Maintaining the status quo both internally and externally has been Saudi Arabia’s prime concern since its inception. The “Arab Spring” came, therefore, as a very unpleasant surprise to the ruling Saud family. The Kingdom, however, has largely been able to escape an uprising or revolt within its borders. Even a call for a “day of rage” last March was met with little enthusiasm from the population. The only community continuously challenging the regime is the minority Shiite community, which is heavily discriminated against and repressed by the state.
The Saudi regime, which wields considerable financial, political, and ideological clout, is better equipped than many others in the region to contain the potentially damaging effects of the turmoil caused by the uprisings. But that does not mean the Kingdom is without its fair share of “Arab Spring”-related problems.
The Limited Saudi “Spring”
That the Saudi “day of rage” failed to materialize does not mean the Saudi public is politically inactive. In December 2011, Saudi activists inspired by events in the Middle East and advocating reform staged peaceful protests in Riyadh, Buraida, and Qatif in the eastern province, where mostly Shia Muslims reside. In addition, Saudis are using social media such as Facebook and Twitter to voice their social and political concerns. However, unlike in neighboring countries, the Saudi “Spring” is limited, as these activists are, for the most part, not calling for a revolution or for regime change. On the contrary, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah remains a popular figure. What the Saudis want is a more responsive government that will address issues such as corruption, greater financial transparency, limits on royal power, and increased civil liberties. They are concerned about short-term issues such as unemployment and the rising costs of living expenses.
According to Robert Lacey, author of several important books on Saudi Arabia, there may be another factor at work that explains why protests in the Kingdom have been relatively calm. In a talk given at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on March 3, 2011, Lacey suggested that the high levels of conservatism that characterizes Saudi society provide a buffer against social change. As evidence he cites the fact that many Saudi youths are exposed to Western liberal democracy while studying abroad, yet Saudi Arabia remains a highly traditional country. Their conservatism would thus somehow make them “immune” to calls for political and social change. The future will tell if this is the case.
Thus far, King Abdullah’s answer to Saudi protests and unrest associated with the Arab uprisings has been to throw money at the population. In February 2011, he announced a $136 billion social welfare package meant to neutralize the economic and social drivers of the Arab uprisings. This included salary increases, unemployment benefits, affordable public housing, and other social welfare measures directed at lower and middle-income Saudis experiencing financial and social hardships. However, the Saudi regime’s ability to buy consent is largely dependent on the current high oil prizes. According to the Saudi analyst Christopher Boucek at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the new budget to account for all of the increased welfare spending is fixed at about $88 per barrel, which suggests that this is what the Saudi state must earn in order to sustain this level of spending. As a consequence, maintaining a high oil price without overheating the oil market is certainly in Saudi Arabia’s interest. In other words, Saudi Arabia has abandoned its role as a “moderate” on the global oil market.
The Shiite Threat
On the other hand, a steady stream of protests has taken place since January 2011 in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich eastern province where the Shiite minority is mainly located. Due to their historical status in the Kingdom as “heretics,” Shiites face longstanding religious, political, and social discrimination. These protests, which have been struck down brutally by the Saudi authorities, remain the most serious expressions of discontent against the regime to date. The Saudi Shiites’ potential link to Iran makes them “the enemy within”—”a fifth column” that is absolutely essential to contain.
Similarly, the potential for a Shiite crescent stretching from Iran, to Bahrain, to the eastern province of Saudi Arabia and into Iraq forced Saudi Arabia to deploy its troops into Bahrain on March 15, 2011. This decision, which constitutes a break with Saudi Arabia’s policy of “silent diplomacy,” demonstrates the level of importance attributed to the events in Bahrain by Riyadh. According to Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
The Saudis saw two threats coming out of Bahrain…. The first was seeing a sort of Shia string of pearls from Iraq to a Shia-dominated Bahrain, leading into the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, which is both where the oil is, and where the Shia are in Saudi Arabia; and a sense that if that was allowed to continue, it would endanger Saudi national security. [They] saw an existential threat from the spread of democracy in Bahrain.
