The Saudi Arabian Porcupine and the Spring in the Desert

By Riccardo Dugulin – 10 December 2011

In the course of the first weeks of autumn, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia went through a number of events which largely altered its perception of the regional strategic balance.  On October 8th President Ali Abdallah Saleh stated once more he would leave power in ‘coming days’ amid further protests and violence in Yemen. On October 12, an alleged terrorist plot lead by Iranian secret agents was unfolded in Washington as a hit squad was preparing the assassination of Adel Al Jubeir, Saudi Ambassador to the US. On October 21st President Obama declared that all US troops will be leaving Iraq by January 2012, thus leaving the Iraqi armed forces as the only responsible for the sovereignty and security of their country. On October 22, Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud died. At the age of 80, he had been the longest serving minister of defense and Crown Prince since 2005. In addition to that, Jordan is undergoing substantial political troubles, Bahrain is still rocked by unrest and the tensions between Israel and the Palestinians are increasing. On November 7th the IAEA stated in a special report that Iran may be able to produce atomic weapons within months, as the news is reported the Islamic Republic maintains an aggressive stance while the political establishment is undergoing a serious crisis that may sideline President Ahmadinajad. Both internally and externally, the Sunni powerhouse is experiencing an ensemble of events that greatly hinder its stability. Having gone through the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and both Iraq wars, Saudi Arabia should view the present set of crisis through an already well tested foreign policy grid, yet as the military intervention in Bahrain showed, the Kingdom is feeling vulnerable and it is willing of taking steps it wouldn’t have ten years ago to guarantee its own stability.

The lingering question is if Saudi Arabia is in fact safe or if it is facing serious strategic threats.

Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the siege of Mecca by Juhayman ibn Muhammad ibn Sayf al-Otaibi in the same year, the Saudi establishment has developed a special concept regarding national security. The line between external and internal threats is slightly blurred as both are considered as attempts to destabilize the country through an overt or covert campaign aimed at overthrowing the Al Saud rule.

External threats: Al Saud’s “Iranian nemesis”

Saudi Arabia considers its strategic situation as hindered by the Iranian expansionist ambitions. An arm race coupled with protracted proxy wars and small scale covert operations are at the base of the current Arab-Persian “cold war”. As stated by Jonathan Rule in his recent Foreign Affairs article, one of the greatest threats Saudi Arabia is experiencing comes from the enhanced outreach of the Iranian Navy. Both its conventional and unconventional branches are able to conduct disruptive operations in the Gulf and in out of area engagements. None of the GCC state is able to counter such capabilities through domestic military resources; only the continued US assistance may guarantee the security of the Strait of Hormuz and other major oil and gas supply lines. Much have been written concerning the $60 billion Saudi arm deal with the US in 2010 as it marked a new record in the Kingdom defense spending. In 2011, the deal was upgraded by a third to further enhance Saudi defense capabilities. The $90 billion deal is meant to develop the Saudi Air Force, its Navy and its missile defense capabilities, areas which put the Kingdom in direct competition with Teheran. Yet, regardless of the budget allocated to military spending, the House of Saud knows that in a direct confrontation with Iranian conventional forces, only the US help may tip the balance. In fact, the 2009-2010 Saudi intervention on the Yemeni border has demonstrated that Saudi forces still lack the experience to mount large scale operations. Such an uneven balance may further deteriorate for the Kingdom as Iran may be close to acquire a nuclear device.

Furthermore, Iranian adventurism will be boosted by the planned withdrawal of US forces in 2012 from Iraq. As Tehran may very well be on the verge of losing one of its key allies in the region, Bashar Al Assad, and with the road to Baghdad controlled by inexperienced Iraqi forces, Iran will attempt to regain a foothold in its closer Arab neighbors. With Iranian interferences in Yemen, via the support of the Outhi rebellion, and the attempted interference to destabilize the peaceful nature of protests in Bahrain, and in Iraq with Moqtada Al Sadr being an unofficial spokesman for Tehran, Saudi Arabia will perceive itself as being de facto surrounded by Iranian proxies. The perception of the Saudis is that of an Iranian “nemesis” whose sole goal is to weaken Al Saud’s rule over the Arabian peninsula.

