Courting Fitnah: Saudi responses to the Arab Uprisings

By Augustus Richard Norton, Boston University

* This memo was prepared for the “Visions of Gulf Security” workshop, March 9, 2014.

The logic and impact of Saudi interventions in Bahrain, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria suggest a state pursuing confounding aims with improvised, if not impulsive policies. It is often asserted that the instability-averse Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a status quo power, but recent Saudi actions suggest that it seeks to undermine the status quo. Rather than revealing an aversion to instability, the kingdom has fed instability by radicalizing minority Arab Shiite populations in the Gulf, supporting proxy forces involved in armed struggle and, at least until recently, turning a blind eye to the recruitment of Saudis to join al Qaeda-affiliated groups outside Saudi borders. Referring to the interior minister, Madawi al-Rasheed wryly notes: “To put it bluntly, the prince did not succeed in eliminating terror; he simply pushed it away to countries like Yemen, Iraq, and now Syria and Lebanon.”

There are obvious security challenges in the Saudi neighborhood, including the continuing struggles underway in Yemen, persistent demonstrations in Bahrain, and the failure of the Iraqi government in Baghdad to broadly legitimate its power, but Saudi Arabia has not been an innocent bystander in any of these cases.

Recently revived fears in the Saudi hierarchy of mujahideen coming home to roost prompted the announcement of long prison sentences for Saudi nationals traveling abroad to fight for groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. Thus, the Saudi government is in the bizarre position of attempting to proscribe activities that are prescribed by the ideology that shapes the state and legitimates the regime.

Saudi efforts to recalibrate its materiel support in Syria, among other things, by sponsoring the creation of a rival Islamist militia, Jaish al-Islam, in contradistinction to Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have been inconsequential in impact. The loose command structures, the fungibility of allegiance and membership, and the proliferation of side deals between militia groups, suggest the limits of Saudi influence on the ground (or of other external players for that matter). The ad hoc systems of arms dispersals by the Saudis, Qataris, Turks and, to a limited degree, the United States contribute to the disjointed order of battle of the opposition. Distinctions between “terrorist” and “non-terrorist” groups are sometimes arguable at best, as illustrated by the fact that the Saudi-endorsed Jaish al-Islam is known to have joined Jabhat al-Nusra in opprobrious attacks on civilians.

It is instructive that while Saudi Arabia is committed to the toppling of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and company, it has been sparing in its contributions to humanitarian groups attempting to relieve the suffering of millions of displaced Syrians. For instance, in 2013, the kingdom donated less than $12 million to the U.N. refuge agency UNHCR – in contrast to Kuwait, which donated $112 million). (The revised 2013 UNHCR budget for the Middle East, much of it Syria related, was nearly $1.5 billion.)

The vast majority of the one million Syrian refugees seeking sanctuary in Lebanon are Sunni Muslims (more than a quarter of Lebanon’s population prior to 2011 were Sunnis; today the proportion is certainly more than a third). Lebanon has been an important focus of Saudi involvement with the goal of buttressing the Sunni community and undercutting the Shiite militia Hezbollah, which is the most formidable military force in the country.

Saudi funds have buttressed the Lebanese Central Bank, and a recently announced $3 billion grant will fund a renovation of the Lebanese army. Any calculation for the potential impact of that comparatively large sum should begin with the fact that the Lebanese army devours a large proportion of state funds for salaries, benefits, and amenities for officers, which leaves little for basic needs. The army will now be able to acquire weapon systems, such as low-end jet fighters, from France, which the United States has not been willing to provide; U.S. arms transfers are minutely calibrated to avoid posing any threat to Israel, or to challenge Israel’s capacity to routinely violate Lebanese air and sea space. One military component that will benefit from Saudi funding will be the 12,000 special operations troops, which are now poorly equipped to cope with the increased security challenges emanating from the Syrian civil war.

One benefit of beefing up the army is that it would weaken the rationale for Hezbollah to engage in internal policing, as it now does along the Lebanese-Syrian border in the governate of the north, a prime area for recruitment to groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Jaish al-Islam. While strengthening the Lebanese army is meritorious, supporters of Hezbollah are quick to note that they must rely on the militia to defend them against Israel because the army lacks the ability to deter an attack by the Israeli Defense Forces.

There have been episodes of the army engaging internal forces, this occurred in the period following the Israeli invasion of 1982 and General Michel Aoun’s campaign against the Lebanese Forces at the end of the same decade, but in Lebanese senior officer ranks these forays are well-understood object lessons that counsel reticence about deploying the army – in which the rank and file are predominantly Sunni and Shiite – in campaigns against formidable militias such as Hezbollah.

