In 2013, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia witnessed essential changes in light of local, regional and international variables that had a direct impact on the kingdom’s performance, policies and positions.
Traditionally, Saudi Arabia derives its legitimacy, power and strength from unique sources that have distinguished it for a relatively long period of time. The country enjoyed two blessings: a celestial one represented by it being home to the two holy mosques [Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina], and an earthly one represented by oil. These constituted a form of leverage for the kingdom and strengthened the pillars of the central authority and the country’s unity.
However, these two sources no longer have the same momentum as before. On the one hand, this is due to the new imminent variables that directly influenced Saudi Arabia’s position in the global oil market, including the discovery of huge amounts of shale oil in the United States and Iran’s return to the global oil market.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s exceptional efforts to maintain its position as the sole sponsor of Sunni Islam have faced serious challenges that touched the essence of its religious ideology. At the domestic level, the challenges appeared in the clear decline in the position of the official religious institution through refusal to abide by the fatwas of the authority’s scholars. At the foreign level, many Sunni Muslims opposed Saudi Arabia as a reaction to its involvement in toppling the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule in Egypt.
We are faced with two lists of variables, some of which are internal/structural and have taken a relatively long period of time, while others are external and have happened over the past three years, or since the onset of the Arab Spring.
Several variables with persisting repercussions have imposed themselves on the structure of society. Some of them are listed below.
The middle class is simply the class capable of guaranteeing bare necessities of its individuals without resorting to other sources. It includes school teachers, civil servants, military officers, craftsmen and traders. The number of members of the middle class in Saudi Arabia has risen from 22,200 in 1970 to 4.6 million in 2013. Only 11% of those are households that spend on luxury and have savings, that is, are capable of covering their living expenses and more.
However, social and economic data have shown that the middle class has not evolved as part of the pattern of structural transformations that the country has witnessed within the framework of traditional upgrade programs (otherwise known as the five-year plans launched in 1970). The middle class has eroded as a result of the inability of its individuals to fulfill their constant needs, due to price inflation, high population growth and salary stagnation for more than 35 years (Al-Riyadh newspaper, May 13, 2013). As a result, the middle class was no longer able to put together political reform projects or create initiatives to change the state’s direction. It could not even help in pushing individuals to express their public interests through civil society groups, which are considered to be a democracy incubator.
In a country relying on a rentier economy, individuals live on social offerings and material support sources that the state provides. After over four decades of rentier economy experience, it seems that Saudi Arabia is incapable of providing the minimum care conditions. Ironically, between 2003 and 2012, the accumulated financial surplus amounted to more than 2 trillion Saudi riyals ($533 billion).
Saudi Arabia is investing a significant share of its oil revenues in buying US assets. It is the fourth-largest investor in US Treasury bills, after China, Japan and Britain. According to economic reports published in October 2012, Saudi investments in US Treasury bills were estimated at $229 billion, thus accounting for 70% to 90% of foreign Saudi investments.
A cloud of doubt surrounds the amount and nature of these investments, given Saudi Arabia’s losses in US Treasury bills, which are based on US public debt. These losses are estimated at $40 billion, equivalent to 20% of total investments.
Whatever the case may be, the accumulated financial surplus failed to address the unemployment, poverty and housing crises. While the Saudi government maintains that the unemployment rate is close to 10%, which is the global unemployment average and which does not put the country in crisis level, International Monetary Fund Deputy Managing Director Min Zhu stated — during his visit to Saudi Arabia in December — that unemployment affects one out of every four youths.
The poverty file is another manifestation of social imbalance. People living below the poverty line in Saudi Arabia are estimated to be [up to] a quarter of the total population, that is, [2 million to] 4 million people (The Washington Post [Dec. 3, 2012]). This is in addition to the rampant corruption in the state apparatus. According to a report issued by the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce on Nov. 17, 2012, corruption in Saudi Arabia undermines the right of citizens and bites off two-thirds of their annual income. The Guardian reported on Jan. 29, 2013, that Saudi Arabia, among other countries, did little to fight corruption in arms trade.
In this respect, Saudi economist Abdul Aziz al-Dakhil suggests political restructuring as an inevitable introduction to any economic reform or economic restructuring. According to Dakhil, the Saudi state is heading toward what he calls an economic abyss if the situation remains unchanged. (Al-Hayat newspaper, Dec. 10, 2013).
The awareness level among the majority of the Saudi population has doubled in the last decade due to the thriving of communication, from satellite channels all the way to Internet and social media. The majority of the people became the event-maker, and nowadays they are able to affect policies and official decisions through organized campaigns on social networking sites, especially Facebook and Twitter. This prompted The New York Times to say that the Saudi revolution is happening on Twitter (Oct. 20, 2012).
A study published on Dec. 11, 2013, stated that the current number of Facebook users in Saudi Arabia reached 7.8 million and that the largest Saudi age group on Facebook was between 25 and 34 years, with a share of 46% of total users. On the other hand, according to a study conducted by the online Business Insider Intelligence’s Statistics Department and published on Nov. 8, 2013, the number of Twitter users in Saudi Arabia reached 4.8 million, making the country the largest in Twitter use [proportional to population], with user percentage as high as 41% of total Internet users in the country (12 million users). This puts the kingdom in first place worldwide.
It seems clear, in light of these facts, that the overwhelming majority of citizens, especially youths, are no longer subject to the influence of the official sources of guidance. They rather interact with a universal human culture evolving beyond the borders and setting the foundations for a psychological and intellectual rupture with authority in all its forms. However, the most important thing is that the openness of the majority of the population to the means of social communication with their cultural and political interactions constitutes a means of incitement to bring about change on the ground. Facebook and Twitter became a kind of warm-up field for a wide scale popular change movement. This urged the government to seriously consider blocking social networking sites given the difficulty to monitor them.
The major shifts that imposed themselves on the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East, three years after the Arab Spring, placed Saudi Arabia in the political, social and security epicenter. The kingdom faces serious threats to its security in all its dimensions: national, regional and strategic. This has forced it to adopt approaches that today seem quite contradictory with the conservative state characteristics that distinguished the kingdom over previous decades.
The Saudi royal family’s concept of security was based on three types of security. National security, which means providing the requirements of unity of the central authority and preventing internal imminent dangers posed by political and social forces aspiring to take over authority or planning to compete or participate in power, so as to break the monopoly of the royal family. The second type is regional security. This means providing a [regional] environment reconciled with the Saudi regime, that is, a regional neighborhood that is in harmony with the Saudi regime and subject to its influence on another level. Strategic security aims at spreading Saudi Arabia’s influence in remote areas for other purposes: to preoccupy adversaries in remote areas to ward off the danger from the border, build a network of alliances to help contain dangers stemming from countries that are the target of these alliances or strengthen Saudi Arabia’s influence in other countries that have an impact on regional or international systems. The scope of the Saudi strategic security extends to Pakistan to the east, Morocco to the west, Turkey to the north and the Arabian Sea to the south.
The most important outcome of the Arab Spring is that it exposed the kingdom in terms of security. Consequently, the theory of Saudi national security was no longer valid. In less than a decade, Saudi Arabia has lost two fortresses having vital links to its national security: The first is the Iraqi regime before April 2003 and the second is Egypt’s Mubarak regime prior to February 2011.
Other fortresses followed suit: Popular revolutions erupted in Yemen, to the south, and Bahrain, to the east, thus putting Saudi national security at stake.
In spite of Saudi efforts to prevent protests from spilling over to its territory through counterrevolution — which has seemingly achieved relative success in Yemen through the Gulf Initiative — in Bahrain through direct military intervention, in Egypt through support of the military and in Libya and Syria through financing of armed groups, no decisive results in favor of Saudi Arabia were seen. The situation in these countries remains unstable, which turned talks about the kingdom’s full containment of the Arab Spring revolutions into mere speculation and wishes.
An overview of Saudi Arabia’s regional alliances shows that Riyadh is no longer the leader of the Arab world. The only allies it currently has are (some of) the Gulf states, and to some extent [Gen. Abdel Fattah al-] Sisi’s Egypt and the kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco. Key countries such as Iraq, Syria and Algeria are in a state of animosity with Riyadh, not to mention Sudan and Tunisia. Arab public opinion as a whole is more hostile to Riyadh today than it was a few years ago, and Riyadh continues to waste its position in local Arab conflicts.
The kingdom after the chemical weapons settlement
In June, King Abdullah [bin Abdulaziz] entrusted the management of Syrian affairs to Chief of General Intelligence Bandar bin Sultan, being the most capable of coordinating with the United States, and its security apparatus in particular, regarding the project of toppling the regime of [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad.
The plan drawn by former CIA Director David Petraeus with Prince Bandar since he took over General Intelligence on July 11, 2012, was based on allowing Islamist fighters from al-Qaeda and other groups in the Syrian war to drain the Syrian army in a long and open war and pave the way for a US-led international military intervention to overthrow the regime.
The plan succeeded in rallying fighters who, according to estimates of the Syrian regime, belonged to 80 different nationalities. Syrian territories became rampant with armed organizations linked to al-Qaeda and the Salafist jihadist movement. Bloody battles raged over the entire Syrian territory as tens of thousands of troops and civilians, as well as Syrians, Arabs and foreigners, fell victim. Syrian provinces and cities were massively destroyed. However, the plan did not lead to the fall of the Syrian regime. This prompted the West to reconsider the war option, even though it tried to justify this option by accusing the regime of committing collective massacres and using weapons of mass destruction, or by hiding behind the idea of protecting civilians. At the end of the day, however, the West reached a settlement concerning the Syrian chemical weapons issue that leads to a comprehensive settlement of the crisis.
When [US President Barack] Obama’s administration backed down from its military strike against Syria and entered into a settlement with Russia on Syrian chemical weapons, and then with Iran on the nuclear issue, a deep structural crack in Saudi Arabia’s strategic thinking was revealed. It was immediately reflected by its bewildered diplomatic and political performance on regional and international levels. Indeed, visits of heads of states (Lebanon, Iran) and the Saudi speech at the United Nations were canceled, followed by the abandonment of the nonpermanent seat at the UN Security Council. Tensions appeared in Saudi relations with Turkey and Qatar against the backdrop of the coup against the ruling Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and then in its relationship with Yemen, which reached the level of military intervention. Then a crisis in relations between Saudi Arabia and Oman erupted after the sultanate announced its rejection of the idea of a Gulf Union. Add to this Saudi Arabia’s traditional tensions with Iran, Iraq, Syria and the resistance forces in Lebanon and Palestine.
Interestingly, amid these disruptions in Saudi relations with Arab and regional countries, there has been no Saudi diplomatic action in the Arab arena since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis. We would hardly hear of a visit by the king, crown prince or foreign minister to an Arab country, except when it came to leisure (Morocco) or the Syrian crisis (Egypt and Jordan).
Iran, Saudi Arabia: differences galore
Over the past two decades — and this was confirmed in the last five years — Saudi Arabia used its financial, diplomatic and media capabilities to counter what it calls the Iranian Project. Saudi activity was felt at three levels: local, regional and international. All kinds of weapons were used: sectarian, political, economic, intelligence, military and terrorist (represented by al-Qaeda). Saudi Arabia completely rejected any talk about political settlements, be it at the level of direct relationship between Riyadh and Tehran, or at the level of their regions of influence.
Prior to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to New York to address the UN General Assembly in September, [Saudi] Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal tried to form a Gulf delegation headed by Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah to convey a joint Gulf message to the US administration that expressed uneasiness about any evolution in US-Iranian ties and about its serious repercussions on the region’s stability. The idea failed, as the emir of Kuwait refused to preside over the delegation. The idea that Saud al-Faisal himself presides over a delegation of GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] foreign ministers has also failed. Saudi Arabia felt that its sister countries were not willing to get into a confrontation with the United States; rather, the majority of GCC countries began communicating with Iran, whether directly or through intermediaries. The sultan of Oman visited Iran with a Qatari message expressing a desire to resume normal ties with Iran, and United Arab Emirates (UAE) Crown Prince Gen. Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan expressed to the Russians his readiness to start strategic talks with Iran.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s visit to both Kuwait and the UAE, along with the positive stances it included, made Saudi Arabia feel that the general mood in the Gulf did not go in line with Saudi orientations, particularly since Oman rejected the idea of a Gulf Union. The situation has pushed the Saudi-funded daily Al-Hayat to talk about Iranian-Omani efforts to dismantle the GCC (Al-Hayat, Dec. 9, 2013), while Saudi Arabia threatened to cut off GCC aid to Oman, according to al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper on Dec. 11, 2013.
Zarif tried to send Saudi Arabia a message of reassurance, and, ipso facto, desire to turn the page, but to no avail. Riyadh does not seem willing to make a complete turn toward diplomatic action at a time when it is still betting on the Syrian arena. Regaining balance and realistically considering its surroundings may require more time.
In a speech at the Manama Dialogue Security Summit on Dec. 7, 2013, former Saudi General Intelligence Director Prince Turki al-Faisal Al Saud expressed a clear position toward Iranian influence and again accused Iran of interfering in Arab countries’ affairs, “starting from Bahrain to Palestine,” and most notably Syria. On the other hand, a former Iranian official said, “The Islamic republic and its neighboring countries need to learn how to peacefully coexist without any dependence of Arab Gulf states on Western protection.”
To sum it up
The local situation has been under the influence of disturbed regional conditions, which supports the idea that a country's foreign policy is a reflection of its domestic policy. It became obvious that external affairs have been combined with local affairs to the point that foreign issues, especially controversial ones, have become a Saudi (popular and official) internal affair. Saudi Arabia’s differences with Assad, Tehran, the central government in Baghdad, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Palestine, Qatar at a certain time and now with the Sultanate of Oman are integrated in internal discussions and represent one reason behind the religious and political legitimacy of the Saudi regime, at least amid a favorable environment, that is, the Najd region. Raising such controversial issues is designed to move the battle from the internal into the external arena, to prevent any democratic experience from succeeding abroad, given its effects on the internal arena.
It seems that the total association with external conflicts, as is the case in Syria now, involves an implicit rejection of any local comprehensive economic, political and social reform.
In light of the above, Saudi Arabia is facing great threats as a result of the way it is approaching the region’s issues, and for suddenly adopting the policy of forging on regardless of the sudden shifts in Western alliances and interests, the rise of new emerging powers, the deep structural shifts in the countries’ economies and the consequent worsening of Saudi Arabia’s position in US strategy.
If there is anything to deduce, it is that Riyadh needs a comprehensive and critical review of its approaches during the last three years, which helped in disrupting the network of its Arab, regional and international ties and had direct impact on its national and strategic security. The increasing involvement in the region's crisis holds dangerous internal repercussions for the future. A comprehensive reform process is inevitable, starting from the political to the economic, judicial, social and cultural, and ending with the defense level.
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