By S P Seth
February 10, 2016
Saudi Arabia is one terribly insecure kingdom; it sees dangers lurking all around and, therefore, tends to shoot in all directions, metaphorically speaking, though it is not much of an exaggeration when one looks at how over-extended it is. It has its forces in Bahrain, it is bombing Yemen indiscriminately to crush the Houthi rebellion there — said to be instigated and supported by Iran — and it has been arming and providing financial support to all kinds of rebel groups in Syria to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad regime. The Saudi-backed high negotiating committee of Syrian opposition and rebel groups has basically been trying to set preconditions in Geneva designed to sabotage the peace process and it looks like they might succeed.
At home in Saudi Arabia, the regime has a pact of sorts with the country’s clerical establishment, which supports the monarchy and, in turn, the kingdom is the champion of Islamic orthodoxy, promoting the Wahhabi brand of Islam, regionally and globally, with generous funding of mosques, madrasas (religious schools) and in all sorts of other ways. These Saudi-funded and promoted institutions have been the wellspring of militant ideology embodied in al Qaeda and now Islamic State (IS), which is causing havoc, starting with the al Qaeda-linked 9/11 attacks in the US and now by IS militants in a number of countries.
With no demonstrable popular support at home by way of periodic elections or in any other way, the Saudi monarchy has sought to establish legitimacy by championing Islamic orthodoxy combined with the custodianship of the Islamic faith’s holiest sites. Its strategic and economic ties with the US underwrote its security and continue to do so. Saudi Arabia’s status as the world’s largest oil producer and the US’s increasing dependence on oil imports from it during much of the last century, created a symbiotic relationship between the two countries that seemed to override other considerations.
However, things are changing slowly, creating even greater nervousness in the Kingdom. First, the eruption of the Arab Spring early in the decade created political turbulence in the region, starting with Tunisia and spreading to Egypt and elsewhere in the region. Riyadh believed that its long-standing strategic relationship with the US gave it a determining role in Washington’s regional policy, as had generally been the case. But the popular character of the movement and its speed did not leave the US much choice but to follow the course being set by the unfolding events. Besides, the incoming Obama administration seemed open to new initiatives.
Therefore, all the Saudi protestations with the US to save the Hosni Mubarak regime failed to goad the Obama administration into active intervention against the fully charged Arab Spring at the time. Mubarak fell and Saudi Arabia felt its tremors. If the US did not save Mubarak, a long term US ally, Saudi Arabia’s monarchy could be as expendable as well, if it came to that. For a regime without a demonstrable popular base at home, its ultimate protector, the US, was not appearing as reliable as was expected.
Other developments in the region were not propitious either. The popular rebellion in Syria, for instance, provided an excellent opportunity to get rid of the Bashar al-Assad regime, regarded as an Iranian proxy in the largely Sunni Arab world, but it did not go according to plan. Iran, considered a malevolent force that sought to destabilise the region by stirring up Shia Muslims in Arab countries, including the oil bearing eastern province of Saudi Arabia, was not contained.
Indeed, the Arab Spring had stirred up Saudi Arabia’s Shia population, leading to protests and demonstrations that were brutally suppressed. Iran was also suspected of being behind the popular uprising in Bahrain, with its predominantly Shia population ruled by a Sunni monarchy. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies sent their forces there to crush the rebellion. And now Saudi Arabia is bogged down in Yemen seeking to crush the Houthi rebellion, said to be Iran-inspired, supported and aided, that had overthrown the country’s pro-Saudi Sunni regime. Even though Riyadh has the US’s political support and military backing by way of weapons supplies, patrolling of the Gulf waters and advanced intelligence and surveillance, it is still not working to Riyadh’s satisfaction.
In Syria, Bashar al-Assad is still around. And that, to Riyadh’s exasperation, is largely because the US wavered in taking decisive action to remove him from power when it was the right time and Obama had promised to do so. Obama had said that the US would intervene decisively if the Assad regime used chemical weapons against the rebels, as this would constitute his ‘red line’. But then the US wavered and found refuge in the Russian initiative to get rid of the regime’s chemical stocks, which Damascus agreed to surrender, thus staying in power. It was not terribly reassuring for the Saudi regime that the US dithered when Riyadh depended on it to act decisively. In other words, US and Saudi interests were starting to diverge in some ways.
When the US signed the nuclear deal with Iran, despite all of Riyadh’s protestations, it looked like a serious breach of trust that only further reinforced Saudi paranoia. It seemed to be losing its centrality in the US’s scheme of things when it came to Middle Eastern affairs. Washington seemed to be exploring ways of dealing within the region outside the box to give its policy some flexibility, however limited. In other words, Saudi Arabia was still an important element of its Middle Eastern policy but it seemed to be losing its veto power. And the Saudis have reacted badly to it, having never believed in the efficacy of diplomacy to deal with contentious regional issues because that is indicative of weakness and vulnerability.
On the surface, they must show strength against their enemies at home and abroad. And that was unequivocally demonstrated with the execution of the prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr for alleged terrorism offences. This seemed to have been done without consulting the US as Washington was taken aback, counselling both Iran, where anti-Saudi protesters vandalized the Saudi embassy in the midst of strong protests, and Saudi Arabia to exercise restraint. Riyadh seemed keen to demonstrate its strength and resolve to crush any kind of dissidence as terrorism. At the same time, this sounded like the dangerous tantrums of a child used to having its own way. The US thus would have a serious problem diversifying its Middle Eastern policy, with Riyadh ready to act as a spoiler. It will be interesting to see how the US handles Saudi Arabia’s erratic behaviour.
S P Seth is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia