Argument

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

High Anxiety

Saudi Arabia's nervous leaders might not have a creative way to quell dissent, but at least they're consistent.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia's ruling elders are anxious. Recent decisions in Riyadh, including dispatching a Saudi military contingent to help violently smash the pro-democracy protests in Bahrain, suggest that the kingdom's elites are more than a little unsettled by the unraveling of the old order in the Middle East.

They seem equally troubled by the prospect of political unrest at home. So far, the kingdom has weathered the storm that has blown across the region. But it is clear that the ruling Al Saud are not entirely comfortable, even though many observers in the West keep uttering assurances that their regime is stable and mostly invulnerable to serious shocks. In reality, Riyadh is struggling to find ways to fend off the possibility of popular dissent -- while strengthening reactionary forces at home and exacerbating tensions in the region in the process.

Worried that opposition protests might materialize on March 11, the regime ordered security forces to blanket the kingdom's streets, choking off potential demonstrations and sending a clear signal that public displays would be met with a crackdown. Prince Saud al-Faisal, the kingdom's usually reserved foreign minister, warned that the regime would "cut off any finger" raised against it in protest.

Saudi Arabia’s ruling elders are anxious. Recent decisions in Riyadh, including dispatching a Saudi military contingent to help violently smash the pro-democracy protests in Bahrain, suggest that the kingdom’s elites are more than a little unsettled by the unraveling of the old order in the Middle East.

They seem equally troubled by the prospect of political unrest at home. So far, the kingdom has weathered the storm that has blown across the region. But it is clear that the ruling Al Saud are not entirely comfortable, even though many observers in the West keep uttering assurances that their regime is stable and mostly invulnerable to serious shocks. In reality, Riyadh is struggling to find ways to fend off the possibility of popular dissent — while strengthening reactionary forces at home and exacerbating tensions in the region in the process.

Worried that opposition protests might materialize on March 11, the regime ordered security forces to blanket the kingdom’s streets, choking off potential demonstrations and sending a clear signal that public displays would be met with a crackdown. Prince Saud al-Faisal, the kingdom’s usually reserved foreign minister, warned that the regime would "cut off any finger" raised against it in protest.

Efforts to defuse alienation at home, which is considerable, have taken other forms as well. On Friday, March 18, King Abdullah took to national television to announce the blueprint for a new domestic aid program, outlining a series of financial and economic measures meant to fatten the wallets and lift the spirits of the country’s subjects. The combination of the threat of violence and the promise of a more robust redistribution of oil wealth underscores the depth of the regime’s uncertainty.

The one thing the kingdom’s rulers have so far proved unwilling to seriously consider is political reform, which is precisely what their critics at home are asking them to do. King Abdullah, who is about as popular as an aged autocrat can be, came to power in 2005 with the reputation of a reformer, someone whom many Saudis believed would pry open a corrupt political system. He has not. Abdullah has more often than not used the language of reform to shore up his family’s grip on power. Amid the current crisis, Saudi Arabia’s rulers have demonstrated even greater resolve in holding on tightly to their prize. They have also demonstrated a willingness to resort to well-established political strategies to avoid parting with control.

In addition to issuing threats and doling out cash, the ruling elite are also looking to burnish its relationship with its traditional power base, the religious establishment. While many assume the Al Saud have always relied principally on the clergy for support, the truth is that the relationship has often been contentious. By the late 1970s, amid the oil boom, the clergy had been partially marginalized as a political force. Over the course of the 20th century, the Saudis’ primary objective was building a strong centralized state. While the clergy had been useful to the process of imperial expansion in the first part of the century, it was seen as an obstacle later on.

Events in the late 1970s brought the clergy back to the fore. Confronted with the siege of the Mecca Grand Mosque in 1979 by a group of religious militants — a serious assault on the ruling family’s political authority — Saudi Arabia’s rulers sought direct help from the establishment clergy. To outmaneuver potential criticism and end the siege, they asked for and received religious sanction to use force inside the mosque and drive the rebels out. In exchange, the Saudis rewarded the religious establishment with an influx of financial and political support. The political cost was high. The kingdom’s ruling elite had to reinvent itself and restore its credibility as custodian of Islam’s holy land, and it has been compelled to accommodate the clerics’ interests ever since.

In recent years, King Abdullah has taken measures, such as challenging the rulings of judges, sacking prominent religious figures from their official posts, and calling for greater oversight of the judicial system, to check the scholars’ power and reverse the post-1979 religiopolitical compact. But amid the current crisis, the reconfiguration of the Saudi-Wahhabi relationship has been put on hold. The clergy came out in opposition to planned protests on March 11, declaring them un-Islamic. A group of top official clerics issued a statement several days beforehand asserting that "demonstrations are forbidden in this country" and that "reform and advice should not be via demonstrations and ways that provoke strife and division, this is what the religious scholars of this country in the past and now have forbidden and warned against." It was a powerful show of support for the ruling family. And they are poised to be richly rewarded.

A significant part of the domestic aid program outlined last Friday will be directed toward the kingdom’s religious establishment. Millions of dollars will be poured into the coffers of the country’s religious police, an organization that has been beleaguered recently by domestic criticism. The regime also suggested that criticism of the religious establishment will no longer be tolerated, reversing a trend in recent years toward more open public discourse on the role of religion and religious values in Saudi society. It is also noteworthy that while some unofficial clergy, such as Salman al-Awda, have taken to calling for political reform; the official religious establishment has continued to insist on the legitimacy of the existing political order.

The kingdom’s rulers are also stoking sectarian anxieties as a means to deflect calls for reform at home and as a way to justify their intervention in Bahrain. In the week leading up to March 11, Shiites in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province staged small protests calling for reform and the release of political prisoners. Although the protests were small and not connected directly to the call for demonstrations on March 11, leaders in Riyadh seized on them to argue that a foreign hand was at work. (As Prince Saud put it, "We will not tolerate any interference in our internal affairs by any foreign party … and if we find any foreign interference, we will deal with this decisively.") The regime has long claimed that its Shiite community, numbering perhaps as many as 1.5 million people, is beholden to Iranian influence. Even though Saudi Shiites insist on their loyalty to Saudi Arabia, leaders in Riyadh have found it useful to manipulate sectarianism as a wedge to break up the possibility of a unified national reform front. The Shiite protests played directly into the regime’s hands, as it sought to undermine any possible uprising with the claim of Iranian meddling. In a place where anti-Shiite sentiment continues to be rampant, the sectarian framing further dampened potential mobilization.

Beyond the kingdom, claims of foreign meddling and sectarian politics have also been at the heart of the escalation of violence in Bahrain and the Saudi decision to intervene militarily there. There is no compelling evidence to claims that Iran is involved in Bahrain’s internal affairs or that Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement is looking to Tehran for its marching orders. (Comments by Hassan Mushaima, a key Bahraini opposition figure who was arrested in the most recent crackdown, that Saudi intervention would justify the Bahraini opposition’s turn to Iran were mostly bluster, though his words provided fodder for the rulers in Manama and Riyadh.) The claim of foreign meddling serves as a convenient fiction for the Saudis and Bahrainis, who desperately hope to avoid the collapse of the Bahraini royal family or even the greater empowerment of Shiites in a reformed Bahraini state.

It would be hard to argue that Saudi Arabia’s rulers have ever been inspired to think creatively in dealing with political crises. The Saudi bag of tricks has always been pretty small. But what the kingdom has lacked in imagination, it makes up for in consistency. In attempting to crush and co-opt potential restiveness, the kingdom’s elites have signaled that genuine political reform is a distant possibility. It remains to be seen whether this will placate their subjects.

Equally uncertain are the potential consequences of the kingdom’s sectarian gambit. Shiites in the Persian Gulf’s Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have struggled to find space in their countries’ political systems and relief from various forms of discrimination. In spite of their efforts, most doors have remained closed. With the current escalation in Bahrain and authorities in Riyadh and Manama manufacturing sectarian conspiracies, claims of Iranian influence in Arab Shiite communities may eventually become self-fulfilling.

There are already signs that regional hostility is on the rise and being driven by events in Bahrain. Tensions between Iran and its Arab neighbors escalated last week, with Tehran and Manama each withdrawing key diplomats. On March 15, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi warned that Saudi intervention in Bahrain might lead "the region toward a crisis which would be followed by dangerous consequences." While relations between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Iran have long been acrimonious, the current escalation is the direct result of the situation unfolding in Manama and the Saudi-Bahraini effort to frame it as a regional sectarian plot. In manipulatively naming Iran as complicit in Bahrain’s internal struggles, Riyadh and Manama are helping to create the conditions in which such an outcome might become true.

For many years, Bahraini activists have pushed their cause in the halls of power in the United States and Europe. With the United States continuing to back the Al Khalifa and Al Saud regimes, Bahrain’s opposition is increasingly being left with little choice but to consider looking across the Gulf for assistance.

Toby C. Jones is assistant professor of history at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He is author of the forthcoming Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia.

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