US Foreign Policy

Saudi Security: King Abdallah’s Greatest Challenge

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This commentary appeared in the Daily Star on September 22, 2005.

The peaceful transition to the reign of King Abdallah, amidst great security uncertainties inside the kingdom and in the region, is a useful moment to reflect on Saudi security policy and to pose the question whether any change in policy is likely or needed. At the highest level, the leadership transition is a mere formality, since Abdallah had been in charge during the long years of King Fahd’s illness, but the new lineup of royal brothers creates some new dynamics with respect to the critical challenges facing the Kingdom.

Abdallah and Crown Prince Sultan almost certainly agree that the domestic challenge is the most acute, with Iraqi instability and Iranian nuclear weapons a more distant threat, but in the post-9/11 world, this distinction between domestic and foreign threats may be artificial. Where does one draw the line between the growing Shia-Sunni struggle in Iraq and the potential for sectarian strife in the Kingdom? How does one manage the return of young Saudi militants seeking excitement among the insurgents in Iraq, to ensure that they do not fuel the smoldering fires of domestic discontent? How does Iran’s role in Iraq affect Saudi Arabia’s perceptions of Iran and its intentions vis-à-vis the Kingdom?

King Abdallah, in his long years as second in command, was considered an advocate for greater Saudi sovereignty and independence from the United States in decision making, which was sometimes misconstrued as anti-Americanism. Abdallah now is a more independent actor than his predecessors, in part because the cozy security alliance with Washington has eroded considerably. Despite protestations to the contrary, US-Saudi relations have changed since 9/11, with a decline in the level of trust and the perception of common interests. For domestic reasons, the Saudis have decided that relying on Americans to provide physical and strategic security isn’t working anymore, and has, paradoxically, increased the risks to the royal family’s survival, not decreased them. The logic of the relationship has been turned on its head. Impressive signs of Saudi seriousness of purpose in rooting out domestic cells of al-Qaida today do not mitigate the fact that the Saudi government has to accept responsibility for decades of appeasement of religious intolerance that led to extremist behavior against the United States in particular.

The Saudis are a more autonomous player for a second reason, the great geopolitical shift that is occurring due to the changes in the energy marketplace. The rise of Asian consumers who are already matching the west makes the Saudis less susceptible to leverage or pressure from their western partners. The sense of economic interdependence with the west that constrained Saudi decisionmaking is attenuating, and one can easily imagine over the coming decade a more evenly balanced set of “special” relationships between Saudi Arabia and its key customers, probably absent the security guarantees that were implicit in the US-Saudi strategic partnership born of Saudi vulnerability and American geostrategic interest.

On the domestic front, more autonomy does not make the policy choices any easier. The Saudis are now sowing what they reaped, over decades of official support for a clerical establishment that preached Wahabism at home and occasionally abroad. Whether the traditional clerics can be held accountable for the emergence of al-Qaida is perhaps worthy of debate, but it seems that today, the Islamic legitimacy of the royal family, long tied to those clerics, is being questioned by some portion of Saudi society, who now seem torn between supporting the status quo and drifting to the appeal of a new, more radical vision of an Islamic state. The high oil price windfall can be used by the state to try to win back citizens through generous welfare services and support.

The Saudis had already faced challenges based on religion and legitimacy in 1979 with the Iranian Islamic Revolution and the takeover of Mecca’s Grand Mosque by Sunni dissidents. Then, the regime answered with tough measures against the dissidents but also accommodated the demands of the more conservatively inclined clerics for more control over social mores. Today, they have demonstrated resolve in combating the Al-Qaeda-linked violence, but have also resorted to other tactics such as amnesties to militants who surrendered in 2004 and questioning the Islamic legitimacy of their enemies, lumping attackers with “Zionists,” as Abdallah himself did in 2004. King Abdallah, generally considered less corrupt than many of his half-brothers, will need to show whether these measures restore the legitimacy of the family and of the current system in the eyes of a silent majority of Saudis. Can the new King balance the policy of coercion and cooptation of the religious right, with a policy that credibly promotes reform that would meet expectations of Saudi modernists and of the west? It is true that Saudi liberals and reformers do not have as much leverage over the politics of the Kingdom as the radical troublemakers do, but if King Abdallah genuinely wants reform, he needs Saudi modernists to work with him.

This existential struggle for the Islamic identity of the state and society is of course playing out alongside the equally gripping drama of Iraq. For King Abdallah, one presumes that the lesson of Iraq is that implementing democracy too fast is a very dangerous thing. It validates the incremental – some would say tentative – reform strategy. The Saudis must worry a lot about civil war in Iraq. They fear Shia triumphalism that would be tantamount to having another Iran as a neighbor. Will Iran or a Shia-dominant Iraq try to stir up Shia discontent in the Kingdom, despite Abdallah’s efforts to bring Shia intellectuals and leaders into constructive national dialogue? The Saudis’ ability to connect with their presumed natural ally, the Sunnis, is impaired by the Saddam legacy, the 1990 rift, and the mistrust of Ba’athists and the insurgency. Angry Iraqi Sunnis almost certainly do not want Saudi help. Perhaps the most important thing Abdallah could do to help Iraq is to stop young Saudis from joining the ranks of the insurgency.

Finally, the Iranian nuclear problem is another headache for King Abdallah, but one where his policy options are severely limited. The Saudi-Iranian rapprochement of the 1990s is still in tact at one level, but does not buy the Saudis any assurances if Iran, for extra-regional reasons, is intent on acquiring the bomb. The King, should he be convinced that outcome is inevitable, will need to consider his own options, including activating what may be some secret strategic plans of his own.

The role the new King will play is heavily influenced by how he is perceived domestically and internationally. Abdallah was a key driver of Saudi foreign policy for the past ten years: he initiated the rapprochement with Iran and loosened ties with the United States. He enjoys real credibility at home and abroad. His relations with his half-brothers, his ability to manage religion and reform at the same time, and his own sang-froid in the face of these daunting challenges will determine the outcomes.

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