Tunisia. Egypt. Yemen. Bahrain. And now the uprising and brutality in Libya. Could Saudi Arabia be next?
The notion of a revolution in the Saudi kingdom seems unthinkable. Yet, a Facebook page is calling for a “day of rage” protest on March 11. Prominent Saudis are urging political and social reforms. And the aging monarch, King Abdullah, has announced new economic assistance to the population, possibly to preempt any unrest.
Is the immovable Saudi regime, a linchpin of U.S. security interests in the region, actually movable?
Revolutions are contagious in the Middle East – and not just in the past few weeks. In the 1950s, when Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser swept into power, nationalist protests ignited across the region, challenging the leadership in Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and eventually Libya and beyond.
A shocked Saudi royal family watched helplessly as one of its members, directly in line to become king, claimed solidarity with the revolution and took up residence in Egypt for a few years. That prince, Talal bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, a son of the kingdom’s founder and a half-brother of the king, is now reintegrated into the Saudi elite – and on hand to remind the monarchy that it is not immune to regional revolts. “Unless problems facing Saudi Arabia are solved, what happened and is still happening in some Arab countries, including Bahrain, could spread to Saudi Arabia, even worse,” Prince Talal recently told the BBC.
The unrest in Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and Yemen (to the kingdom’s west, east and south) plays on the Saudis’ greatest fear: encirclement. The Saudis aligned with the United States instead of colonial Britain in the early 20th century in part to defend against creeping British hegemony. During the Cold War the monarchy hunkered down against its Soviet-backed neighbors out of fear of being surrounded by communist regimes. And since the end of the Cold War, the overarching goal of Saudi foreign policy has been countering the spread of Iranian influence in all directions – Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Yemen.
When King Abdullah returned to Saudi Arabia last week after three months of convalescence in the United States and Morocco, one of the first meetings he took was with his ally King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain to discuss the turmoil in his tiny nation. Sunni-ruled Bahrain, less than 20 miles from Saudi Arabia’s oil- and Shiite-rich Eastern Province, has been a longtime recipient of Saudi aid. It has also been a focus of Iranian interests. The meeting was a clear signal of support for reigning monarchs, and an indication that the Saudi leadership is concerned about the events unfolding in Bahrain and throughout the region.
Further emphasizing that concern, Saudi leaders were reportedly furious that the Obama administration ultimately supported regime change in Egypt, because of the precedent it could set. Before Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak left office, the Saudis offered to compensate his faltering regime for any withdrawal of U.S. economic assistance – aiming to undermine Washington’s influence in Egypt and reduce its leverage.
As Saudi leaders look across the region, they have reason to believe that they won’t find themselves confronting revolutionaries at their own doorstep. The upheaval in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and elsewhere is driven by popular revulsion with sclerotic, corrupt leadership. These countries do not have clear succession plans in place. They do have organized opposition movements, both inside and outside their borders, that are exploiting new means and technologies to challenge the governments. Their leaders are vulnerable to independent militaries. Their economies are weak, and educational opportunities are few.
These conditions seem to be present in Saudi Arabia, too, but the country is different in some important ways. First, its economic situation is far better. Egypt’s per capita gross domestic product is slightly more than $6,000, and Tunisia’s is closer to $9,000. For Saudi Arabia, it is roughly $24,000 and climbing (up from $9,000 a little more than a decade ago). The Saudi regime also has resources to spend on its people. Oil prices are high and rising. On Wednesday, the king announced massive social benefits packages totaling more than $35 billion and including unemployment relief, housing subsidies, funds to support study abroad and a raft of new job opportunities created by the state. Clearly the king is nervous, but he has goodies to spread around.
Poverty is real in Saudi Arabia, but higher oil prices and slowly liberalizing economic policies help mask it. When I met then-Crown Prince Abdullah in 1999, he told a group of us that unemployment was “the number one national security problem that Saudi Arabia faced.” He was right then and remains right now. According to an analysis by Banque Saudi Fransi, joblessness among Saudis under age 30 hovered around 30 percent in 2009. Still, many of the king’s key policy decisions – joining the World Trade Organization, creating new cities with more liberal values, promoting education and particularly study abroad – have sought to solve these problems. The country may be on a very slow path toward modernization, but it is not sliding backward like many others in the Middle East.
Another difference between Saudi Arabia and its neighbors is that the opposition has been largely co-opted or destroyed. For the past 10 years, the Saudi government has systematically gone after al-Qaeda cells on its territory and has rooted out suspected supporters in the military and the national guard, especially after a series of attacks in 2003. Key opposition clerics have been slowly brought under the wing of the regime. This has involved some cozying up to unsavory people, but the threat from the radical fringe is lower now than it has been in the recent past. And the Saudis have been quite clever about convincing the country’s liberal elites that the regime is their best hope for a successful future.
The loyalty of the security services is always an important predictor of a regime’s stability, and here the Saudis again have reason for some confidence. Senior members of the royal family and their sons are in control of all the security forces – the military, the national guard and the religious police. They will survive or fall together. There can be no equivalent to the Egyptian military taking over as a credible, independent institution. In Saudi Arabia, the government has a monopoly on violence. Indeed, the Saudis are taking no chances and have arrested people trying to establish a new political party calling for greater democracy and protections for human rights.
Finally, a succession plan is in place. Saudi Arabia has had five monarchs in the past six decades, since the death of its founder. There is not a succession vacuum as there was in Egypt and Tunisia. Many Saudis may not like Prince Nayaf, the interior minister, but they know he is likely to follow King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan on the throne. And there is a process, if somewhat opaque, for choosing the king after him.
The United States has a great deal at stake in Saudi Arabia, though Americans often look at the Saudis with distaste. As one senior Saudi government official once asked me: “What does the United States share with a country where women can’t drive, the Koran is the constitution and beheadings are commonplace?” It’s a tough question, but the answer, quite simply, is geopolitics – and that we know and like Saudi’s U.S.-educated liberal elites.
The Saudis have been helpful to us. They are reasonably peaceful stalwarts. They don’t attack their neighbors, although they do try to influence them, often by funding allies in local competitions for power. They are generally committed to reasonable oil prices. For example, although their oil is not a direct substitute for Libyan sweet crude, the Saudis have offered to increase their supply to offset any reduction in Libyan production due to the violence there. We work closely with them on counterterrorism operations. And the Saudis are a counterbalance to Iran. We disagree on the Israel-Palestinian issue, but we don’t let it get in the way of other key interests.
Washington does not want the Saudi monarchy to fall. The Obama administration would like it to change over time and should encourage a better system of governance with more representation and liberal policies and laws. But revolutions aren’t necessarily going to help those we hope will win.
It is dangerous business to predict events in the Middle East, especially in times of regional crisis. It’s hard to block out flashbacks of President Jimmy Carter’s 1977 New Year’s Eve statement that Iran under the shah was an island of stability in a troubled region – only months before that stability was shattered. Still, the key components of rapid, massive, revolutionary change are not present in Saudi Arabia. At least, not yet.
By Rachel Bronson, vice president of programs and studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the author of Thicker Than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia.