palace coup in 1964. Faisal’s reign put an end to Saud’s willingness to concede power-sharing with leftist, Arab nationalist trends, and imposed a ruthless authoritarianism. This system brooked no dissent at all, a fact which Faisal sugar-coated with an Islamic-oriented foreign policy.
Since then, crises of domestic stability and in relations with chief foreign protector, the United States, have included the brief oil boycott of 1973, the occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Wahhabi zealots, the 1990-1 Gulf crisis over Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, and the Sept 11 attacks in 2001 in which 15 of the 19 perpetrators were Saudi nationals. In the decade since 9/11, Saudi Arabia managed to repair relations with the United States government through a variety of stratagems, including putting forward the Arab-Israeli peace plan, cooperating in the invasion of Iraq, instituting a discourse of reform that aimed to smooth the rougher edges of al-Wahhabiyya, and working together to face the al-Qa’ida threat in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and elsewhere.
However, the protest movements that broke out across the Arab region from December 2010 radically altered the political arena and had ramifications for both the kingdom’s domestic political sphere and its regional position, including relations with the traditional American guarantor of security. In the years preceding, the protests strains had emerged with the Bush administration over the course of events in Iraq as the state shifted to a Shi’ite identity and aligned itself with Iran, Saudi Arabia infamously came out of its diplomatic shell to be more of an identifiable political player in the region, when it accused Hizbullah of having provoked the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006 via “irresponsible adventurism”.1 In addition, the reform discourse that had raised hopes of a political opening among Saudi Liberals, Islamists and Rights activists never materialized.
The tone of the period of uprisings was set, when King Abdullah, who took the throne in 2005, returned speedily from a period of convalescence in Morocco, to deal with the Bahraini King who was waiting for him obediently on the tarmac after failing to contain Bahraini protests. Furious that the Obama administration had not saved Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the Saudi leadership sent troops into Bahrain a few weeks later to crush an uprising dominated by the island’s Shi’ite community who, if empowered, would join Iraq as a country newly aligned with Iran.
However, opportunity was to knock unexpectedly in Riyadh. When modest protests first began in Syria, Saudi Arabia initially issued statements of support for the government, operating under its own logic that all street mobilization should be eradicated. However, by the summer of 2011 when Syrian state repression had significantly worsened, Saudi Arabia called on the Syrian Government to stop the “killing machine” and withdrew its ambassador from Damascus. What ensued was a brutal and failed conflict to bring down the rule of Bashar al-Assad in which Saudi Arabia and Qatar showered money and guns on political and paramilitary groups. But while Qatar’s support was focused on the Muslim Brotherhood, Riyadh’s seemed to gravitate naturally towards the more radical Salafi jihadist groups emerging in the insurgency. Even more crucially, ordinary Saudis were leaving home to fight in Syria, encouraged by an impassioned public discourse in which Saudi media, religious scholars and government took part.
Last year, however, everything seemed to come apart. Qatar had taken a back seat in the organization of the rebel movement, which in Saudi hands was being managed by National Security Director Bandar bin Sultan, the former Ambassador to Washington. After the Assad regime was blamed for a gas attack in August that left hundreds of people dead, the Obama administration backed out at the last minute from carrying out a military operation in response. A widespread interpretation of Saudi policy has been that it aimed to lure the United States into the conflict to deliver a killer blow to Assad.
What was perhaps even more worrying for Riyadh than the US’s retreat was the fact that Obama and his officials did not keep Saudi leaders in the loop over their final decisions regarding Syria, in the course of which missile strikes were eschewed and a deal was worked out with Russia on Syria handing over its chemical stockpile. Two months later, worse was to come for Riyadh following a breakthrough in negotiations in Geneva between the United States along with other Security Council states and Germany and Iran over its nuclear energy programme. It transpired that this breakthrough had been facilitated by secret talks held over the previous year in neighbouring Gulf state Oman; again Riyadh had been kept in the dark.
