Paul Pillar

What the Saudis Fear

As the government of Saudi Arabia does strange things and pitches fits, such as at the beginning of this year declining to take up one of the usually-coveted rotational seats on the United Nations Security Council, we tend to view Saudi motivations and concerns through a lens that distorts confrontations in the Middle East into our own preferred way of looking at such conflicts. Thus we often view the Saudis as prominent members of a “moderate” bloc of regional states that are principally in confrontation with a different bloc led by Iran. This view was augmented by misinterpretation of a leaked diplomatic cable that was taken to mean that the Saudi leadership would welcome a U.S. military attack on Iran. Actually, the Saudis would view any such warfare in their neighborhood as a calamity. Riyadh certainly does have concerns about Iran, but its usual way of dealing with those concerns has been through rapprochement with Tehran. The Saudis are once again taking steps to improve relations with the cross-Gulf neighbor.

American perceptions of Saudi apoplexy about the Syrian civil war also tend to to be viewed in the context of debate and discussion among Americans—in this case, in terms of charges that American unwillingness or inability to do anything significant about the civil war is a manifestation of U.S. “retreat” from the world. But the apoplexy isn't about American retreat, either real or imagined. Rather, the Saudi concern is different and it is simple; it is about sectarian conflict. It is seeing fellow Sunnis fight against Alawites and Shia, and it believes it has a strong stake in the Sunnis winning.

This stake in another country's sectarian conflict is related to the peculiar nature of the al-Saud family's claim to legitimacy and to political power. It is a claim based on religion, and not at all on popular sovereignty. It is not for nothing that the Saudi king calls himself the custodian of the two holy mosques. Protection of Sunni brethren is part of upholding the claim to legitimacy.

Another piece of odd Saudi behavior—a vendetta against the Muslim Brotherhood—also is rooted in matters of political legitimacy and religion. Saudi Arabia, along with its allies Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, recently withdrew its ambassador from fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member Qatar. The Qataris have been a thorn in the Saudis' side for several reasons, but the biggest immediate one has been Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Saudis have strongly supported the Egyptian military's coup that deposed the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi. Now the Saudis have formally designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist group—a designation that has no basis in the behavior of the Brotherhood, which foreswore violence many years ago and is the only organization on the Saudis' terrorist list that is not an armed group.

The Muslim Brotherhood evokes especially strong fear among Saudi royals not because of any moves it is making to undermine the Saudi regime directly but instead because it embodies a combination of religious commitment to Islam (on the Sunni side) and pursuit of political power through democratic means. This combination presents the greatest possible challenge to the legitimacy of the ruling Saudi family.

U.S. interests do not converge at all with the fears that are driving the Saudis. The United States has no stake in sectarian contests between Sunni and Shia, and it can only hurt itself by appearing to take sides. As for the Saudi confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood, the American proclivity for viewing Islamists dimly, combined with the image of Saudi Arabia being among the “moderates,” has led Americans to overlook who in this confrontation is Islamist and democratic and who is Islamist and authoritarian.

The United States has valid realist reasons to be heavily engaged with Saudi Arabia. But it has nothing in common with the chief fears that are motivating Saudi Arabia's rulers.

Image: Flickr/Al Jazeera English. CC BY-SA 2.0.