Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

In Al-Saud We Trust

How the regime in Riyadh avoids the mistakes of the shah

America's war against terrorism has focused renewed attention on Saudi Arabia: Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 terrorists involved in the attacks against the United States were Saudi nationals. One of bin Laden's foremost complaints is the presence of U.S. troops on Saudi soil. And Saudi Arabia -- with 25 percent of global oil reserves and custodianship over Islam's two holiest sites -- has never been more strategically vital. Much of this attention has centered on the kingdom's role in the U.S.-led coalition, but some analysts voice concerns over a more worrisome issue: the kingdom's stability. It's become almost commonplace to compare Saudi Arabia in 2001 with Iran in 1979. In this view, the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia, like the shah of Iran, is doomed to imminent overthrow at the hands of radical Muslims, thereby creating another anti-Western, fundamentalist Islamic nation.

America’s war against terrorism has focused renewed attention on Saudi Arabia: Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 terrorists involved in the attacks against the United States were Saudi nationals. One of bin Laden’s foremost complaints is the presence of U.S. troops on Saudi soil. And Saudi Arabia — with 25 percent of global oil reserves and custodianship over Islam’s two holiest sites — has never been more strategically vital. Much of this attention has centered on the kingdom’s role in the U.S.-led coalition, but some analysts voice concerns over a more worrisome issue: the kingdom’s stability. It’s become almost commonplace to compare Saudi Arabia in 2001 with Iran in 1979. In this view, the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia, like the shah of Iran, is doomed to imminent overthrow at the hands of radical Muslims, thereby creating another anti-Western, fundamentalist Islamic nation.

To be sure, the regimes of present-day Saudi Arabia and prerevolutionary Iran have some similarities: their autocratic, monarchical nature; their corruption; their resistance to democracy; their "special relationship" with the United States; and their condemnation by conservative clerics as being un-Islamic. There are even similarities between their internal conditions: economic difficulties, large fundamentalist communities, and tensions over Western presence in their countries. However, these general parallels gloss over a wealth of critical differences. U.S. policymakers seeking guidance on how best to deal with Saudi Arabia would do better to focus on current realities than misleading historical analogies.

First, the shah’s "White Revolution" pursued rapid modernization regardless of conservative Muslim opinion. His plan called for land reform designed to aid the poor, extending voting rights to women, allowing political parties, and supporting superficial westernization in dress, lifestyles, music, films, and television programs. Needless to say, this plan displeased fundamentalists, who railed against Iran’s "westoxification."

Saudi Arabia’s approach, however, is exemplified by the motto "modernization without westernization." There are no "poor" per se to help through land reform, no voting rights for anyone, and no mandatory service. And censorship of all things Western — movies, alcohol, and Internet access — is deep and thorough. Further, while the shah was indifferent to the Shiite clergy, the Saudis have managed to appease Islamists within their ranks by sharing power with the Sunni religious establishment in education, religion, theological interpretation of policy decisions, and social issues. Nor does it make sense to draw comparisons between the exiled radicals Ayatollah Khomeini and Osama bin Laden. Khomeini was an Islamic scholar from Iran who never participated in terrorist acts against those who opposed him while in exile in France. Bin Laden is of Yemeni descent, not a religious scholar, and is notoriously violent. Khomeini had the wide respect of the Iranian clergy. Bin Laden has heroic appeal but no real respect among the Sunni religious establishment.

As for alienating other elements of their societies — the moderates, the military, and the politically ambitious — the differences between the two regimes are again stark. The shah’s monolithic leadership style offended the moderate intelligentsia. His positioning of supporters in key military posts disenchanted the armed services. His policies of nominal democracy did more harm than good, bringing forth protesters who assumed their interests would be represented and who therefore suffered disappointment when they were not. The shah’s policies steadily eroded his own base of support.

