By S P Seth
July 08, 2015
When one looks at the conflict-ridden Middle East, what strikes one is that there are two broad currents that underlie regional instability, aided and abetted by powerful external forces. The first are the proponents of the status quo led by the oil rich Saudi monarchy and its fellow monarchs in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The second is inexorable pressure for change. The two have been in a process of collision. The Saudi-led GCC has been doing its best to push back change. They have sought to do this by using Islam — its Wahhabi version in the case of Saudi Arabia — as one of their principal tools. In the absence of any kind of demonstrable popular support for the Saudi monarchy, the sanctity of religion, with a pact of sorts with the country’s clerical establishment, has been a useful tool of longevity at home. And since Saudi Arabia houses and cares for the Islamic world’s most revered sites, it sees itself invested with a special kind of religious dispensation for the rest of the Islamic world.
This makes Saudi Arabia regard itself not only as an important regional player but also as an authentic voice internationally of the Muslims. And with its vast financial patronage dispensed to promote all sorts of Islamic causes, it has acquired tremendous political clout for a country with such a small population. Besides, it has used its vast oil resource as a strategic tool to weigh into regional affairs. In other words, Saudi Arabia and the GCC have tended to use their assets to insure the stability of their dynasties at home and promote their causes abroad. And, in this, they had the support of the US and its western allies as their strategic interests converged. Which is to say that they too largely supported the status quo of dictators and monarchs ruling their subjects? To placate their subjects, Saudi rulers have generously provided economic benefits to their subjects. But this generosity does not extend to foreign workers. So far, such virtual bribery to keep most of their subjects on the royal side seems to have worked, at least on the surface, combined with the repressive enforcement of the state sanctioned/sponsored Islamic code.
However, this will, most likely, not work if the region around the Saudi kingdom were racked by political turbulence, as happened during the Arab Spring. Saudi Arabia’s oil producing and Shia-majority eastern province was greatly affected, as well as its near neighbour, Bahrain. But in both cases the kingdom’s army crushed this, which would explain why Saudi Arabia has worked hard to maintain and perpetuate the status quo in the Middle East, apart from Syria under Bashar al-Assad and in Lebanon where Hezbollah must be contained and eliminated. And lately, this also applies to Yemen where the Houthis, a Shia group, have managed to substantially capture power. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia has been bombing the country since March, demanding the restoration of the exiled (in Saudi Arabia) former President Abed-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
In all these cases (Syria, Lebanon and Yemen), the common denominator is that they are believed to be Iranian proxies as part of Tehran’s game plan to expand its power into the predominantly Sunni and Arab Middle Eastern region. Saudi Arabia considers it necessary to contain and push back this threat. And, as part of this policy, Riyadh has been providing arms and money to Syrian rebels of all descriptions trying to bring down the Assad regime. But this hasn’t worked so far. Instead, a good portion of Saudi-supplied weaponry has ended up with Islamic State (IS) now controlling a big chunk of Iraq and Syria, with its ambition to extend the reach of its self-proclaimed caliphate to all Muslim countries. In other words, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf kingdoms are also IS targets as and when they can get around to it. But, for the present, Saudi Arabia is obsessed with Iran and its supposed threat to the Sunni Arab world. And, hence, it will continue to bomb Yemen to crush the Houthis, continue supporting and arming rebels of all descriptions in Syria and work to erode Hezbollah influence in Lebanon.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia wants its Sunni Arab neighbours to maintain and perpetuate their status quo. Indeed, when the people’s power exemplified by the Arab Spring was in ascendance, the Saudi ruling dynasty was mortified, sensing an existential danger. And they did their utmost, prevailing on their most trusted and powerful ally, the US, to save the Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak. Coincidentally, Israel was doing the same: favouring the regional status quo. However, Mubarak could not be saved at the time, even if the US had wanted it because the revolutionary fervour in Egypt seemed unstoppable. Indeed, this was the beginning of a growing strain in Saudi-US relations, which has since widened as Washington did not follow up its threat to bring down Syria’s Assad regime after it reportedly used chemical weapons on rebels, reinforced further with a prospective nuclear deal with Iran and the US’s inability to effectively intervene against Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen. In other words, Saudi Arabia’s superpower ally, the US, is not proving to be as reliable as it once was.
But, at one level, Saudi Arabia was relieved when Egypt’s strong army man, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, overthrew the first ever popularly elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, now sentenced to death along with other Brotherhood leaders, on a slew of charges. If this is one way of turning the clock back to recreate the status quo, it will only explode at some point with even greater intensity. Perhaps it is already starting to happen if the violent eruptions in Sinai and elsewhere in Egypt are anything to go by. Riyadh might think that its multi-billion dollar investment in the Sisi regime has put the lid back on the revolutionary upsurge of the Arab Spring, but the signs do not seem propitious. The most astute thing for Riyadh would be to start/encourage a process of graduated change in the kingdom as well as in the region with its large financial resources. But that seems unlikely.
On the other hand, it has tended to overreach by seeking to turn back the tide of change. It is a small country but with delusions of power. It did work up to a point but now, with the US connection weakening and oil ceasing to be an over-riding strategic asset, Riyadh is encountering serious difficulties. In the circumstances, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies might find that they cannot turn the tide of history in favour of change. Instead they might need to change to survive.
S P Seth is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia