By Loay Mudhoon
One event during the Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran in September must have confirmed the Saudi Arabian regime’s worst fears. Iran’s state television broadcast a faulty translation of the speech held by Egypt’s President Mohammed Mursi. He said that the Syrian government was an “oppressive regime”, but the TV version of his speech was about Bahrain, not Syria. Other terms were manipulated too.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are competing for hegemony in the Gulf region. King Abdullah and other Saudi leaders fear nothing more than Iranian dominance, which might yet be reinforced by nuclear arms. In the Saudi view, Iran is threatening the kingdom’s absolute monarchy. That fear is rooted in the fact that Saudi Arabia needs foreign powers for protection.
For seven decades, the USA and Saudi Arabia have been strategic partners. The Saudis control more than a third of global oil reserves, and they ensure supply to the USA and other countries. Washington, in turn, guarantees military security. In Saudi eyes, however, US engagement in Iraq failed – not least because the Shia population, whose clerics tend to have studied in Iran, gained considerable influence there. The Saudis, moreover, found the fall of US ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt disturbing. As a result they are now doing what they can to stem the influence of Iran’s Shia theocracy in cooperation with their Sunni allies.
If the Saudi leadership has one priority in foreign and security affairs it is to do whatever serves the monarchy’s domestic stability. This regime is driven by fear of its own imminent collapse.
Indeed, the legitimacy of the political system cannot be taken for granted. Ever since the 18th century, it is based on the royal family’s alliance with Wahhabite scholars who preach a puritanical and fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam. There are no civil rights in the Western sense, and the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia suffers discrimination. It is wrongly accused of only serving Tehran’s interests.
The great dilemma is that the regime in Riyad would have to stem the Wahhabi influence in order to introduce reforms in state and society, but cannot do so because the fundamentalist scholars are part of its power base. To please them, the Saudis support radical missionaries in many countries. Today, however, the most ferocious example of Wahhabi extremism is Al Qaida, the terror network that has even attacked Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi leadership views the Arab spring a new daunting challenge. It is afraid that revolutionary ideas may spread among its own people, most of whom are young and increasingly dissatisfied. With a vengeance, it is therefore supporting fundamentalist Sunni forces all over the Arab world.
The regime is responding to the western weakness that became obvious in the Arab spring. The Saudis are actively interventionist. The regime’s double aim is to contain Iran and at the same time prevent any kind of liberalisation the people of Saudi Arabia might find attractive. In cooperation with the United Arab Emirates, the Saudis deployed troops to Bahrain to quell protests against that island’s Sunni monarchy. The Saudis are similarly funding Sunni rebels in Syria. On the other hand, their support for Salafi reactionaries in Egypt is putting conservative pressure on the Muslim Brothers, whose Islamist ideology is more pragmatic.
In Riyad’s view, the Syrian crisis offers a historic opportunity because the fall of the Assad regime would be a blow to Tehran. The Saudi leadership is convinced that Sunni forces will dominate Syria after the Assad dictatorship, and that they will feel closer to the Sunni heartland of Mecca and Medina than to Tehran.
Domestically, the Saudi government is trying to buy stability and legitimacy with expensive infrastructure projects and massive social spending. The trouble is that there can be no real unity of a Saudi nation – and accordingly no real stability – until Wahhabism is dropped as the state ideology. For the time being, this gerontocracy will continue to fuel instability in its region.