Western government officials, former intelligence officers and pundits have long predicted the fall of the House of Saud. I am one of those. “This cannot last,” was my conclusion after my first visit to the kingdom in 1976. That prediction remains true even if I had a different timeline in mind when I first came to that conclusion. Former CIA operative Robert Baer warned almost 30 years later in a book in 2003 that “the country is run by an increasingly dysfunctional royal family that has been funding militant Islamic movements abroad in an attempt to protect itself from them at home… Today’s Saudi Arabia can’t last much longer—and the social and economic fallout of its demise could be calamitous.”
Operating on the principle of “progress without change” expounded by the government in the 1990s, the ruling Al-Sauds have obviously maintained their grip on power longer than many analysts believed possible. They did so on the basis of a social contract that promised cradle-to-grave welfare in exchange for a surrender of political rights; a Faustian pact with the country’s Wahhabi clergy, proponents of an expansionist, puritan, discriminatory, anti-pluralistic interpretation of Islam; and repression.
The Dawn of 2016
The dawn of 2016 has brought a new round of doomsday predictions. Saudi Arabia appeared to be caught in a perfect storm. Arab popular protests in 2011 toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen; sparked a brutal civil war in Syria and Saudi military interventions in Bahrain and Yemen; and a divergence of interests between the kingdom and the United States, its main protector.
The beginning of the end of autocratic rule in the Middle East and North Africa appeared to be on the horizon. Saudi leaders demonstrated however their determination to turn the tide.
Tumbling commodity and energy prices are forcing the Saudi government to reform, diversify, streamline and rationalize the kingdom’s economy. To succeed, the government will have to introduce change, not just progress.
The change is already obvious with the cutting of subsidies, the raising of prices for services, the search for alternative sources of revenues and moves towards a greater role for the private sector and for women. Cost cutting is occurring at a time that Saudi Arabia is spending effusively on efforts to counter winds of political change in the region with its stalled military intervention in Yemen, its support for anti-Bashar Al-Assad rebels in Syria and massive financial injections into a regime in Egypt that has yet to perform.
US and Saudi Arabia Relationship
US officials for much of their country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia have insisted that the two countries do not share common values, that their relationship is based on common interests. Underlying the now cooler relations between Washington and Riyadh is the fact that those interests are diverging.
The divergence became evident with the eruption of popular revolts in 2011 and particularly US criticism of the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain to squash a rebellion and hesitant American support for the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It is also obvious in the US persistence in reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran that is returning the Islamic republic to the international fold despite deep-felt Saudi objections.
The result of all of this has been with the rise of the Salmans, King Salman and his powerful son, deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman a far more assertive foreign and military policy. Make however no mistake, Saudi Arabia’s new assertiveness is not a declaration of independence from the United States.
On the contrary, Mohammed Bin Salman made that very clear in a recent Economist interview. It is designed to force the United States to reengage in the Middle East in the belief that it will constitute a return to the status ante quo: US support for the kingdom in the belief that it is the best guarantor for regional stability.
The problem with that assumption is that history is not static; it is a dynamic process of continuous change.
The Perfect Storm
Analysts suggest that Saudi Arabia is confronting the perfect storm: Economic problems, social challenges, and foreign policy crises. Saudi Arabia may be heading into a perfect storm but the two key drivers are likely to be far more existential. Those drivers have been interlinked ever since the 1979 Iranian revolution, the first time that an icon of US power in the region was toppled.
One driver is the Al-Saud’s increasingly problematic Faustian bargain with Wahhabism, the other is Iran.
Let me start with Iran. Saudi government leaders do not hate Shias so much as that they see them as a tool for countering Iran by motivating Sunnis in the region to fear and resist Iranian influence. Anti-Shiite sectarianism helps Saudi Arabia motivate both Sunni and Shia Muslims to take up arms as part of the kingdom’s struggle with Iran for regional hegemony to defend their respective nations irrespective of sect wherever they are perceived to be under threat.
Saudi Arabia has repeatedly accused Iran of fuelling sectarianism by backing Shia militias who have targeted Sunnis in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria. The Saudi allegations notwithstanding, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace concluded that anti-Shia rhetoric was much more common online than anti-Sunni rhetoric.
Fact of the matter is that Saudi Arabia had legitimate concerns in the immediate wake of the Iranian revolution. The fall of the autocratic pro-US regime of the Shah made place for a regime that was revolutionary and keen on exporting its revolution to the Gulf. Iran made no bones about it. The headquarters, for example, of the Islamic Liberation Front of Bahrain was housed in the diwan of Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri.
Revolution not Shiism was what Iran hoped to export. It took however less than a year for nationalism to trump revolution in Iran. The process was accelerated by the Saudi-backed Iraqi invasion of Iran and the eight year-long bloody Iran-Iraq war.
The Saudi determination to counter the Iranian revolutionary threat by defeating rather than containing it has ever since shaped Saudi policy towards the Islamic republic and towards Shiites despite occasional thaws in relations. To be sure, Iran repeatedly took the bait with the creation of Hezbollah, political protests during the haj in Mecca, the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, to name just a few of the incidents.
Nonetheless, much like the Al-Saud’s Faustian pact with Wahhabism the kingdom’s handling of relations with revolutionary Iran was certain to ultimately backfire and position the Islamic republic as an existential threat. Rather than embrace its Shiite minority by ensuring that its members had equal opportunity and a stake in society and countering discriminatory statements by the clergy and government institutions, the kingdom grew even more suspicious of Shias who populate the country’s oil-rich Eastern Province. In doing so, they provided Iran with a golden opportunity to forge closer ties to disgruntled Shia communities in the Gulf.
Middle East expert Suzanne Maloney predicted that “the most important variable in the stability of states with significant Shia minorities — such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Pakistan will be the overall tenor of these states’ domestic politics, particularly on minority rights issues.” A Kuwaiti Shiite businessman who visited Tehran shortly after the 1979 toppling of the Shah saw the revolution as opening the door to a new era. “We are citizens of Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia. We are Shiites, not Iranians. What happened in Iran is good for everyone. It will persuade our governments to treat us as equals,” the businessman said at the time.
The businessman’s words went unheeded. Instead of acknowledging legitimate grievances, the kingdom accused Iran of Interference in its internal affairs and those of its allies. It relied on autocratic minority Sunni leaders to keep a grip on majority Shia populations in Iraq and Bahrain. Saudi leaders further failed to recognize that Tehran’s perception of itself as Shia Central was no less legitimate than Riyadh’s insistence on being Sunni Central or Israel’s claim that it is the centre of the Jewish world.
Iran may not be Arab and maintains a sense of Persian superiority but it has the assets Saud Arabia lacks: A large population base, an industrial base, resources, a battle hardened military, a deep-rooted culture, a history of empire and a geography that makes it a crossroads. Mecca and money will not be able to compete, and certainly not with Wahhabism in control.