Saudi Arabia on the Brink

April 6, 2011 Topic: Politics Region: Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia on the Brink

Power struggles in the monarchy as a younger sibling shows his muscle. Hard-liners to bring down the House?

The winter of Arab awakening has given forth to a spring of revolutions and civil wars in much of the Arab world. But in Saudi Arabia it has strengthened the hand of the counter-revolutionaries and especially their champion, Minister of the Interior Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz. Relations between Riyadh and Washington have deteriorated sharply as the Saudis have lost faith in American commitments to stand by their friends. President Obama faces a tough challenge in staying on the side of change and history in most of the Arab world while keeping ties intact with our oldest and richest Arab partner.

For the Saudis the call for reform, accountability and the rule of law in the Arab world is a challenge to their absolute monarchy. The House of Saud has resisted all but very small and limited political reform at home for decades and is very nervous that revolution is contagious. The Saudis had worked closely with Hosni Mubarak for decades; they were appalled by what they saw as an American abandonment of an old friend.

Ironically, King Abdallah is one of the most reform-minded senior Saudis princes ever, but his idea of reform was slow and transitional, not sudden and absolute. When the Saudis saw the jasmine revolutions catching fire in neighboring Bahrain, also an absolute Sunni monarchy, it was too much. They sided with the most reactionary elements in the ruling Khalifa family and sent a thousand troops over the King Fahd causeway to keep the Sunni minority regime in power and suppress the Shia majority. Unrest in Bahrain threatens to spread to the Kingdom’s own eastern province where there is a substantial Shia presence and most of the country’s oil wealth.

By intervening forcefully in Bahrain, the Saudis have now more or less taken control of the island’s future. They had already bankrolled the country by providing it with most of its income, and now they are the power behind the throne. This sends a clear signal to the two Shia powers in the gulf, Iran and Iraq, not to interfere in the business of the peninsula. It also sent a clear signal to Obama not to support reform in the Kingdom’s backyard.

Abdallah is still in charge, but the crackdown in Bahrain has all the hallmarks of his younger brother Nayef’s worldview. Nayef, born in 1933 and Interior Minister since 1975, has never been a proponent of reform and has advocated a tough line on Shia rights for decades. Nayef is also the most skeptical senior prince about America; he held American intelligence services at arms length for many years, only grudgingly accepting more cooperation when al-Qaeda opened a major offensive to topple the Saudis in 2004.

For Nayef and other Saudi hard liners, demands for clipping the power of the secret police, the mukhabarat, in Arab states are direct threats to their authority. From the MOI’s inverted pyramid headquarters in Riyadh, Nayef has tracked down al-Qaeda and its sympathizers with a ruthless zeal. He has done the same to Iranian backed Shia dissidents in Lebanon’s Hezbollah. We backed those crackdowns with enthusiasm. Now it appears he is increasingly calling the shots in Riyadh. His two elder brothers, King Abdallah and Crown Prince Sultan, are both in poor health. In any case, in an era of unwanted and unpredictable change they will look to their brother for advice, and his advice will be to hang tough.

The Saudi leadership also believes they have seen this American movie before. Jimmy Carter threw the Shah under the bus in 1978 and we got the Islamic Republic of Iran. George Bush toppled Saddam in 2003 and we got a Shia government in Iraq. The princes think America is naïve at best, untrustworthy at worst. So they are circling the wagons and telling their fellow monarchs in the Gulf and King Abdallah in Jordan to do the same.

They are also looking east for help to old allies in Pakistan and China. Prince Bandar, former ambassador in Washington, reportedly visited Islamabad late last month to ask the Pakistanis for troops to help ensure internal stability in the kingdom and the Gulf States if needed. He invoked an understanding that dates back to the 1980s when then-Pakistani dictator Zia ul Huq provided over 10,000 Pakistani troops to protect the country after the Iranian revolution. Bandar also has been in Beijing to promote more trade and to ensure the Chinese communist dictators stand with their Saudi friends. Bandar was the deal-maker in the Saudi-Chinese intermediate range missile sale in the 1980s that provided Riyadh with its now aging missile force. He reportedly keeps a residence in China.

The challenge for Obama and his national security team is to be on both sides of the history-changing tsunami sweeping the Arab world. We want to have good relations with the new regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and soon Libya–we share values with them–but we also want to keep strong ties to the Saudis who have oil and influence. Our relationship with the House of Saud dates to 1945 when President Franklin Roosevelt met with King Abdul Aziz on the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal to forge a partnership that has outlasted communism, Nasirism and Saddam.

We have common interests that still matter a great deal. The US and Saudi Arabia are the two key outside players in Yemen, we both want the post Salih regime in Sanaa to fight al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. We have common interest in containing Iran in the gulf and in Lebanon and the Levant. We both want Pakistan to cease being a safe haven for al-Qaeda. We have worked together to promote Arab-Israeli peace and will need to do so again in the future.

We would also like to see the kingdom evolve as well. Even with a $32 billion dollar payoff for average Saudis, which Abdallah announced when he returned from hospital in New York and Morocco last month, there are rumblings of unrest inside the kingdom. There are lots of unemployed and underemployed young Saudi men who are watching al-Jazeera’s coverage round-the-clock and thinking “why not here, too?” The Shia are already protesting. Latent secessionism is under the surface on the Red Sea coast in the Hijaz. And AQAP is stronger than ever in Yemen and determined to kill Nayef and his son, who has led the crackdown since 2004.

Washington has been able to persuade Saudi leaders to take steps toward internal reform in the past but it is not easy. After FDR’s 1945 meeting, America pressed the Saudi leaders to abolish slavery. President Kennedy finally got that done in 1963, so don’t expect change over night.