This week I’ve read two very interesting articles providing me with some basic information on the principal actors and the current response to the Arab Spring movement from the Saudi Government.
Bruce Riedel’s “Brezhnev in the Hejaz: Saudi Arabia and the Counterrevolution”, dated August 24 from the nationalinterest.org, and the New York Times’ Saudi Arabia topic post, updated frequently. Links to be listed at the bottom of this post.
Saudi Arabia is a prime target for the Arab Spring. It is a closed society with unequal wealth distribution, a large and diverse group of repressed minorities living within manufactured boundaries, a society ripe with Islamist (extremist) sympathies and warring Sunni vs Shia factions. Additionally, the royal family is facing a crisis of leadership in regards to line of succession and future of the royal line (although Prince Muhammad bin Nayef is thought to be the successor to King Abdullah as detailed in the previous post).
The people of Saudi Arabia want a more representative government and political reform and several disgruntled (not yet quite oppositional) groups have emerged, while the Al Saud family struggles to maintain their legitimacy and rule. The King has issued several social welfare reform packages and has spent upwards of 36 billion dollars on pay raises, housing support, unemployment benefits, and promised subsidies in an already overwhelmingly welfare state.
Additionally, there is an overwhelming police presence in Saudi Arabia and the government has primarily been using money and crackdowns to silence protestors and dissidents of the state. The crown has even instituted new press laws and punishments for political activism that is seen as threatening. Estimates are as high as in the thousands thought to be held in custody as political prisoners.
As an authoritarian regime that is slow on political and social change, Saudi Arabia fears the legitimacy and stability of the monarchy will be called into question as the Arab Spring unfolds in the region. Basically the treatment thus far has been one of no uprising will be tolerated in a neighboring kingdom as it can serve to destabilize the domestic situation.
Saudi Arabia has been primarily using diplomatic and financial means to stall change within the region and block Iran’s influence by emphasizing the stability of regional monarchies. By sending troops to Bahrain to help put down Shiite uprisings, the Saudi’s have also set up the division of Shiite Iran vs. Sunni Arab Monarchs.
Much like the situation in the region in the 1950’s, Saudi Arabia and Iran are vying for regional hegemony. Iran is inherently threatening to Saudi Arabia in that they are a Shia state and the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia is largely located in the Eastern province (where the oil is!).
Coupled with this fact is that American interest (like the Saudi’s) lies in the containment of Iranian influence. While the American government is perhaps the biggest international supporter of the Saudi Kingdom, the American public values and sympathizes with the Arab Spring movement which could jeopardize the US/Saudi alliance. On the other hand, the American government is still recovering from the 2008/2009 financial crisis and relies heavily on Saudi Arabia as a trading partner and swing producer of oil. Similar to Bahrain, the United States and Saudi Arabia are negotiating the sale of 60 billion dollars worth of US weapons to SA.
Right now there are several internal and external threats and issues that I will be watching closely as this blog progresses.
Women and the Youth of Saudi Arabia have been increasingly outspoken about their desire for political reform and social change. As of right now, they have been met with financial reforms, but little in the way any real social or political liberalization. There have even been rumors and conspiracy theories that the kingdom is secretly providing money to extremist groups to hold back change.
The line of Succession also is an issue for Saudi Arabia. In the event that Prince Nayef does get crowned King, will the police crackdowns continue. While this further insight unrest or completely quell it for the time being?
Repressed minorities, included migrant workers and the Shia minority are extremely important in terms of Saudi Arabia’s regional relationships, as well as ties to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas and Al Qaeda.
Iran and the competition for hegemony and influence. The Shiite government and alleged times to Hamas and Hezbollah are regarded as real threats to the Saudi regime.
Any and all popular uprisings in the region, particularly in Bahrain and Yemen.
The role that America’s relationship to Saudi Arabia and the unfolding of the Arab Spring within Saudi borders is yet to be seen. Right now, it seems that (like in the past) America wishes maintain the geostrategic status quo. It is uncertain for how long this will remain true.