ANALYSIS: Saudi Arabia’s pre-emptive doctrine —S P Seth - Monday, March 21, 2011

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ANALYSIS: Saudi Arabia’s pre-emptive doctrine —S P Seth
The Saudi monarchy is hardly popular among its majority Sunni citizens. It has been tolerated out of the deep fear of being thrown into some dungeon, without due recourse to proper constitutional processes

After the relative ease of the people’s revolution in Tunisia and Egypt, things are not progressing straightforwardly in North Africa and the Middle East. The people are facing stiff resistance from their despotic rulers, which is not surprising because the march of history is never linear. There will always be twists, turns and setbacks. In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi’s regime is fighting back with great brutality to re-establish control over the eastern part of the country, with Benghazi as its nerve centre. The struggle in Libya appears to have entered a crucial stage, with the US and other western countries still undecided about how best to help the rebels.

In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, the royal family is trying to deal with the situation by a mix of bribing the people through financial largesse and using a big stick, particularly in the largely Shia populated eastern province, where the unrest is quite widespread and has led to the use of force by the Saudi security establishment. The eastern province is rich in oil, but its people have remained marginalised and discriminated against because of their Shia faith. Until now, they have been kept under tight control as second-class citizens. They have always been restive but, with the new revolutionary ferment enveloping the Middle East, they are now keen to breathe freely under a democratic dispensation.

In Saudi Arabia, therefore, the people’s struggle also has a sectarian tinge, with its Shia population seeking equal opportunities and democratic rule, as well as the freedom to practice their faith with their own mosques and rituals. The Shias constitute about 10 percent of the population, with most concentrated in the oil-rich eastern province. The Saudi ruling class is obsessed with sectarian divisions, particularly because of the perceived Iranian threat. They have been badly shaken by the popular upsurge in Bahrain, which is about 70 percent Shia. Its Sunni ruling dynasty has generally dealt with the Shia majority in a ham-handed and discriminatory way. And when the popular upsurge broke out there, Bahrain’s ruling establishment sought to deal with it through overwhelming force. This only further fuelled resistance, with the rebels demanding a democratic order. The violence of the regime has only intensified.

The situation in Bahrain has become even more explosive with the arrival of troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The rebels have called it “an overt occupation”. Iran has called the move an “occupation” and an “invasion”. The situation is further complicated because Iran has long regarded Bahrain as its territory, though this claim has been dormant for quite some time.

There are two issues here. First, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are connected by a 25 km causeway reaching into Saudi Arabia’s Shia-majority eastern province, where there have already been protests leading to the use of police force. Riyadh fears that Shia resistance on both sides of the causeway will feed on each other. And with Iran not far away from Bahrain, it will try to subvert Bahrain and the Gulf region. Shia Iran is Saudi Arabia’s ultimate nightmare, and there has been no love lost between the two countries. This was dramatised in the WikiLeaks cables, with the Saudi King urging the US to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Will Iran fish in troubled regional waters? It does not seem likely. First because Iran’s clerical establishment has enough on its plate as it is, with the opposition in the country mounting its own protests. Secondly, Iran has pretensions of being the leader of the Islamic world. Therefore, any open advocacy of a sectarian Shia cause would detract from its leadership aspirations. Third, any serious intervention by Iran will bring in the US, with its fifth fleet stationed there.

In any case, an overwhelming use of force against rebels, whether in Bahrain and/or Saudi Arabia, will be counterproductive. It is important to realise that, if cornered, only a small section of the rebels can wreck havoc on oil installations and US military bases. And this will have repercussions across the globe.

The Saudi monarchy is hardly popular among its majority Sunni citizens. It has been tolerated out of the deep fear of being thrown into some dungeon, without due recourse to proper constitutional processes. But with revolutionary ferment in the region, its people are prepared to test the waters. There have already been protests by hundreds of family members of those people jailed without charge to demand their release. This would not have happened without the revolutionary ferment in the region. The internet is buzzing with calls for staging rage rallies on the Egyptian model. In other words, people are shedding their fear. And that spells danger for the Saudi royals.

What is the response of the Saudi authorities? Predictably, they announced a $ 36 billion package of subsidies, etc. If the authorities were expecting an enthusiastic response from the citizenry for this gesture, that has certainly not happened. Indeed, the country’s leading intellectuals have reportedly warned that financial gestures, however big, are no substitute for real political reforms. According to Shadi Hamid from the Brookings Doha Centre, “The Saudi regime is learning all the wrong lessons from Egypt and Tunisia.” Because: “The unrest in the region is not fundamentally economic. It is fundamentally about politics.”

Economics certainly play a role. But, as Hamid says, “What the events of the past few months have shown us is that Arabs are looking for freedom, dignity and democracy and if the Saudi leadership cannot see that, then they are in trouble.” Saudi Arabia is a closed political system with all power vested in the ruling dynasty, with its myriad princes and relations. The kingdom has faced for many years an undercurrent of dissatisfaction from its citizens. The dynasty managed to make a partnership of sorts with the clerical establishment by buying its political silence in return for promoting and exporting religious orthodoxy of the Wahabi Islamic tradition with money and political patronage.

But the demographics and rising unemployment among the country’s youth are changing the situation in Saudi Arabia. Almost half the country’s population is reportedly under the age of 18, and 40 percent of the 20-24 year olds are said to be out of work. Many of the young are educated and connected to the world through social media like Facebook, Twitter, etc. With this kind of exposure to the outside world, living under an oppressive regime with near total social and political control is clearly weighing on the people. This is a recipe for disaster sooner or later, especially in the new revolutionary situation.

With such a combustible situation at home, one has to wonder why Saudi Arabia has taken on the mantle of saving Bahrain’s ruling family. Of course, they fear that the toppling of the Bahraini monarchy could have a ripple effect on the Saudi kingdom. This, therefore, looks like the Saudi application of former US President George Bush’s pre-emptive doctrine.

We all know what happened and is happening to Bush’s adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Moving Saudi troops into Bahrain does not look like a sensible strategy, and has the potential of plunging the region into an unthinkable disaster of global dimensions.

The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia. He can be reached at

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