The modus operandi of the Saudi royal family is to widen its base of support. Rather than being shut out of government, the moderate intelligentsia and technocrats participate in the highest policy decision-making council in the kingdom: the Council of Ministers. This 31-member body — including the king, the crown prince, and the second deputy prime minister — contains 29 ministers who ostensibly represent the religious and moderate elements in Saudi society. Of the 29 ministers, 24 are nonroyals, a status that gives them an air of representing the people. Crown Prince Abdullah and Prince Sultan (the second in command) give the ministers substantial room to conceive of and implement policies they deem necessary in their respective fields. In the military and security services, the Saudi royal family fills many mid- to upper-level positions.

Moreover, by avoiding the pitfalls of even limited democracy, the Saudis do not arouse — and then ultimately dash — the hopes of the politically ambitious. The lack of democracy in Saudi Arabia might incense people against the royal family were it not for the third critical difference between the regimes: legitimacy. The shah’s father had fought with the Cossacks and came to power in 1921 with British help. His mother was from Yerevan, Armenia. The shah himself was reinstated on the "peacock throne" by the United States and Britain in 1953 following the unsuccessful nationalist appeal of Prime Minister Mossadegh. The shah was perceived as a foreigner in his own country.

The Saudi royal family does not suffer from the same lack of legitimacy. It fought for and won the land. Now, it is the only royal family in the region that rules what it won. Further, it is indigenous to Saudi Arabia, and, indeed, to its central and most powerful region, the Najd. Despite the opinion that many members of the royal family are corrupt, others are highly popular, such as Crown Prince Abdullah, Prince Salman (governor of Riyadh), and Prince Ahmad (vice minister of interior).

Also, despite reports of economic decline, poverty in Iran at the fall of the shah was far more severe than anything Saudi Arabia has ever faced or is likely to face in the near future. With three times the oil revenues of Iran and economic reforms taking hold that seem likely to remedy weaknesses in the economy, Saudi Arabia need not fear a large, disgruntled class of poor revolutionaries.

The demographics of the two nations also differ vastly. The Saudi royal family expends far less effort to control approximately 17 million people (about as many as live in greater Los Angeles) than the shah, who had a population over three times that size. Further, there are regional discrepancies that favor the royal family. The eastern province of Al-Hasa is predominantly Shiite and has been the source of anti-Western sentiment and violence, but the Shiites are so few in number (10 percent of the population) and religious differences between them and the Sunnis (90 percent of the population) are so great that no united movement is possible. Therefore, the radicals in Al-Hasa pose no real threat to the royal family. The western and southwestern provinces lack the people, resources, and outside support necessary to provide anything more than a local nuisance to the current regime. In all, the kingdom’s regionalism works for the ruling family by dividing those who might unite into a revolutionary movement and keeping those who are most powerful — the ulema or senior Wahhabi scholars — close to the royal family in the central province.

Finally, unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia’s "special relationship" with the United States is not a fatal embrace. Former President Richard Nixon and his administration were indifferent to the precarious nature of the shah’s position. Recent U.S. administrations have treated the Saudi regime with more caution and respect and have participated in a cautious, dual diplomacy. While the Saudi regime expresses public opposition to many U.S. policies, it nurtures U.S. support behind closed doors. The Saudis are also very adept at balancing the need for U.S. military assistance with the need to create the impression of safeguarding national sovereignty. One of the most inflammatory actions by the shah was the status of forces agreement, a measure that granted diplomatic immunity to U.S. military personnel serving in Iran and to their staffs and families. Saudi Arabia, however, has repeatedly denied American attempts to chip away at its right to execute the laws of its land and has circumvented the need for a forces agreement by completely isolating U.S. military personnel from Saudi society.

It might seem paradoxical to Western observers that a royal family who denies democracy, basic freedoms, and accountability could enjoy widespread public support — but a paradox in the West is politics in the Middle East. And given the hypersensitivity of Saudi Arabia’s rulers, any strong outside pressure for reform is likely to be counterproductive. From a U.S. perspective, the only real Saudi paradox would seem to be that the United States must routinely compromise its values to preserve a "special relationship" with the Saudi royal family in order to safeguard its vital interests and preserve stability in the Middle East.

Nawaf E. Obaid is a specialist on energy and politics and the author of The Oil Kingdom at 100 (Washington: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2000).

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