In 1979, a group of religious zealots led by Juhayman al Uteybi stormed the Grand Mosque in Mecca to herald the dawn of a new, more intransigent Islamic age, leading to an existential crisis for the ruling family of Saudi Arabia. The theological and political challenge that Uteybi posed to the House of Saud was so tremendous that the royals were forced to obtain the blessing of influential clerics for an assault on the Mosque to dislodge the militants.
This episode of Saudi history is brilliantly recounted in Yaroslav Trofimov’s gripping book The Siege of Mecca. Ultimately, after a two-week-long stand-off, the House of Saud prevailed over Uteybi’s rebellion, but as princes cited by Trofimov bitterly admitted, “the ulema [they had turned to] essentially asked al Saud to adopt Juhayman’s agenda in exchange for their help in getting rid of Juhayman himself”.
Sadly, the trajectory of Saudi Arabia in the 1980s and the 1990s suggests that Saudi Arabia indeed altered its course to accommodate its most conservative elements. As the leading Saudi experts Afshin Molavi and Jean-Francois Seznec wrote, the terms of the bargain were too favourable to those who opposed genuine modernisation: “While the king and the civil service would still control the hardware – defence, finance, oil, and foreign policy – he essentially handed over the software – the education system and the courts – to conservative forces.” Saudi leaders would come to regret this compromise.
Today’s Saudi Arabia seems set on a wildly different course. While the hardware remains firmly in the hands of the ruling elites, the state is reasserting ownership of the “software” through gradual educational and judicial reform. Clerics are gradually losing their dominant say in courts and classrooms while the civil service and merchant class, the country’s lead reformers, are empowered.
Plainly, without the leadership of King Abdullah – whom many Saudis regret came to power too late – this progress would not have happened. At a time when his country was facing threats from radicals at home and challenges abroad, his personal credibility shifted the debate from whether the Saud family could still hold the reins of the country to whether the progress of the past few years will be sustained.
King Abdullah, 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. Since taking charge of the kingdom, he has demonstrated so. Abdullah now is a more independent actor than his predecessors, in part because the cozy security alliance with Washington has eroded considerably. A former US ambassador to Riyadh rather cheekily told me that the US is locked in a monogamous marriage with Saudi Arabia, but the Saudis can still pick three other partners.
Indeed, US-Saudi relations have changed since 9/11. For domestic reasons, the Saudis have decided that relying on Americans to provide physical and strategic security isn’t working any more, and has, paradoxically, increased the risks to the royal family’s survival, not decreased them. Confidence has weakened for regional reasons, too: the US has badly botched its Iraq project; seems unable to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, and incapable of securing Israeli acceptance of the Arab Peace Initiative, for which Abdullah put his personal prestige on the line.
Ironically, the logic of the relationship is now being turned on its head. It is doubtful that the US could have secured the cooperation of the Sunni Awakening Councils in Iraq without active Saudi participation. And on the two hottest battlefields against al Qa’eda today, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Saudi involvement is preciously needed to splinter the Taliban from the al Qa’eda core.
Saudi Arabia is a more autonomous player for a second reason: the great geopolitical shift that is occurring in the world. The rise of Asian consumers makes the Saudis less susceptible to leverage or pressure from their Western partners. One can already see a more evenly balanced set of “special” relationships between Saudi Arabia and its key customers, although it is doubtful that any of these new friends could provide the security guarantees that are implicit in the US-Saudi strategic partnership.
In his quest to diversify his alliances, Abdullah has reached out to Russia, a fierce enemy during its Communist days, China, whose boom greatly depends on energy from the Gulf, various Asian countries, and Europe. And, in an effort to cultivate goodwill abroad, Abdullah has embarked on a campaign toward non-Muslim religious leaders, meeting the Pope to the great but quiet dismay of fundamentalists at home.
When it comes to oil policy, Saudi Arabia has been the responsible actor. Now that global recession is in sight, Saudi Arabia realises the long-term risk of cutting production to sustain prices in the short-term as demanded by Iran and Venezuela. This certainly comes at a financial cost to the kingdom, but its financial power and ambitious industrial policies have just made it a key player in designing the new global economic landscape. Indeed, as far as world governance goes, with a $500 billion economy (the largest in the Middle East), large currency reserves and trade surplus, Saudi Arabia is now recognised as a pivotal power. The head of the World Bank even included it in the newly-envisaged Group of Fourteen.
The demons of Uteybi’s days continue to haunt Saudi Arabia, but this time, complacency and complicity have given way to a determined fight against extremism. Abdullah’s transformative reign has used modernisation to its best.