According to Christopher Boucek, the deployment of troops was a manifestation of Saudi Arabia’s policy of maintaining the status quo. Regionally, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is largely guided by the competition and the rivalry with Iran. This relationship is often perceived as a zero-sum game. However, what has radically changed since the uprisings is the fact that Saudi Arabia is now prepared to intervene militarily in order to defend the status quo and contain potential Iranian expansion; the Saudi regime no longer relies solely on its allies, proxies, or financial and ideological clout to do so.
While some Saudi analysts seem to suggest that U.S.-Saudi relations are declining in the wake of the Arab uprisings, others admit that the relations are certainly strained but point to issues where American and Saudi interests overlap such as Iran, Yemen, terrorism, the peace process, and the stability of oil. It is true that Washington and Riyadh have had divergent reactions to the “Arab Spring” and that those reactions have provoked tensions between them. Their reactions, however, were initially less divergent than most analysts portrayed. Fearing what would come after the Arab uprisings’ violent upheaval that could disrupt oil and usher Islamists into power through democratic elections, the Obama administration was initially hesitant to embrace the demands for democracy in the Middle East. Instead it continued as all previous American administrations before it and supported the so-called “moderate regimes” such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt. This support was manifest in Washington’s initial reluctance to support demands for regime change in Egypt, and its relatively moderate reaction to Saudi Arabia’s deployment of troops into Bahrain, which violently struck down on the pro-democratic protesters.
However, from a Saudi perspective Washington’s support of regime change in Tunisia and Egypt remains deeply disturbing. Saudi Arabia believes that the U.S. is more concerned with being on the right side of history than supporting its allies and promoting stability in the Middle East. Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution went so far as to suggest that King Abdullah at the height of the crisis in Egypt saw President Obama as a threat to his internal security, believing that he might demand that he leave office, just as he did to Mubarak. Some Saudi analysts such as Charles Freeman, the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, maintain that this is exactly the reason why Abdullah launched a more aggressive regional policy independent of the U.S. The intervention in Bahrain, perceived as extremely dangerous by the U.S. partly because it could have provoked Iranian interference, is certainly part of that new policy. To distinguish itself from the U.S., Saudi Arabia is also building new relationships with China, Russia, and India and reinforcing cooperation with longstanding partners in Europe and Russia.
The U.S. has gone to great lengths to reassure Saudi Arabia, which remains essential to American national interests due to its oil resources, its role as a pillar in the Gulf security arrangement, and its role as leader in the Sunni Muslim world. High-level U.S. officials such as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon have made numerous trips to Riyadh to visit King Abdullah. The importance attributed by the U.S. to Saudi Arabia is demonstrated by the $60 billion arms-deal announced in October 2010.
Indeed, that $60 billion deal should also be interpreted with regards to the security threat posed by Iran—one of the issues where U.S. and Saudi interests overlap and where they potentially can come together, as illustrated by the sharing of intelligence around the assassination plot of the Saudi ambassador, Adel Al-Jubeir, and recent events surrounding Iranian military maneuvers in the Strait of Hormuz. However, the fact that Saudi Arabia is playing the sectarian card in its battle for hegemony with Iran in the realm of Islam may ultimately become a huge problem in U.S.–Saudi relations, as Washington now seems set to support the spread of democracy in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia is sponsoring an orthodox version of Sunni Islam. Indeed, there are well founded rumors and fears both in the region and in the West that Saudi Arabia is sponsoring the region’s Salafists as a means to expand the Saudi brand of orthodox Sunni Islam, and thus to score points in the ideological and political battle against Iran. The fact that the Saudis are increasingly leaning toward the acquisition of nuclear power, maybe with the help of China or Pakistan, may complicate the relationship further.
Since the uprisings took hold of the region, the Kingdom has moved to support its friends and allies, such as Bahrain; it has financially bribed its citizens, prohibited demonstrations against the government, and brutally repressed its Shiite community; and it has expanded its reach to halt what it views as an oncoming ideological attack from Iran.
All of this is the Kingdom’s way of wielding its financial, political, and ideological tools, as well as its military might, to maintain the status quo internally and externally. In doing so, however, Riyadh could also upset the balance in its relations with Washington, illustrating that threats from the Arab uprisings to the U.S. will come in many forms.
Anna Viden is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.