The Kingdom of No Surprises
The more things change in Saudi Arabia, the more they remain the same.
DOHA, Qatar — After two years of trying to steer the course of the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia is turning inward. The past year has seen the octogenarian King Abdullah usher in a new generation of younger princes to replace rapidly aging and less competent members of the ruling house. Indeed, it's not the ripple effects from the uprisings across the Middle East that occupy the minds of Saudi watchers these days, but the management of the transition from the sons to the grandsons of Ibn Saud, the kingdom's founder.
DOHA, Qatar — After two years of trying to steer the course of the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia is turning inward. The past year has seen the octogenarian King Abdullah usher in a new generation of younger princes to replace rapidly aging and less competent members of the ruling house. Indeed, it’s not the ripple effects from the uprisings across the Middle East that occupy the minds of Saudi watchers these days, but the management of the transition from the sons to the grandsons of Ibn Saud, the kingdom’s founder.
Change is coming to Saudi Arabia — but however it plays out, expect some basic truths about the kingdom to remain the same. Saudi Arabia will remain a strong Western ally, it will keep the oil flowing, and — perhaps most importantly — it will remain immune from the uprisings that have spread across the Arab world. While former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel made the case that "revolution in Saudi Arabia is no longer unthinkable," the truth of the matter is that for the vast majority of Saudis, a revolt is still an almost unfathomable event. And the House of Saud’s approach to succession is designed to keep it that way.
Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, the former head of Saudi Arabia’s foreign intelligence service — and at 67, youthful compared to his brothers — will most likely assume power in the coming years, after his brothers Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman have passed away. Muqrin was appointed second deputy prime minister this month, the traditional post for those third in line for the throne. Whether he becomes king in five months or five years depends on the health of the two men ahead of him.
But that’s not all. Perhaps more important than Muqrin’s appointment is Abdullah’s elevation of competent younger princes to prominent roles within the kingdom. Their promotion is meant to improve governance, while also bolstering the foreign support that will allow Saudi Arabia to continue its domestic reform at its own pace.
Washington, London, and Saudi Arabia’s other traditional allies should not be particularly perturbed by this transition. U.S. and British defense guarantees still underpin the kingdom’s deterrence posture, particularly given the perceived threat of Iran and its nuclear program. No matter how the succession battle plays out among the younger generation, there is simply no constituency within the House of Saud for undermining the pillars of its foreign policy.
Saudi Arabia may not be the most palatable ally for some in the West. Its treatment of women and minorities leave much to be desired. But those who know the kingdom know that, in all walks of life, the Saudis move slowly but steadily forward — be it in tendering construction contracts, political reform, or social change.
Reform is coming to Saudi Arabia — albeit slowly. The appointment in January of 30 women into the Majlis al-Shura, a 150-member consultative council with the power to draft laws, was long overdue — but nevertheless a huge step forward for the kingdom, particularly coming less than six months after female Saudi athletes were allowed for the first time to compete in the Olympics. Both moves mark a positive step forward for the country, and ones that will have fundamental and permanent effects on Saudi Arabia’s social fabric.
They are also not steps that Abdullah undertook lightly. Through sheer force of personality, the aging monarch removed many obstacles in his way: The number of jobless conservative advisors and sheikhs who raised objections to these social reforms are a testament to the king’s determination.
But whether or not Saudi Arabia improves its domestic record, it will remain an indispensible regional ally for the United States and its allies. Its fate is tied to the interests of many Western nations — most prominently, perhaps, through the kingdom’s continued ability to produce 9.25 million barrels of oil a day. It also claims to be able to add an extra 1 million barrels to the global market at short notice, and an extra 3 million given more time — making it the world’s only genuine swing state producer, capable of keeping the oil flowing in the event of a disruption elsewhere.
Furthermore, Western countries and Saudi Arabia have found a common enemy in al Qaeda, and cooperate closely on intelligence and counterterrorism matters. This month, evidence of a U.S. drone base in the kingdom, which has been used for U.S. strikes against al Qaeda targets in Yemen, came to light. Information sharing has likewise been useful in identifying a number of threats to Western nations, most notably the October 2010 "printer bomb" plot originating in Yemen. The importance of Saudi Arabia to counterterrorism efforts is evidenced by the access of Saudi Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef to the highest circles on his visits to Western capitals — a level of access rarely afforded his colleagues from other countries.
The Saudis simply have too much clout throughout the Middle East to dismiss them as counter to Western interests. Take Bahrain, for instance, which is currently undergoing the beginnings of another national dialogue, meant to heal the sectarian wounds opened by the February 2011 uprising. Saudi assistance — both financial and military — is a vital tool for the ruling al Khalifa monarchy in its bid to secure their island kingdom. Even the Shiite opposition party al Wefaq acknowledges the central role that Saudi Arabia will have to play in convincing pro-government hardliners to come to a sensible agreement. Love it or hate it, no political agreement can be made in Bahrain without some approval from Saudi Arabia.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s traditional backyard, it would be inconceivable to imagine President Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi gaining control over the country’s territory without Saudi assistance and financing — or without the United States conducting its drone strikes on extremists from Saudi soil.
Saudi money will also play a significant role in determining the balance of power in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, each of which are going through tremendous internal upheaval. Saudi Arabia ultimately views all three countries as targets for Iranian expansion, which it vehemently resists. In the case of Syria and Iraq, that means it also is opposed to the possibility of further Shiite empowerment. Deep tribal connections held by members of the ruling al Saud family to areas of eastern Syria and Iraq’s Anbar Province also allows the Saudis to expand their influence and patronage in those areas. As such, their influence on the course of events must be understood and respected.
Those who believe in a coming Saudi apocalypse usually list a number of factors they believe point to imminent calamity — a youth bulge, mass unemployment for Saudis under 35, security issues in the predominantly Shiite Eastern Province, domestic oil consumption overtaking capacity, female social and economic empowerment, liberal-conservative tensions, and potential instability in the ruling family as power is handed down to a younger generation of princes.
This tiresome analysis assumes Saudis would seek the wholesale downfall of their monarchy, if only they were not so oppressed by the governance structures and conservative religious establishment. But it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what Saudi Arabia is, and how Saudis perceive their government.
In some ways, the kingdom is far more politically accountable than Arab countries that underwent revolutions in 2011: Traditional governance structures in many parts of the kingdom still prevail, and the role of the provincial governor in attending the daily majlis to address the problems and needs of his constituents is still highly important in maintaining ties between the people and the ruling elite.
It would have been unthinkable, for instance, for a normal citizen to be given the right to petition directly to former President Hosni Mubarak, or even current President Mohamed Morsy — such is the enforced bureaucratic distance between the citizens and the ruling class in Egypt. Not so in Saudi Arabia, where one can observe tribal elders lambasting rather forlorn-looking princes for not addressing the country’s problems.
Granted, for those citizens in the urban sprawls of Dammam, Jeddah, and Riyadh the connection appears more distant — but even there, Saudis are not about to erupt in mass revolt. By and large, Saudi citizens are not inculcated with a culture of protest and mass civil disobedience.
Young, urbanized Saudis — who are increasingly making their voices heard on Twitter and Facebook — have largely directed their ire at individuals like Hamza Kashgari for his "atheist" tendencies, or conversely at conservative sheikhs. Much has been made of the infamous @mujtahidd Twitter account, which has certainly set tongues wagging with accounts of scurrilous royal gossip — but even then incitement to mass unrest is largely absent from any of the tweets he or she posts.
The unrest in the Eastern Province is serious and in need of urgent redress — but this longstanding issue is almost totally confined to that area, and has not served as a progenitor for the flames of protest in other regions.
Furthermore, those who predict the fall of the House of Saud often forget one important fact. For nearly 15 years, the ruling family has been battling a serious threat to its legitimacy from the forces of Islamic extremism. One can go back as far as 1979, which saw hundreds of radicals seize the Grand Mosque in Mecca, to see the roots of the issues that plague the kingdom’s internal security.
In a country where religion is a hugely important part of everyday life, there is almost nothing as threatening to the royal house as those who seek to prove that the kingdom has strayed from the Islamic path.
True, the insurrection of a limited number of al Qaeda dissidents — numbering at most in the low thousands — may seem like a small matter in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians that flocked to Tahrir Square, or the more than 60,000 deaths that have followed the uprisings against Bashar al-Assad in Syria. But the jihadist movement nevertheless represented an existential threat for the kingdom because it struck at the heart of the foundation for the regime’s legitimacy. By overcoming it, the House of Saud has proved its resiliency.
Put aside notions of Saudi Arabia’s imminent collapse — it isn’t going to happen. The kingdom will play an integral role in reshaping the post-revolutionary Middle East, whether people like it or not. The oil will keep pumping, the arms sales will keep flowing, and for now, the kingdom’s huge economic surpluses will be enough to stave off the societal hounds from barking at the door. Last but not least, the House of Saud will hand the reins of power to the next generation without an internal civil war. In the end, it’s not any one royal who rules the kingdom — it is stability that is ultimately king in Saudi Arabia.
More from Foreign Policy
Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak
Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.
Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage
The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.
The West’s False Choice in Ukraine
The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.
Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.