North Africa, West Asia

Why are the rulers of Saudi Arabia losing their cool?

Every time the Gulf States’ rulers justify their support for violent rebels in Syria or the military regime in Egypt by appealing to the unalienable right of peoples to basic rights and representative governance, they legitimize the Arab Spring in the eyes of their own peoples, too.

Ahmed E. Souaiaia
4 November 2013

For more than seventy years, Saudi Arabia has cultivated the image of a state run by level-headed, moderate, wise, deliberate, and cool-headed leaders. Publicly, its diplomats gave the impression that the Kingdom would choose dialogue over confrontation, moderation over extremism, and reconciliation over antagonism. Wikileaks unveiled the true nature of the regime when it revealed that the rulers of Saudi Arabia were in fact leading two lives: one public and another private.

The ruling family of Saudi Arabia used public wealth (generated from sales of public natural resources) and strategic alliances with some western countries to create the Kingdom of virtual moderation. The alliance with the US provided the Kingdom with diplomatic, military, and political covers that have helped it project power and influence far beyond its actual size. Importantly, it was able to cloak its genocidal sectarianism, conceal its abusive treatment of women and foreign workers, and escape any expectation of representative governance.

Considering the actual record of the Kingdom in the area of human rights, civil rights, women rights, labour rights, and free speech, the squeaky clean image it has cultivated is astounding. The fact that Saudi Arabia, where women cannot drive a car or travel on their own and where individuals are executed in the most savage ways in the name of applying religious law (as they see it) is dubbed a moderate country, and Syria (before 2011), where women fly airplanes and serve in some of the highest institutions of governance is dubbed extremist, speaks of troubling cognitive dissonance in the ranks of the so-called democratic west. Today, Syrians are living under the most brutal conditions - but much of that brutality was instigated as part of the services of the Saudi and Qatari ruling families, wealthy individuals, and foundations under their control.

Together, the Arab Spring and Wikileaks revelations shook the Saudi rulers’ confidence in preserving power inside their country and maintaining influence outside of it. But three events have pushed the ruling family of Saudi Arabia to take off the mask of moderation and show its true face. First, the rulers failed to convince the US administration to save Mubarak and later support the military regime. Second, the ruling family failed to goad the US, Britain, and France into launching air strikes to bomb the Syrian military despite agreeing to pay for the cost. Third, Saudi rulers have demonstrated alarm at the slow and measured rapprochement between Iran and the US. This third event is especially important for Saudi rulers because their animosity towards Iran is not about nuclear disarmament but about history and ideology.

Today, the ruling family governs Saudi Arabia the same way the Umayyads governed the Islamic world for nearly one hundred years during the seventh and eighth centuries. In 750 CE, the Abbasids launched a violent revolution that overthrew the Umayyads and killed every male of the ruling Umayyads (except one who escaped to Spain). The Saudis fear a repeat of history and they are committed to reducing Iran’s status to a weak pariah state. That is a tall order given the resilience of governing institutions in Iran.

To achieve the above goals and assuage their paranoia, the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, officially and through vast networks of charitable organizations and wealthy individuals and foundations, has used petro-dollar wealth and takfiri Wahhabism to influence or blackmail other countries. The link between Jihadi Salafism, the dogmatic and ideological foundation of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and Saudi Arabia is well established. Salafi groups fighting in Syria could not have received the sophisticated weapons and financial support they did without Saudi consent and participation. One would think that a state that can ensure that no woman can drive a car should be capable of making sure that no support is extended to violent takfiris. But to deny Saudi rulers’ support of takfiris fighting in Syria is as credible as denying Saudi support of Afghan Jihadi Salafi groups in the 1970s and 1980s.

The problem is this: Saudi Arabia is now more dangerous than it was prior to 2011.

Before 2011, Saudi support for radical groups was given in coordination with its western allies, especially the US. That coordination was terminated when the US cancelled its ill-advised plans to bomb Syria and when President Obama made the historical phone call to President Rouhani. These two events are related even though they may seem independent of each other.

