The Saudi royal family needs no lessons in the geography of the Middle East, but as the popular revolutions in the region unfold they must certainly be spending more time looking at maps of the area with great concern. What they see are nations on or near their borders undergoing political and social changes that whatever their outcome, will no doubt represent a new form of estrangement from the ultra-conservative, Islamic Wahhabism and medieval style monarchism of the Saudi kingdom and perhaps also its pragmatic relationship of cooperation with the West, especially the United States.
Tunisia and Egypt are in modernizing transitions brought on by the overthrow of their long time autocrats; Yemen, on Saudi Arabia’s southern border is likely to soon follow. The situation in Libya seems to be devolving into civil war in spite of, or because of, Western intervention. In Jordan, on their western border, the monarchy is promising political liberalization in an effort to avoid the unrest and in Iraq on their northern border, the democratic experiment continues to unfold amid on-going sectarian violence. Syria is dealing with protests which are being harshly repressed and the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain, which is just an 18 mile drive across a causeway from Saudi Arabia is also under pressure from demands for political liberalization. This particular event stimulated Saudi intervention based on their belief that it was a sectarian (Shi'ite) based and Iranian inspired uprising.
Regional experts are careful to point out that each of the nations experiencing popular dissent is unique in its own way and while commonalities exist, i.e. an energized youth; high unemployment; poverty and lack of political participation, the cultures, histories, and relationships of the populations to the rulers of the nations involved are different.
It is these differences with respect to Saudi Arabia that the Obama Administration and the rest of the industrialized West must be hoping result in the ability of the Saudi government to defer, if not avoid the spread of uncontrollable change and the instability that it brings with it.
President Obama said this with respect to the situation in Libya:
"The core principle that has to be upheld here is that when the entire international community, almost unanimously, says that there is a potential humanitarian crisis about to take place, that a leader who has lost his legitimacy decides to turn his military on his own people, that we can't simply stand by with empty words, that we have to take some sort of action.”
If the situation in Saudi Arabia should actually escalate into a mass popular uprising, the Saudi government has already shown through its intervention in Bahrain that it will not tolerate a revolutionary impulse in its own territory. In such a case Obama would have to confront his own words as well as a situation of enormous peril for regional stability and economic security. However, this “worst case” scenario does not appear to be developing and it will behoove both the Saudi government and the Obama Administration to adapt their policies and relationship to avoid it.
The Saudi relationship with the U.S. and the West is essentially driven by two issues, oil and Iran. Saudi Arabia possesses 25 percent of the world’s proven petroleum reserves and currently produces 9 million barrels of oil a day. It has the further capacity to produce an additional 12.5 million barrels a day if needed. Any instability in this production could cause economic chaos in the rest of the world. Recently Saudi Arabia agreed to increase production in the face of possible shortfalls resulting from disruption of Libyan oil production and they have, in the past resisted calls by more militant members of OPEC to cut production in order to drive up the world price of oil.
Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, the establishment of a Shi'ite theocracy and the estrangement with the United States, Saudi Arabia, a fundamentalist Sunni society with a small Shiite minority has served as an important counterweight to Iran in regional politics. With the overthrow of Iran’s other traditional enemy, Saddam Hussein’s government in neighboring Iraq and its continuing sectarian strife, the role of Saudi Arabia in this respect has assumed even greater importance. Iran has established closer relationships with Syria and even with the Islamic oriented government in Turkey. It has created client relationships with Hezbollah, now the governing party in Lebanon and Hamas, the controlling party in Gaza, both violent adversaries of Israel and currently opposed by the government of Saudi Arabia. The result has been an even closer military and political relationship with the U.S., one that goes back many years to the Cold War period.
The Christian Science Monitor reports that: “According to the US Government Accountability Office, the US sold up to $37 billion in arms to Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait from 2005 to 2009”. In October, 2010, the U.S. announced a $60 billion sale to Saudi Arabia alone to include 84 new F-15 fighter aircraft and upgrades to Saudi Arabia's existing fleet of 70 F-15s, as well as new helicopters and “bunker buster” bombs. The purpose of this enormous sale is clearly to enhance Saudi security vis' a vis' the growing power of Iran.
Now, with America’s long time ally, the Mubarak regime in Egypt gone and the nature of its replacement unknown, a popular uprising against the conservative Saudi monarchy would be a disaster on its face and the possibility of either a harsh police or military repression would severely test if not threaten the U.S./Saudi relationship.
The overthrow of the monarchy, as currently unlikely as that is, would change the Middle East political and security situation in a fundamental and dangerous way. The Saudi monarchy has adopted a "carrot and stick" approach to the possibility of wider demonstrations after the initial unrest in the eastern provinces. Public demonstrations have been banned and a highly visible police presence and condemnation of popular protests by the nation's religious leaders have been combined with announcements of $36 billion in pay raises, housing subsidies and unemployment benefits followed by a second announcement of some $93 billion in social payments.
The recent protests occurred in the Eastern Shi'ite areas with young adults in the forefront. The Shi'ite minority (about 10%) claims discrimination in social and employment opportunities and was particularly outraged by the deployment of Saudi troops to Bahrain to help put down the Shi'ite based protest movement there.
While unemployment among young adults throughout the nation is high and civil liberties and political representation are highly restricted, the prospects for wider popular unrest, while a legitimate concern, still appear small. The Saudi government has used its tremendous oil wealth to create a well developed advanced welfare state. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is @ $24,200 per capita which exceeds that of Portugal.
Nonetheless, the Middle East is changing and modernist impulses are growing in this most conservative of nations as well as in the rest of the region. Young Saudis both within and outside the government bureaucracies are being educated abroad and are increasingly feeling constrained and put off by the inevitable corruption and nepotism of a family controlled government. The contradictions between a fundamentalist Islamic society which is imposed from above and the external freedoms which anyone with a cell phone or internet connection is aware, will continue to build. Reforms and liberalization of the political process will have to come for the Saudi government to avoid the widespread dissatisfaction stimulating the uprisings spreading throughout the region.
This all creates a significant problem for U.S. relationships in the area. The governments of Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan and Syria have all responded recently to protests with harsh repressive action. Like Saudi Arabia, all but Syria are allied in some respects with the United States. Yemen has been cooperating in anti-terrorism policies, Bahrain hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Jordan has been a western oriented friend for decades and a moderate player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and of course Saudi Arabia represents a vital oil source and an important counter to Iranian regional ambitions. The Obama Administration has felt compelled to "condemn" violent suppression of protests and call for or imply, the need for political liberalization which carried to its logical conclusion could mean regime change in these nations, an outcome which the national leaders naturally oppose.
Thus important questions arise for American policy makers.
1. How far should the American government go in siding with the protesters and rejecting support for the currently friendly governments?
2. If the non-democratic governments of the "allied" nations reject American criticism and survive through repressive tactics, how will that affect the mutual relationships and levels of cooperation in the future?
3. If some of these governments fall to the popular uprisings, what kind of relationships and security cooperation with the successor governments will evolve?
Thus the Obama Administration must balance hard nosed U.S. national security interests with its general public orientation towards broad concepts of human rights. Saudi Arabia will be watching closely and the vital American-Saudi relationship will surely be affected accordingly.