The Saudi regime has long been considered a pillar of political stability in the Middle East, a country that commanded respect and prudence from all its neighbors. This is no longer true, and the first ones to recognize this are those who are important internal players in the regime. Today, they feel besieged on all sides and quite fearful of the consequences of turmoil in the Middle East for the survival of the regime.
This turn-around derives from the history of Saudi Arabia. The kingdom itself is not very old. It was created in 1932 through the unification of two smaller kingdoms on the Arabian peninsula, Hejaz and Nejd. It was a poor, isolated part of the world that had liberated itself from Ottoman rule during the First World War, and came then under the paracolonial aegis of Great Britain.
The kingdom was organized in religious terms by a version of Sunni Islam called Wahabism (or Salafism). Wahabism is a very strict puritanical doctrine that was notably intolerant not only of religions other than Islam but of other versions of Islam itself.
The discovery of oil would transform the geopolitical role of Saudi Arabia. It was an American firm, later called Aramco—not a British firm—that succeeded in getting the rights for prospection in 1938. Aramco sought assistance from the U.S. government to exploit the fields.
One consequence of Aramco’s interest combined with President Franklin Roosevelt’s vision of the geopolitical future of the United States was a now famous, then little noticed, meeting of Roosevelt and the ruler of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud, on Feb. 14, 1945 aboard a U.S. destroyer in the Red Sea. Despite Roosevelt’s grave illness (he was to die two months later) and Ibn Saud’s lack of any previous experience with Western culture and technology, the two leaders managed to forge a genuine mutual respect. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s attempt to undo this in a meeting he immediately arranged soon after that turned out to be quite counter-productive, as he was seen as “arrogant” by Ibn Saud.
While much of the five-hour private discussion between Roosevelt and Ibn Saud was devoted to the question of Zionism and Palestine—about which they had quite different views—the longer-run real consequence was a de facto arrangement in which Saudi Arabia coordinated and controlled world oil production policies to the benefit of the United States, in return for which the United States offered long-term guarantees of military security for Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia became a de facto paracolonial dependency of the United States, which however permitted the very extensive royal family to grow wealthy and “modernize”—not only in their ability to use technology but even in a cultural sense, bending in their own lives many of the restrictions of Wahabite Islam. It was an arrangement both sides appreciated and nourished. It worked well until the latter half of the first decade of 2000. Two major events upset the arrangement. One was the geopolitical decline of the United States. The second was the so-called Arab spring and what the Saudis regarded as its negative consequences throughout the Arab world.
From Saudi Arabia’s point of view, the relationship with the United States soured for a number of reasons. First, the Saudis felt that the announced “Asia/Pacific” reorientation of the United States, replacing the long-dominant “Europe/Atlantic” orientation, implied a withdrawal from active involvement in the politics of the Middle East.
The Saudis saw further evidence of this reorientation in the willingness of the United States to enter into negotiations with both the Syrian and the Iranian governments. Similarly, they were dismayed by the announced troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the clear reluctance to engage in another “war” in the Middle East. They felt they could no longer count on U.S. military protection, should it be needed. They therefore decided to play their cards independently of the United States and indeed against U.S. preferences.
Meanwhile, their relations with other Islamic groups became more and more difficult. They were extremely wary of any groups linked to al-Qaeda. And for good reason, since al-Qaeda had long made it clear that it sought the overthrow of the existing Saudi regime. One thing that worried them especially was the Saudi citizens who went to Syria to engage in jihad. They feared, remembering past history, that these individuals would return to Saudi Arabia, ready to subvert it from within. Indeed, on February 3, by royal decree of the monarch himself (a rare occurrence), the Saudis ordered all their citizens to return. They sought to control how they returned, and intended to disperse them along the frontlines, to minimize their ability to create internal organizations. It seems doubtful that these jihadis will obey. They consider this edict an abandonment by the Saudi regime.
In addition to the potential adherents of al-Qaeda, the Saudi regime has long had a difficult relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. While the latter’s version of Islam is also Salafist, and in many ways similar to Wahabism, there have been two crucial differences. The Muslim Brotherhood’s principal base has been in Egypt whereas the Wahabite base has been in Saudi Arabia. So this has always been in part a contest as to the locale of the dominant geopolitical force in the Middle East.
There is a second difference. Because of its history, the Muslim Brotherhood has always regarded monarchs with a jaundiced eye whereas Wahabism has been tied closely to the Saudi monarchy. The Saudi regime does not welcome therefore the spread of a movement that wouldn’t care if the Saudi monarchy were overturned.
Whereas once they had good relations with the Baathist regime in Syria, this is now impossible because of the intensified Sunni-Shi’ite polarization in the Middle East.
The Saudi lack of appreciation for secularists, sympathizers of al-Qaeda, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Shi’ite Baathist regime does not leave any obvious group to support in Syria today. But supporting no one does not project an image of leadership. So the Saudi regime sends some arms to a few groups and pretends to do much more.
Is the great enemy really Iran? Yes and no. But to limit the damage, the Saudi regime is secretly engaged in talks with the Iranians, talks whose outcome is very uncertain, since the Saudis believe that the Iranians want to encourage the Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia to erupt. While the total number of Shi’ites inside Saudi Arabia is uncertain (probably circa 20 percent), they are concentrated in the southeastern corner, precisely the area of largest oil production.
About the only regime with whom the Saudis are on good terms today is the Israelis. They share the sense of being besieged and fearful. And they both engage in the same short-run political tactics.
The fact is that the Saudi regime has internal feet of clay. The inner elite is now shifting from the so-called second generation, the sons of Ibn Saud (the few surviving sons being quite aged), to the grandsons. They are a large and untested group who might help to bring the house down in their competition to get their hands on the spoils, which are still considerable.
The Saudis have good reason to feel besieged and fearful.
Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, is the author of The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (New Press).