Internal threats: a spring in the desert?

The feeling of being cornered by Iranian forces cannot be separated from the perception the royal family has of the ongoing period of change in the Middle East. What is most preoccupying for the ruling elite is that the only minor events that may be compared to Arab protests, took place in the Eastern provinces of the country, where a Shiite majority lives in areas known to have some of world’s largest oil fields. Over the past months, Shiites, which have long been marginalized in the Sunni kingdom, staged peaceful protests demanding greater rights and representation. In November, authorities clamped down on one of the largest protests to date, killing at least two people and arresting hundreds. Previously, and as a response to the first signs of social unrest, King Abdullah Ibn Abulaziz offered large cash bonuses to different parts of the state bureaucracy.

The fear of the ruling dynasty is that a movement calling for the fall of the House of Saud may benefit from outside assistance to start a campaign of political motivated unrest. Taking into consideration the troubles that the royal family is experiencing due to the upcoming succession of King Abdullah, the political class is wary of any sign of protest or unwelcomed change. Reforms in the Kingdom are seen as a slow process which must come after years of adjustment and which provides an outcome acceptable to a great majority of social actors. The conservative Kingdom has been taken by surprise by the Arab revolts, and by Washington’s relatively blurred reaction. The invitation for Morocco and Jordan to join the GCC is to some extent an attempt to take the upper hand in a situation, which was not controlled at its inception. Since the revolt in 1927 and the Siege of Mecca in 1979, the Saudi leadership has seen popular unrest as a direct threat to their rule over the country. Reforms are mostly a top-down process, if effective. Through that perspective, an aging royal family does not only see its country surrounded by regular and irregular forces of its direct military competitor, but it also feels threatened by what it considers troublesome revolutions and events that do not serve the cause of its Kingdom’s stability.

Conclusion: the Saudi Arabian porcupine

External and internal events lead to one conclusion; Saudi Arabia does not consider itself safe from regional threats. Continuously endangered by Iranian expansionism, watching on the side line a possible Israeli intervention over its Persian neighbor and trying to maintain the regional status quo, keeps the Saudi ruling class on the defensive. The question is why does it matter, as the whole Middle East is going through a period of changes? The argument of oil should not stand alone regarding the reason why Saudi security should be preserved. It is certain that, from China to the US, international markets depend on the Saudi capacity to feed their industrialized societies with oil, but preserving the Kingdom from being overrun by its regional enemies may be linked to other rationales. Defense cooperation and not only defense spending is a matter that keeps Saudi Arabia in the heart of the ‘Western’ world’s preoccupations. From another aspect, following its national priorities, the Kingdom has been playing since reign of King Abdullah ibn Abdulziz a role of mediator in international affairs.

In a situation where the Middle East is looking for Arab power players to speak up and broker a new balance, Saudi Arabia may well play that role with Qatar. On a third level, which may be the most pressing one in the near future, an embattled Saudi Arabia may take more concrete actions against socio-political actors which do not accommodate its national interest. With Prince Nayef Bin Abdul Aziz being the new Crown Prince, a political transition is taking place inside the Kingdom. Previous periods of modern-day Saudi Arabia have taught the following lessons: when the Kingdom feels unsafe, conservative branches of the Royal family gain more power. Thus, if both internal and external threats continue to grow, the Kingdom may well reverse its current policy of slow pace socio-economical reforms and turn to a more reactionary stance. Much has been written about the nature of the conservative Kingdom and its abuses to human rights, yet in periods of peace and stability, changes are more possible. It is important not to forget that the period following the Iran-Iraq war and the Kuwaiti invasion led the Saudi elites to adopt far more conservative policies than they had done in previous decades.

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Filed under Arab Spring, English, Gulf states, Iran, Saudi Arabia

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