Although the US’s planned diplomatic rapprochement with Iran is portrayed as being limited to Iran’s nuclear program, the Saudis are worried that resolving the nuclear standoff with Iran will necessarily lead to the normalization of diplomatic relations between Iran and the west in general. If that were to be realized, Saudi Arabia will lose its status as the only “legitimate” regional power and Iran’s oil will start to flow again to Europe and possibly the US, ending the latter’s dependence on Saudi energy.

Moreover, the Saudis fear that if Iran’s diplomatic relations with the west were mended, Iran might play a stronger role in settling regional crises, including the ones in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. Saudi Arabia, for sectarian and nationalist reasons, has always wanted to isolate Iran and diminish its influence in the region. An Iran-US rapprochement would end that strategy, and that is why the Saudi rulers have lost their cool and started to act like the extreme regime they really are.

Signs of this change were evident in three decisions the Saudi rulers made in the last five weeks or so.

First, after years of the Kingdom campaigning for a seat on the UNSC, the UN General Assembly voted to elect the Kingdom to occupy one of the non-permanent seats. The Saudi foreign ministry issued a statement in which it declared the Kingdom’s refusal to accept the seat, justifying its unprecedented action because of the UNSC’s inability to 1) solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 2) end the Syrian regime’s “slaughter” of Syrians, and 3) make the Middle East a nuclear weapons-free zone.

Second, the Saudi security chief, Bandar Bin Sultan, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that the Kingdom will stop coordinating its support to the Syrian opposition with the US government and will act unilaterally in support of the “Syrian people”.

Third, the Saudi rulers refused to meet with the UN special envoy to Syria and declared their intention to sabotage Geneva-2, or at least delay it for one year as they pump more destructive money and weapons into Syria.

These developments indicate that the Saudi ruling family will now openly use terror to achieve its goal of regime change in Syria. But if they do so, the squeaky clean image they have cultivated for seven decades will lead to unmasking the true face of the Kingdom’s rulers.

If the Syrians convene in Geneva and reach a tentative agreement on a road map for a political solution, such a road map will likely include a call to fight terror groups and cut off their support. Russia and the US are likely to formalize such an agreement through the UNSC. This process will then lead to criminalizing any form of support to groups involved in terrorist activities, which will undercut Saudi influence.

It is not in the interest of Saudi Arabia to oppose a political solution and bet on armed groups. There is some indication that the same groups on which the Kingdom relies are also ideologically and dogmatically opposed to the form of governance practiced in Saudi Arabia. It is only a matter of time before the Kingdom faces the threat of terrorism it exports to Syria, Iraq, Libya, and other countries around the world at home. This fact is underscored by the rise in the number of armed attacks on security installations, churches, and public installations in Egypt despite the Saudi rulers’ support for the military regime in that country. In other words, the Kingdom may have control over some Salafi groups, but not all of them. Equally important, even those groups currently under the Kingdom’s control will not remain there should circumstances change, because their alliance is one of convenience.

Despite claims to the contrary, the Arab Spring was a true historical moment. It has profoundly changed the relationship between the masses and the rulers in the Arab world. The ruling family in Saudi Arabia thinks and hopes that the Arab Spring will not sprout in its land. It has. Trying to divert the course of the Arab Spring to other countries Saudi Arabia wishes to weaken (like Syria) or reverse course (as in Egypt) are short term attempts at a solution. In the end, every time the Gulf States’ rulers justify their support for violent rebels in Syria or the military regime in Egypt by appealing to the unalienable right of peoples to basic rights and representative governance, they legitimize the Arab Spring in the eyes of their own peoples, too. When the ruling families excuse the use of crude violence to achieve the goals of the Arab Spring in Syria, they are in effect writing their own destiny: those who rule by the sword die by the sword. That too was the fate of the Umayyads.

These opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

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