Saudi officials engaged in considerable public histrionics following this series of events. In October Saudi Arabia declined a rotating seat on the UN Security Council, and officials such as Bandar, former intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal and their research assistant Nawaf Obaid made repeated statements to international media about an alleged major shift Saudi Arabia would enact in its relations with the United States.2 Behind this behaviour lies concern over two issues. Firstly, after entering a war of choice in Syria in the hope of striking an opportunistic blow against Iran (and avenging the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005, which Riyadh blames on Syria), the alarming prospect emerges in the event of an Assad victory that Iran is an even stronger regional force than before and Shi’ite opposition movements in the Gulf (Bahrain, Kuwait and Yemen) feel empowered to challenge the Saudi-backed Gulf order once more in a second wind for the “Arab Spring”. Secondly, Saudi Arabia’s intimate relations with jihadist Islam have become uncomfortably public.
It is in the latter context that Abdullah issued a decree in February outlawing Saudi nationals engaging in combat activities outside the country. The decree established three 3 to 20 year prison sentences (5 to 30 for members of the armed forces) for “participating in hostilities” abroad or belonging to “radical religious or intellectual currents or groups”; this could include expressing sympathy or offering other support to them. Saudi Arabia was keen to present this as a response to fear of jihadis turning their attention to the kingdom at a later stage. Jamal Khashoggi, manager of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s Alarab TV and part of the inner princely circle, argued that the kingdom had never sanctioned fighting even in Afghanistan in the 1980s. “There is an incorrect assumption: The kingdom never encouraged youth to undertake jihad in Afghanistan, it allowed them to do humanitarian work,” he wrote. In the same article he claimed it was Egyptians of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad group and the Jamaa Islamiya who turned the Afghan effort to more sinister activities when the Arabs there formed al-Qa’ida.3 A follow-up decree in March listing proscribed organisations included political groups the government does not like, such as the Muslim Brotherhood (it did not specify which ones), and omitted Jihadist Salafis it does like, such as the Islamic Front in Syria and Riyadh-backed components like Army of Islam.4
Shifting blame for Islamic militancy towards Egypt, whether it be the Muslim Brotherhood or the jihadist groups, has been a rhetorical theme of Saudi apologetics since 9/11, but what is interesting here is the replication of Saudi policies in Iraq after the American invasion. Fighting with the insurgency in Iraq became a popular Saudi cause for two general reasons: the presence of infidel Americans in the land of the caliphate, and the collaboration of the Shia with them in order to gain power (which in Salafi Wahhabi symbology was likened to the Shi’ite minister Ibn Alqami, said to have connived with the Mongols in the surrender of Baghdad). In November 2004 during the siege of Falluja, a group of 26 prominent clerics (including Salman al-Odah, Safar al-Hawali, Awad al-Qarni and Nasser al-Omar) published an open “letter to the Iraqi people” that described the fight as “jihad”.5 They received no government sanction and reports filtered out from clerical circles that detainees suspected of links to al-Qa’ida, which had begun attacks in the kingdom in 2003, were being told to go to Iraq rather than trouble the true Sharia state.6 By 2005 when the insurgency had transformed into a sectarian war between Sunni and Shi’ite, it was clear that hundreds if not thousands of Saudis had gone to Iraq.
Yet it was not until 2007 that the government took any decisive steps to stop them. The late Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, then Interior Minister, brought hundreds of clerics together in a meeting to castigate them publicly over encouraging youth to fight. “Do you know that your sons who go to Iraq are used only for blowing themselves up? Iraqi officials told me that themselves,” he said.7 The state Mufti, Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Shaikh, issued a fatwa saying Saudi youth had been exploited, “a commodity, bought and sold”.8 What provoked the Saudi government were public comments from US officials pointing to Saudis as the largest contingent among foreign fighters in Iraq and revelations that Saudis were among the Fath al-Islam fighters in the Nahr al-Barid refugee camp in Lebanon the same year.9
It would appear that a similar situation pertains today. The fallout from Saudi over lordship of the Syrian Civil War has resulted in revelations of Saudi involvement in militant politics in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. These are as uncomfortably public for Riyadh as they are for Washington, which has tended to view its alliance over the decades with the Saudi polity as a distasteful necessity. As the conflict in Syria spilled over into Lebanon, Shi’ite and Iranian diplomatic interests were targeted by militants in in 2013, and in January 2014 Majid al-Majid, a Saudi who had become head of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, died in Lebanese custody. The organisation had claimed it was responsible for an attack on the Iranian cultural centre in Beirut that killed 11 people in February 2013 and a double suicide bomb attack on the Iranian embassy in November 2013 that killed 22. Majid was believed to have fought in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, then moved to Syria and Lebanon, where he was involved with Fath al-Islam. In other words, he was the archetypal product of Saudi deployment of jihadist Salafism in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon post-2003 to contest the Iranian and Shi’ite sphere influence. Captured on 27 December 2013, his death a week later may have been a blessing for Saudi Arabia, since the Iranian government had demanded access to him for interrogation.
So while there is no critical breach in Riyadh-Washington relations, and the American commitment to keep selling arms to Saudi Arabia remains firm, it does appear that the Saudi leadership is in terra nova. With the Obama administration’s arrival in 2009, there has been an underlying shift away from traditional American indulgence of Saudi security concerns, amid a general refocus towards the challenges from China and the Far East: this comes after persistent Saudi efforts to enmesh the United States in a military conflagration with Iran and latterly with Syria to fight Al Saud’s wars for them.10 The shale gas revolution and high world oil prices have altered the energy dynamic that made Saudi Arabia so crucial to the United States, though it was OPEC’s swing producer that kept pumping at full or near full capacity in recent years to cover Iraqi and Iranian losses to world oil markets.
At the same time, the Saudi leadership today is more of a gerontocracy than ever. Abdullah is at least 90, kept functioning by an army of doctors; his crown prince is 78 and has Alzheimer’s; the second deputy Prime Minister Prince Mugrin is a sprightly 68. Abdullah has positioned several of his sons in key positions, including Mut’ib who commands the National Guard, Abdulaziz who is deputy Foreign Minister and Mishaal, Governor of Mecca. The sons of the modern state’s founder Abdulaziz are engaged in turf wars to place their sons in positions to compete for the throne. Some of them are well-established and in possession of their own coercive forces to bolster their position, most notably the Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef who was handed the Syria file after Bandar’s failures.11 Protests in the Shi’ite communities of the Eastern Province were crushed in 2011 but a litany of trials have unfolded handing down harsh sentences to political activists, rights activists and those who express dissent in social media. Ordinary Saudis are noticing the growing gap in living andliving standards and levels of urban development between themselves and their neighbours in Doha and Dubai, where many Saudi families choose to take weekend breaks after Bahrain’s security situation became precarious in 2011. While those cities have engaged in rapid urban expansion, Saudi Arabia seems mired in the same old problems of bureaucracy, corruption and relative poverty.
Once the great “anti-state”, presenting itself as the true Sharia state beyond comprehension according to the standards of modern politics and statecraft, Saudi Arabia has become gradually enmeshed in the grime and grit of fighting its corner in a turbulent era. The stakes are high for a ruling dynasty that has so thoroughly entrenched itself in the workings of a state that carries its name. Political change in any meaningful sense has become a psychological barrier it fears to cross. It has supported the Egyptian military in taking down the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Saud’s great nemesis in the world of Sunni Arab politics, yet now faces the prospect of a deeply disturbing grand bargain between the West and Iran. Take away the Syrian Conflict in such an arrangement, and Saudi Arabia is left facing difficult issues of reform raised by the Arab uprisings that it wants to avoid. Iran’s success would send uncomfortable messages: to the Wahhabi religious establishment Al Saud it would be a failure of major proportions if the Shi’ite state could not be stopped from winning status and prestige. To the populace generally, it would be striking to see a country that spent three decades rejecting neo-imperialism finally winning recognition, raising questions about Al Saud’s pro-Western slant.
Saudi political discourse has for so long conceived of Iran as the irresponsible ‘other’ that to see the Islamic Republic welcomed by the West would require a major shift in conceptual framework. Failing that, stubborn resistance to the realities of the new order, with all the consequences that would have for the sectarian violence plaguing the region, would be the only other option.