Even more serious is the unrest among Saudi women that could open up generational, gender and regional fault lines both in the Wahhabi Nejdi heartland and in the restive, more progressive western province, the Hejaz, conquered by the Saudis in the 1920s. Saudi women cannot vote in the limited political process allowed by the monarchy, and they cannot drive. An online movement called Baladi (My Country) has pushed for the female right to vote in municipal elections. A few Saudi women challenged the law against driving this year in Riyadh and Jidda and were arrested. Efforts to organize social protests on the issue via Facebook and Twitter were immediately repressed by the authorities. Meanwhile, the ban inflicts a major economic cost on the Kingdom—some eight hundred thousand foreign taxi drivers, usually South Asians, are employed in transporting Saudi women. The average middle-class family spends $350 a month to get the girls around. But the power of the Sunni clerical establishment continues.
The biggest unknown is how the Kingdom’s youth will act. They have watched the drama in Tahrir Square, Benghazi, Sanaa and Dara’a on Al Jazeera just like everyone else. And the Kingdom has the same demographics as its Arab brothers: a large youth bulge that is chasing too few jobs. With 80 percent of Saudis under thirty years of age and 47 percent under eighteen, unemployment is officially at 10 percent but could be as high as 25 percent (only men are counted since few women seek jobs outside the home). The underemployed young Saudi man may have more money in his pocket than his Egyptian counterpart, but he too is frustrated by a system that is completely opaque and closed to the nonelite.
While the Kingdom can and does appease many of their demands—Abdullah announced over $100 billion in new bonuses, mosque building and other payoffs—it offers them little or nothing in the way of political change. Absolute monarchies are not usually accommodating to transparency and devolution of authority; by definition absolutists do not compromise with nonroyals.
If the Egyptian experiment in governance looks to be a winner and Cairo produces a more transparent, accountable and democratic Arab government, it could be very attractive, especially in the Hejaz.
In fact the Hejaz, with its young, urbane, religiously varied population, has never fully accommodated to Saudi and Wahhabi rule. It has always seen itself as more cosmopolitan than the Nejd, looking across the Red Sea to Egypt and north to Syria rather than to the harsh interior. For centuries it was part of the broader Islamic world, a part of the great empires of Islam from the Umayyads to the Ottomans. The Nejd, in contrast—remote and barren as it is—stayed outside of those empires. Moreover, the Hejaz is home to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the center for the hajj every year, visited by Muslims from all corners of the ummah, thus exposing Hejazis to views and peoples of all caste and creed. Many of them are critical of the ugly remodeling of the holy cities to allow for plush apartment blocks and designer stores, and a few even long for the return of the Hashemites.
The Arab Spring in other countries has flourished along old fault lines like the one between the Hejaz and the Nejd, most notably in Libya where the rebellion has revived the differences between Tripolitania in the northwest and Cyrenaica in the east. The Saudis must be concerned it could happen in the Kingdom too. Its current borders are less than a hundred years old.
CHANGE HAS come in Saudi Arabia very slowly. The United States began raising the issue of slavery in the Kingdom shortly after the historic meeting between King Ibn Saud and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that initiated the American-Saudi alliance—on a cruiser in the Suez Canal in 1945. John F. Kennedy finally persuaded the family to abolish slavery in 1962. This historical pattern is unlikely to morph in America’s favor. Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz has long held suspicions that America is more threat than friend. And aside from jawboning, the United States has no way to leverage the Kingdom. The Saudis are on track to purchase over $60 billion in new arms from America, critical to jobs in many states, and they are the swing producer in the global oil market, with the unique power to set oil prices. In short, Americans need Saudi Arabia not just for strategic reasons but also for the health of our economy at a time when we are broke.
Despite President Obama’s efforts to build ties with the Saudis (his first visit to an Arab capital as president was to Riyadh), the family has soured on him. The al-Sauds believe he has promised but not delivered on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and done too little to counter Iran, especially in Bahrain. They were shocked that Obama did not stand by Mubarak until the bitter end. While the Saudis know they cannot ignore Washington, they are looking for alternatives to the east.
Pakistan, whose own relations with Washington are deteriorating, is a long-standing ally. Islamabad has been the largest recipient of Saudi foreign aid for decades, and Saudi and Pakistani intelligence connections are extremely close. Riyadh provided sanctuary in exile to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif after the Musharraf coup in 1999 and heavily funds his political party (Sharif is favored to win the country’s next election). During the tumultuous years after the Iranian Revolution, Islamabad provided thousands of troops to defend the Kingdom, with its twenty-thousand-strong military presence deployed in Saudi Arabia as the ultimate Praetorian Guard until Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait—when King Fahd found a bigger bodyguard in the U.S. Army. Now Abdullah has turned back to Islamabad for contingency support.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan, former ambassador to the United States and now Saudi national-security adviser, traveled to Islamabad in late March to raise the prospect of a return engagement for the Pakistani army. Islamabad was quick to say yes. Long before the Bandar trip, a Pakistani battalion was already in Bahrain to back up the Khalifas if needed. Other Pakistani advisers or retired officers man much of the armed forces of the UAE and Oman.
Bandar also traveled to China to offer lucrative contracts in return for political support. No friend of the Arab Spring, Beijing is eager for Saudi oil and investment. Bandar secretly negotiated the first big Saudi-Chinese arms deal (for intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the 1980s) and is the Kingdom’s premier China expert. Abdullah has long been a believer in the notion that China and India are the future markets for Arabian energy. He made his first trip as king to them.
Saudi foreign policy is always pragmatic and adaptive. Despite their disappointment at Mubarak’s fall, the Saudis have reached out to the new power centers in Cairo as well. They have offered economic aid and debt relief to the transition government. The Kingdom has been a sanctuary for the Muslim Brotherhood for decades and doubtless will try to cash in on that connection in the new Egypt. Abdullah has long-standing ties to Brotherhood leaders across the Arab world.
In his speeches on the Arab Spring and U.S. Middle East policy this year, Obama implicitly recognized Saudi importance and American impotence: he just didn’t mention Saudi Arabia outright. And he was correct to remain silent. This is the conundrum: There is little purpose served by American exhortations in public for reform in the Kingdom; they will alienate the royals and lead to unrealistic expectations among the masses. The truth is the United States is still the Kingdom’s foremost supporter. We have provided tens of billions in arms over the decades and critical intelligence support to fight Nasserists, Baathists, Iranians and al-Qaeda. The continued American support in military and intelligence channels is vastly more important to the survival of the House of Saud than occasional mild rebukes from the secretary of state about women’s driving. We need to face the fact that America is the counterrevolution’s biggest backer as long as our military and intelligence establishment supports it. And there is no choice; al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula also threatens America.
In private, Washington needs to talk quietly to the family about the long-term direction of Arabia, how the Kingdom plans to adapt to those changes, and how America and Saudi Arabia can maintain their alliance in the twenty-first century. Our challenge is to be the friend of the new revolutions in the Middle East while retaining the alliance with the counterrevolutionaries. Prince Nayef may be the key to it all. Focusing on common interests like Yemen and Iran could rein in his nastier instincts. If we fail, and the Saudi counterrevolution gets bloody, the U.S.-Saudi alliance could well come to an end.Image: Pullquote: As the end-of-an-era grim reaper approaches its door, Riyadh is prepared for battle. Whether the U.S.-Saudi alliance can survive the clash of American sympathy for the Arab Spring with the monarchy’s ambitions is another question entirely.Essay Types: Essay