By S P Seth
Saudi Arabia is a political volcano waiting to implode though, as with most volcanoes, it is difficult to put any time scale on it. Indeed, the Saudi monarchy is aware, at some level, of political combustion and has been, for a long time, pre-emptively trying to hose down the simmering fire. One such occasion was in 1979 when, seemingly inspired by the overthrow of the Iranian monarchy and the establishment of an Islamic republic in that country, Islamic militants occupied Mecca’s Grand Mosque and declared a new order under a leader who proclaimed himself the Mehdi. But the Saudi forces, reportedly aided by Pakistani Special Services Group, counter-attacked and retook control of the mosque. The Saudis now push ahead with their Wahhabi version of Islam, a pact of sorts with the country’s clerical establishment in return for their support of the monarchy.
Ever since, the Saudi kingdom and the Wahhabi version of Islam have become indistinguishable, and used to strictly supervise and control people’s ‘moral’ and social behaviour. Even with this internal compact with the clerical establishment, and partly on their behest, the Saudis still felt insecure and have gone on to promote Wahhabi version of Islam in the wider Islamic world. This supposedly would make Saudi Arabia the authentic voice of Islam among Muslims around the world, conferring on the kingdom the aura of legitimacy and respectability. But this search for internal and external security is a never-ending affair for a regime that continues to regard itself as under siege of some sorts. And there is an endless preoccupation to enforce ‘moral order’, even though there are signs of decay and decrepitude around.
This is what, in different ways, figures in four books on Saudi Arabia in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books. The reviewer, Nicolas Pelham, the Middle East correspondent for The Economist, has paraphrased some of their findings. For instance, Pascal Menoret, one of the authors, has described young men in the kingdom whose only escape from Riyadh’s social strictures is the homo-erotically charged practice of joyriding the city’s grim highways. It is a case of so much energy bottled up but with no acceptable social and moral outlets.
Paul Aaarts and Carolien Roelants describe the suppression of Saudi women, who still need a man to study, work, travel, or open bank accounts. Simon Ross Valentine is appalled at the power of the Wahhabi clerics. The Shias in eastern Saudi Arabia, the oil rich part of the kingdom, live on edge, with restrictions on practising their version of Islam. And somewhere along the line, if one is prepared to take risks and these can be horrendous, it is possible to live a ‘corrupt’ life. According to Simon Ross Valentine, author of one of the books: “Wherever I lived in [Saudi Arabia], I was not only offered drugs and alcohol, but also ‘woman, for good time.’”
When the old King Salman, at 79, succeeded his even older half-brother who died aged 90, the future of the kingdom assumed even greater urgency. Though Saudi Arabia is still an important regional power, it has slowly been losing its capacity to virtually dictate the course of events in the Middle East. This happened for a variety of reasons. First, it was the sudden eruption of the Arab Spring early in this decade, which not only created turmoil in some of the regional countries but also posed threat to internal stability in the kingdom.
A trusted way for the kingdom to maintain status quo in the region was its strategic alliance with the United States that gave Riyadh an almost determining role in the way US exercised power in the region, which in turn was based on strategic convergence of their interests. And that prevailed largely until the eruption of the Arab Spring when the US, in the new circumstances of a popular revolt, was unable to save Hosni Mubarak in Egypt despite strong advocacy by Riyadh and, indeed, by Israel.
In any case, the seizure of power by the new Egyptian military strongman, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, eased Riyadh’s concerns to some degree. But the example set by the Arab Spring was an important, if not a determining factor, in the popular uprising in the predominantly Shia populated Kingdom of Bahrain to challenge the autocratic and repressive regime of its Sunni monarchy.
Saudi Arabia lost no time in coming to the rescue of its fellow monarch by rushing troops to quell the rebellion, fearing the contagion might spread to its restive Shia-dominated eastern province. The US didn’t seem too concerned about the excesses of Saudi and Bahraini governments in Bahrain, and in its largely Shia eastern province, as this was projected as an exercise in containing Iran’s perceived dangerous and nefarious role to expand its regional power by destabilising neighbouring Arab countries.
That brings us to the conflict in Yemen, where Houthi rebels, now in control of the capital, Sana’a, are pitted against a Saudi-led regional coalition, which is bombing the hell out of Middle East’s poorest country because the Houthis, broadly categorised as Shias, are perceived to be fighting a proxy war on behalf of Iran. And Saudi Arabia considers Iran to be its inveterate enemy both at home and in the region, and must be contained.
The US has broadly shared this view, and has helped Riyadh with weapons, intelligence and strong naval presence in the regional waters. But the recent Saudi bombing of a funeral gathering in Yemen, which killed 140, mostly innocent people, even embarrassed the US, especially when it was leading the charge against Russia over its bombing raids in eastern Aleppo. That led to reports that the US would be reviewing its relationship with Saudi Arabia. But the Saudis are continuing their bombing missions.
Even though US-Saudi strategic ties still remain close, Riyadh is unhappy with the state of affairs. Despite their strategic convergence to contain Iranian influence in the region, a serious breach occurred with the US-Iran agreement to freeze Tehran’s nuclear programme for the next 10-15 years, which has resulted in lifting of some important sanctions against Iran. It seriously displeased Saudi Arabia, as it was keen, like Israel, to keep Iran in international purgatory.
The second important breach has been over Syria, as Riyadh wanted the US to get rid of the Bashar al-Assad regime, which Obama was reluctant to do directly to avoid any more direct regional military involvement after the experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. In other words, the US is now more cautious and selective about regional military involvement, and not simply doing Riyadh’s bidding. And since its dependence on Saudi oil has lessened, it is seeking to exercise some flexibility in pursuing its regional policies while, at the same time, maintaining a close strategic relationship with Riyadh.
With its regional clout dented as its strategic control of oil is lessened from reduced demand internationally and excess supply and consequent fall in oil price, Saudi Arabia’s position both internally and externally is becoming increasingly precarious. And this is sought to be dealt with by Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s now effective ruler as deputy crown prince under his aging father’s rule, following the new king’s coronation in January 2015. The prince has floated plans to diversify the kingdom’s economy to reduce dependence on oil income, which is easier said than done. Externally, Iran remains the primary preoccupation, while still promoting Wahhabi version as Saudi Arabia’s Islamic brand. With such limited vision, Saudi Arabia is caught in a time warp that might, sooner or later, envelop the monarchy on a course to self-destruction.
S P Seth is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia