Riyadh Scores One for Tehran

Riyadh Scores One for Tehran

Saudia Arabia: the ultimate test of Washington's dedication to democracy. Riyadh greets protests with force, handing Shiite Iran a powerful recruiting tool.

The democratic currents sweeping the Middle East have created unease, even consternation, in Washington and European capitals. These democratic governments all formally welcome democracy in the Arab world, but fear losing friendly tyrants with whom the West long did business. Libya was an easier case, at least in the U.S., since American support for Muammar Qaddafi was minimal. Despite the lack of U.S. security interests at stake, a no-fly zone seemed to offer the possibility of defenestrating a corrupt and anti-Western tyrant. 

The real test of American commitment to democracy is long-time ally Saudi Arabia. U.S. and Saudi Arabian troops conducted a joint military training exercise in early March. Riyadh acts as the critical “swing” oil producer, upon which Washington long has relied to stabilize the international oil market. Saudi Arabia also is a major arms buyer. Perhaps most important, the Saudi royals have spread their wealth around Washington, collecting many influential friends.

Unfortunately, Riyadh also is essentially a totalitarian theocracy. A handful of feeble gerontocrats rule and 7,000 princes mulct a nation of 27 million. There are no elections or civil liberties and non-Muslims cannot even freely worship at home. The Saudi government underwrites fundamentalist Islam around the world and Saudi citizens have provided substantial financial support for terrorism. Yet U.S. officials say little to encourage the Saudi royals to adopt democratic reforms. Not that the well-heeled princes are interested in American political values. “They’re not in a mode for listening,” one administration official recently told the New York Times . The regime in Riyadh always has used whatever force was necessary for self-preservation. Now Saudi Arabia has adopted Washington’s strategy of imposing its values abroad, moving troops into neighboring Bahrain. Riyadh intends to stifle Bahrain’s growing democracy movement and preserve the Khalifa family dictatorship.

What should Washington do?

The Persian Gulf is filled with kleptocratic monarchies, of which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the preeminent example. The Kingdom was established in 1932 by Abdul-Aziz bin Saud, or Ibn Saud. It was a nation born of blood and coercion, but that posed little problem at a time when even Western countries did not worry much about encouraging freedom elsewhere.


Oil was first discovered in 1938. Over the years the Saudi monarchy developed particularly close relations with Washington. The perceived threat from radical Islamists, highlighted by the 1980 seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, caused the royal family to more strictly observe Sunni Islam in public while continuing to enjoy a licentious, sybaritic lifestyle in private. The regime has maintained absolute political control, rejecting elections as “not consistent with our Islamic creed.” Even King Abdullah’s tepid reforms have engendered strong opposition within the royal family.

The regime’s future looks uncertain. Power is concentrated in the sons of Ibn Saud. However, the aging half-brothers tend to divide along matrilineal lines. Today both the king and crown prince are elderly and ill. Soon, the succession will have jump to the next generation, with unpredictable consequences. Tribal and regional divisions add to the potentially combustible mix.

The Kingdom would appear to be an obvious target for U.S. efforts at democratization. Yet even the Bush administration did not push the Saudis to reform. There were no meetings with dissidents, no criticisms voiced by visiting American leaders, and no cool reception of Saudi officials.

Riyadh was horrified by the eruption of democracy protests in the Middle East. New information technologies make it impossible for the royals to hide pervasive corruption, mismanagement, and poverty from their citizens. But the regime, buttressed by the army and a well-armed National Guard, has avoided mass demonstrations. Small crowds have gathered in a number of cities, especially in the east where the Shia are concentrated, only to be quickly dispersed. As foreign protests spread, the king announced $36 billion in social spending. The regime also arrested critics and placed security forces on high alert. Only a few brave souls turned out for an internet-promoted “day of rage” in early March.

The Saudis had less success in slowing regime change abroad. Riyadh offered asylum to Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and support for Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak. The Saudis were particularly upset that the Obama administration did not back Mubarak, as if Washington could have saved the geriatric dictator. Now the Saudis are directly meddling in neighbor Bahrain.

The Khalifa family rules the small country of 600,000, representing a thin Sunni covering over a mostly Shia population. The disenfranchised majority began taking to the streets after the eruption in Tunisia. The Bahrain government responded violently last month, causing many protestors to demand the end of the monarchy. Washington endorsed the “universal rights” of Bahraini citizens but counseled moderation—after all, the country hosts America’s Fifth Fleet. But offers of dialogue did little to assuage popular anger. Protests increasingly disrupted the capital and surrounding villages. Bahrain has but 9,000 men under arms, raising questions about the regime’s ability to survive. Riyadh worried about Shia activism spreading to its Shia minority, many of whom live in the oil-producing Eastern Province connected to Bahrain by a 16-mile-causeway. The Saudis also feared Iranian support for Shiites against Sunni-ruled regimes.