PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY – Saudi Arabia is widely perceived as leading the counter-revolution against the Arab Spring uprisings. In reality, the kingdom’s response is centered, as its foreign and domestic policy has long been, on “stability.” The Saudis don’t want anti-Saudi forces, including such enemies as Iran and al-Qaida, to increase their influence in the Middle East.
Some of the older Saudi leaders have seen this movie before. The nationalist revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s, inspired and galvanized by Gamel Nasser’s Egypt, nearly toppled the House of Saud. Nonetheless, today’s Saudi princes appear to recognize that something has genuinely changed in the Middle East: The younger generation of Arabs is no longer prepared to accept unaccountable, corrupt, and brutal governments.
Saudi Arabia, a self-proclaimed bulwark of Islamic conservatism, where popular democracy has never been considered a legitimate form of rule, has been more aggressive in some arenas than in others. Domestically, the royal family struck quickly, adopting a ban on public demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience. The kingdom’s traditional interpretation of Islam construes political legitimacy in terms of a ruler’s proper application of Islamic law. In return, his subjects owe him obedience within the constraints of Shariah religious law.
Dissent, should it arise, must always take the form of well-intentioned advice given to the ruler in a private setting. Public demonstrations of dissent are regarded as contrary to Islam, because they foster divisiveness and lead to civil strife. The highest council of Saudi religious scholars recently declared demonstrations to be categorically un-Islamic. Confronted with the possibility of mass demonstrations on March 11 — the so-called Day of Rage on a Facebook page — the Saudi rulers enforced that ruling by deploying massive numbers of security forces in the streets.
They also played the Shiite card, an effective trump in Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia. The rulers argued that public protests throughout the region were being orchestrated by Shiite Iran, and were anti-Sunni and sectarian. The threat of chaos, evident now in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, also weighed in the royal family’s favor. The House of Saud has a long historical claim on rule in Arabia, and its promise of stability remains key to its durability.
A massive government subsidy package also accounted for domestic calm. Abruptly, some $130 billion was added to spending projections over the next five years. Salaries for all public servants, a majority of the national work force, were raised, as was the total number of public-sector jobs. King Abdullah pledged large numbers of new housing units, an important gesture in a country where young people, especially young married couples, cannot easily access the housing market.
In neighboring Bahrain, the Saudis also moved quickly to bolster the Sunni-minority regime against a rising tide of protest led by the island kingdom’s Shiite majority. Saudi troops marched into Bahrain under the banner of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the Saudi rulers issued clear instructions to adopt an iron-fisted policy with the demonstrators, again arguing that Iran’s nefarious hand was at play in subverting the country.
No doubt, the Saudis believe that a Shiite-led Bahrain would lead to Iranian dominance at their very doorstep. Here, too, the kingdom employed its policy of largesse through the GCC, promising Bahrain $10 billion over the next decade. Other large-scale financial commitments were made to Oman and Jordan, both Saudi allies that have managed to silence early whispers of mass protest.
Farther away, in Libya and Syria, the Saudis have said little, perhaps to avoid picking the losing side in uncertain circumstances. The kingdom has no love for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who tried to assassinate King Abdullah and has waged a concerted anti-Saudi propaganda campaign for at least a decade. The Saudis would surely like to see Gadhafi deposed, but they have no real stake in the Libyan uprising’s outcome.
Closer to home, the kingdom despises Syrian President Bashar Assad for his alliance with Iran and duplicity in Lebanon. But his fall would present the Saudis with the risk of a country led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Even worse is the prospect of Syria falling into chaos, dragging Lebanon — and maybe the broader region — with it.
The Assad regime’s use of excessive force, especially the deliberate killing of thousands of mainly Sunni civilians, has nonetheless recently spurred a tougher stance. King Abdullah has called the killings unacceptable, and has withdrawn his ambassador from Damascus. The actual policy implications, however, remain to be determined.
Neighboring Yemen is a much more immediate threat. The opposition is hopelessly divided, and the tribal and military leadership is utterly compromised. Ominously, the south is being taken over by hardcore Islamists, some allied with al-Qaida. Throwing money around won’t work in Yemen, which is too large and complex to be pacified. In fact, the country is on the verge of total collapse.
Today, the Saudis see 24 million Yemenis — hungry, heavily armed, and envious of Saudi wealth — looking across the border. If civil war erupts, the Saudis will not be able to stop the waves of refugees. But the kingdom remains paralyzed, still wavering on whether to allow President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is convalescing in Riyadh from injuries sustained in a bomb attack, to return to Sana to resume his rule.
For all of their wealth and planning, the Saudis remain vulnerable to the turmoil surrounding them. At home, the legacy of Saudi family rule, fear of chaos, increased public spending, and abundant security forces have produced calm. But a modest political opening and economic diversification away from state-owned industry have been sacrificed. In Bahrain, things are quiet now as well, but the chances of further radicalization of the country’s Shiite majority have increased, possibly benefiting Iran in the long run.
Great change is coming to the Middle East. It is far from clear that a Saudi policy of stability at all costs will strengthen the regime.
Bernard Haykel is a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, New Jersey. © 2011 Project Syndicate