By Zayd Alisa
As popular uprisings swept the Arab world, many experts stressed that Saudi Arabia was immune from turbulences, let alone, regime-ousting uprisings. Confident that its internal front was impeccably secure, the Saudi regime focused on achieving its external overarching goals, which ranged from holding at bay the spread of popular uprisings clamouring for democratic change, to severely undermining what it perceives, as the mounting Iranian and Shia influence, and ensuring the survival of other monarchies.
The Saudi regime offered Ben Ali, Tunisia’s dictator, refuge, and the Saudi king gave his emphatic support to Mubarak, Egypt’s tyrant. And even, in the post-Mubarak era, it has regained its huge influence through the military council and the extremist Salafi movement. As for Yemen, the Saudi regime launched its own initiative to replace Saleh - Yemen’s dictator, by another staunch ally, namely his deputy, Mansoor - and to underline the futility of uprisings.
For the Saudis, the Bahraini uprising was indisputably the nightmare scenario. Since, Bahrain - a deeply entrenched dictatorship - is governed by Al Khalifa family, from the Sunni minority, while the vast majority are Shia. Similarly, the Shia constitutes the overwhelming majority in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, which is literally a stone-throw from Bahrain. Shia in both countries, have constantly complained of intolerable discrimination. Fearing the pervasion of the uprising to Saudi Arabia, the king offered billions of dollars in benefits, strictly prohibited protests, rewarded the Wahhabi Salafi religious establishment and, most ominously, gave the green light to the Saudi army to invade and occupy Bahrain.
What is incontestable is the pivotal role played by the radical and regressive Wahhabi Salafi religious establishment in giving religious legitimacy to the Saudi regime, which in turn provides it with the vital funding to propagate and export its violent ideology. According to the Wahhabi ideology it is strictly forbidden to oppose the ruler. The fatwas issued by the religious establishment were utilised by the Interior ministry headed by Nayef, which declared, on February 2011, that these protests were the new terrorism and would be crushed, just like Al-Qaida. The death of Sultan, and the appointment of Nayef, in October 2011, was marked by the cold blooded murder of protestors in the Eastern province.
The Saudi regime’s overriding priority has always been to establish and bolster its position as the indisputable guardian of Sunni Islam. Ever since the Iranian revolution, the Saudi regime has endeavoured to present all the major conflicts in the region as an integral part of an ongoing existential sectarian war waged against Sunnis by Iran. So, when the uprising erupted in Bahrain, the Saudi regime strived to instigate sectarian strife, to stave of any uprising by its Sunni majority.
The USA must be holding its breath as Saudi Arabia’s uprising surmounts sectarian divisions by spreading to Sunni areas like Hijaz, and even reaching the regime’s heartland, in Riyadh.
The weakening in the Saudi regime’s internal front is largely due to: first, it has tirelessly supported dictators in crushing uprisings by the Sunnis in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. Second, its inconsistent position in unequivocally backing secular monarchies likes Morocco, Jordan against Sunni Islamic movements. Third, the king’s inexcusable failure to activate the allegiance council to select the heir to the throne twice within eight months. This, has consolidated the widespread perception that the royal family is embroiled in a vicious power struggle, and it marginalises its senior members. Fourth, the undeniable success of uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen in ousting their dictators. Fifth, the King’s failure to lead by example, rather than stipulating reform and a halt to killings in Syria. Sixth, the failure to tackle the chronic problems, such as unemployment and corruption. Seventh, foreign educated Saudis are increasingly questioning the legitimacy of dictatorship. Eighth, mounting fears of secession by the Eastern province. And finally, the death of Nayef has revealed that he was used by the regime as the perfect pretext for not undertaking meaningful reform. Because, despite the appointment of Salman – who is perceived as a reformer - there has been absolutely no reforms. And alarmingly, an upsurge in the regime’s savagery, especially with the arrest and even torture of the Shia religious leader Nimr Al Nimr.
The USA should be deeply concerned about the stability of Saudi Arabia, not only because its implacable support to the regime has made a mockery of its pretention of defending democracy and human rights, but, more menacingly, Saudi Arabia was the country where (15 out of 19) of the 9/11 suicide bombers, and the mastermind, Osama Bin Laden, came from. The USA needs to stand on the right side of the present and future of Saudi Arabia, by extending the oil-for-protection deal to an (oil and concrete democratic reforms-for-protection deal).
Zayd Alisa is a political analyst and a writer on Middle East affairs. Zayd was born in New York, USA and is also a British citizen resident in London. His parents are originally from Iraq.