This is a guest note by Salman Al-Rashid, a Master’s student at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and an intern with the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force.
Saudi Arabia, like many other states in the Arab world, is confronted with serious socioeconomic and political challenges. The kingdom, however, has taken an active interest in the popular unrest unfolding in the neighboring state of Bahrain. Recent reports indicate that Saudi Arabia has sent 1,000 troops to help quell unrest in the small island kingdom. What does this say about Saudi stability?
Analysts, and indeed leading publications, are divided on the issue. The Economist and the BBC, using socioeconomic and political variables, both consider Saudi Arabia quite vulnerable. Whoever is ultimately right, there is nonetheless a tendency to try and impose revolution predictor models on every state in the region without regard for each country’s unique set of internal characteristics and geopolitical relationships. In the Saudi case, a magical combination of socioeconomic and corruption indicators will not explain the likelihood of revolution.
It’s true that efforts to liberalize Saudi Arabia in the form of petitions, protests, and social network activity have exerted pressure on an aging king seeking to balance liberal and conservative demands. But observations suggesting that the collision of a liberal-minded, jobless youth with a stagnant regime historically allied to the religious establishment will lead to an implosion for Saudi society miss some key underlying points.
Regarding unemployment, Saudi oil revenues from the export of 8 million barrels per day alleviate economic pain in a way Mubarak or Ben Ali never could. Recently, King Abdullah announced a new series of benefits for Saudi citizens to the tune of $36 billion, which includes provisions for public sector pay increases, unemployment benefits, and subsidies for more affordable housing.
As for political stagnancy, the al-Saud family has ruled Saudi Arabia since 1932, but Abdullah has distinguished himself from previous kings by adopting a liberal, open-minded approach. He is guiding a painfully gradual process of social and economic liberalization in a country with a conservative political mainstream. The New York Times suggests that Saudi’s inhabitants are “culturally resistant to change.”
It’s not true that Saudis are inherently opposed to liberalization’s steady march. Rather, Saudis have been conditioned to understand change differently. So little liberalization occurred prior to Abdullah, that many Saudis seem satisfied with the limited nature of his liberal program. This is why, as kingdom expert Caryle Murphy writes, “pockets” of liberal reformers have yet to garner a mass following. In short, the kinds of socioeconomic and political grievances that toppled Ben Ali and Mubarak likely will not undo the House of Saud. Other factors, however, loom large in its conscience.
Paramount among these is the Bahrain factor, which is a preeminent concern for Saudi Arabia both in terms of its internal social contract and also its regional, strategic calculus.
Regional clamors for reform have resonated in Bahrain, where a Sunni minority government presides over a population with a 60% Shia majority. Bahraini protesters insist their demands are political and not sectarian; nonetheless, the Shia narrative of oppression and hardship easily accommodates the tangible political and social marginalization that Bahraini Shias have experienced for decades. In a recent blog-post, Steve Coll suggests that, since the Iranian Revolution, the chronically dissatisfied Bahraini Shias have engaged in a “long-running revolt.”
Where does Saudi Arabia fit into this discussion? Shias comprise 15% of the kingdom’s population and reside mostly in the oil-rich Eastern Province, where they represent nearly 75% of the population. The Eastern Province (ash-Sharqiyah in Arabic) is also linked to Bahrain by a 16-mile causeway.
A recent Department of State report on Saudi Arabia corroborates claims of chronic discrimination against Shias in the kingdom. The shared transnational identity of Shia Islam, combined with the narrative of suffering at the hands of a Sunni authority, undoubtedly explains why, in the words of the Robert Worth, Saudi Shias “feel a strong kinship with their coreligionists across the water.”
Shared identity and intertwined narratives surely account for the recent Shia protests in ash-Sharqiyah. In Saudi Arabia, the Interior Ministry has resorted to typical crowd control techniques to subdue any attempts at demonstration. The presence of Saudi troops in Bahrain, however, exemplifies Saudi anxiety about the sectarian dimension of Bahraini unrest: Will Shia stirrings fade or present a long-term problem?
Whether or not Saudi Arabia can control its Shia minority, the Egypt episode has reinforced Saudi feelings of betrayal. Obama watched as a close ally fell. Will he adopt a wait-and-see attitude if things in Saudi go awry?
This is where Bahrain becomes critical in the broader regional sense. Jean-Francois Seznec argues that the Bahraini royal family has capitalized on Western fears to depict Shias as “tools of Iran.” And a recent NY Times article suggests that the US “[fears] that Iran would become involved and create more chaos” if the protests persist. Indeed, on a visit to Bahrain this weekend, Robert Gates reaffirmed wholehearted American support for the royal family, suggesting that the regional Iran factor was at least as salient as American concerns for regional democracy.
Thus, the Saudi view of Iran’s past attempts to export revolution and its current regional mischievousness may actually serve the cause of Saudi stability.
Riyadh can exploit Tehran’s current machinations to its advantage by arguing that Iran’s stubborn pursuit of nuclear weapons, support for proxy militias, and quest for regional hegemony play directly into traditional pan-Arab suspicions of the Persian state. The Saudis can also draw upon negative historical experiences with Iran to cultivate a narrative of Iranian encroachment and solidify domestic order.
The Iranians recently declared the Saudi troop presence in Bahrain as “unacceptable.” Should a conflict emerge between the kingdom and the Islamic Republic, the United States will side with its long-time Arab ally.
There is of course one factor yet to be mentioned that favors the kingdom’s current position: oil. The Libya crisis has driven oil prices up, and the Saudis have promised to pump more oil to suppress them. Ali al-Naimi, Saudi Oil Minister, has reminded the world of the many times Saudi Arabia has upped production during crises. Recall, however, that Shia unrest is occurring in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province. The Saudi troop presence seems to be a hedge against any threat to oil output.
While the House of Saud need not immediately address socioeconomic and political grievances to ensure its stability, it has adopted a proactive approach to the Bahraini problem in order to call attention to the looming Iran factor and to ensure the security of its oil fields. Saudi Arabia, for the time being, is playing its cards right. As unrest festers in nearly every state bordering the kingdom, the House of Saud can use the two factors of Iran and oil to convey the blunt message to the United States that Mubarak, Ben Ali, and even Qaddafi were unable to deliver: “We are indispensable.”
— Salman Al-Rashid