Saudi rulers feel insecure amid West Asian unrest

Saudi rulers feel insecure amid West Asian unrest

As pro-democracy uprisings spread across West Asia, the rulers of Saudi Arabia — the region’s great bulwark of religious and political conservatism — are feeling increasingly isolated and concerned that the United States may no longer be a reliable backer, officials and diplomats say.

Saudi Arabia is far less vulnerable to democracy movements than other countries in the region, thanks to its vast oil wealth, its powerful religious establishment and the popularity of its king.

But the country’s rulers were shaken by the forced departure of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, a close and valued ally. They are anxiously monitoring the continuing protests in neighbouring Bahrain and in Yemen, with which Saudi Arabia shares a porous 1,100-mile border. Those concerns come on top of long-festering worries about the situation in Iraq, where the toppling of Saddam Hussein has empowered Iran, Saudi Arabia’s great rival and nemesis.

The recent illness of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, 87, who is expected to return to the kingdom this week after an absence of more than three months for treatment in the US and Morocco, has reinforced the sense of insecurity.

“The Saudis are completely encircled by the problem, from Jordan to Iraq to Bahrain to Yemen,” said one Arab diplomat, voicing a view that is common in the halls of power in Riyadh, the capital. “Saudi Arabia is the last heavyweight US ally in the region facing Iran.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity in line with diplomatic protocol.

The Saudis tend to see any threat to the established order in the region as a gain for their nemesis Iran, and its allies Syria and Hezbollah. They have grown increasingly worried that the Obama administration is drifting away from this perspective and supporting movements for change whose outcome cannot be guaranteed. Those worries were heightened by the crisis in Egypt, where the Saudis felt that Mubarak should have been allowed to stay on and make a more ‘dignified’ exit, Saudi officials say.

King Abdullah had at least two phone conversations with US President Barack Obama to convey his concerns in the weeks before Mubarak’s ouster, and the last conversation ended in sharp disagreement, according to officials familiar with the calls.

Saudi officials have tried to appear unruffled. On Wednesday evening, Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, the interior minister, invited a group of prominent intellectuals and journalists in Riyadh to discuss the recent turmoil. He struck a confident tone, saying that Saudi Arabia is ‘immune’ to the protests because it is guided by religious law that its citizens will not question.

“Don’t compare us to Egypt or Tunisia,” the prince said, according to one of the attendees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meeting was meant to be off the record. But the attendee said he and others were sceptical, and suspected the prince was merely hiding his anxieties.

The Saudi and pan-Arab news media have been cautiously supportive of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, with a number of opinion articles welcoming the call for nonviolent change. That may change now that protests and violence have seized Bahrain, which lies just across a 15-mile causeway from the Saudi border. Bahrain is a far more threatening prospect, in part because of the sectarian dimensions of the protests.

The bond

Bahrain’s restive population is mostly Shiite, and is adjacent to the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, an important oil-producing area where the Shiite population has long complained of unfair treatment by the puritanical Saudi religious establishment. They feel a strong kinship with their co-religionists across the water.

“The Bahrain uprising may give more courage to the Shia in the Eastern Province to protest,” said one Saudi diplomat. “It might then escalate to the rest of the country.”
Most analysts say that is unlikely. Although Saudi Arabia shares many of the conditions that bred the democracy uprisings — including autocracy, corruption and a large population of educated young people without access to suitable jobs — its people are cushioned by oil wealth and culturally resistant to change.

Moreover, analysts tend to agree that Saudi Arabia would never allow the Bahraini monarchy to be overthrown. Ever since Bahrain began a harsh crackdown on protesters on Thursday, rumours have flown that Saudi Arabia provided military support or guidance; however, there is no evidence to support that. In recent days, the deputy governor of the Eastern Province, Saud bin Jalawi, spoke to Shiite religious leaders and urged them to suppress any rebellious sentiment, according to Saudi news media reports.

“Saudi Arabia did not build a causeway to Bahrain just so that Saudis could party on weekends,” said Toby Jones, an expert on Saudi Arabia at Rutgers University. “It was designed for moments like this, for keeping Bahrain under control.”

The sectarian divisions in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia could also work against unrest, allowing the authorities there to blame a sectarian agenda by Iran or its Shiite proxies for any protests. That accusation is a powerful weapon in a region where suspicion of Iran runs deep. Saudi protesters have issued a call for demonstrations in all of the country’s major cities on March 11, though many seem sceptical about the results.

“I do not expect much,” said Ali al-Ahmed, the director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, himself a Shiite who has been critical of the Saudi monarchy. “I think people still expect that the Saudi king will make things better.”

Still, the Saudis are closely watching American diplomatic gestures toward Bahrain. Any wavering of American support for Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy, analysts say, would provoke a deep sense of betrayal, and could create an unprecedented rift in a partnership with the US that has been a pillar of Saudi policy since 1945.

“Saudi Arabia has always had a fear of encirclement, whether with Communism or with Iranian influence,” said Rachel Bronson, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “Bahrain to me is the tipping point for when this becomes really unsettling.