Lebanon has felt Saudi influence in another significant respect, and that is through the transnational impact of Saudi origin militant Salafism, which is quite evident in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city. Tripoli and the Muhafazah (governate) of the north have become a cauldron of anti-Shiite enmity. Tripoli is now an important center for recruitment to fight in Syria (a book in progress by Bernard Rougier offers rich ethnographic detail on the topic). Militant figures, often straight out of Saudi prisons have made their way to Tripoli and the surrounding areas. As a minimum, rather than keeping tabs on militants, Saudi security officials seem to look the other way as the militants slip through the exit turnstiles.

Meantime, relations between Riyadh and Washington are strained and chilly, in large measure because of the initial U.S. embrace of the Arab awakenings as well as the forward momentum in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran. There appears to be a deep sense of frustration in the royal chambers. Saudi options are limited given its inextricable security dependence on the United States. There has been a fair amount of speculation and piffle about the possibility of Saudi Arabia and other regional states pursuing their own nuclear programs if Iranian nuclear capabilities remain substantially intact, which is likely. The nuclear option provides some negotiating leverage vis-à-vis the United States and other powers, but the Iranian program is a reminder of the economy of scale that a credible program presumes quite aside from the strategic disincentives and risks of going nuclear.

Vali Nasr argues in a recent commentary that the Saudis are angry about U.S. negotiations with Iran and the stated intention of the United States to pivot its attention to Asia. He argues that the United States needs to work to satiate Saudi apprehensions, for instance by moving to resolve the Syrian civil war. The fact of the matter is that short of capitulating to the regime’s worldview, there is little chance of the Saudis’ anger being mitigated by the United States as long as Washington is pursuing a diplomatic solution with Iran. When President Barrack Obama visits King Abdullah in late March it will be a surprise of historic proportions if the two sides are able to do more than paper over their profound differences, even after a recent preparatory visit to Washington by Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayef (who is hardly a herald of reconciliation).

It is Iran’s quest of hegemony that focuses the mind of the royal family, and much as Cold War era U.S. leaders were fixated on the Soviet threat, so the Saudis have a penchant for reading events through Persian-tinted lenses. It is Iran’s quest of hegemony that focuses the mind of the royal family. This was accentuated when the Sunni-dominated Iraqi regime was supplanted by a quintessential Shiite regime with, need we add, the key assistance of an Anglo-American invasion and occupation. That Iran was the major geopolitical beneficiary of the invasion is obvious. It is indicative of Saudi contempt for the current Iraqi government in Baghdad that 11 years after the toppling of the Baathist regime Saudi Arabia still lacks a resident ambassador in Baghdad. (The Saudi ambassador to Jordan is also accredited to Iraq, but he is not seen in Baghdad according to Iraqi officials who would know.)

If the kingdom is unhappy with the geostrategic cards being played by the United States and its European allies, its intrinsic insecurity was also awakened by the Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia. The deep-seated insecurity that marks the Saudi regime is hardly unique either in the Arab world, or more broadly in authoritarian states around the globe. Despite the obvious differences between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for instance, the penchant of the former Mubarak regime and the present Saud regime to dole out relatively meaningless reforms while keeping a firm grip on power is striking.

While the particularities vary, the defining principle of these regimes has been après moi le luge, which is to say even allowing a small crack in the dam is potentially calamitous. Hence, there is a record of periodic cosmetic domestic “reforms,” often packaged in pretty paper for foreign observers while seen by citizens and subjects as unimportant. “Reforms” undergirded by sweeping prohibitions on public assembly and even tepid dissent are contradictions in terms. (The pattern is well demonstrated in Egypt under the tutelage of Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.) So long as peacefully challenging the power structure exposes “violators” to draconian punishments or disproportionate retribution the incentives for violence are obvious.

The neurotic response of Riyadh to calls for political reforms at home is somewhat paradoxical. Although a few scholars anticipate the fall of the Arabian Peninsula monarchies – Christopher Davidson, author of After the Sheikhs, springs to mind – this possibility seems a distant prospect, at best. In this respect, Gregory Gause’s assessment may have it right, which is to say that the Gulf monarchies are not culturally predestined or necessarily more adept at running economies or implementing economic efficiencies, but they are also not “one bullet” regimes. A large network of inter-married princely families assures that familiar hands pull a variety of levers of power, as well as hold ample purses to reward compliance. Equally important, insofar as the demands of discontented Saudis are voiced, there is little appetite for regime change, even among Saudi youth.

In the uprisings in the Maghrib and the Mashriq, young men and women played a seminal role in demonstrations. The motivations of these multitudes of young people are not hard to fathom. This is a generation that faces limited job prospects, curtailed marriage opportunities, and corrupt, unresponsive politics. In an excellent monograph, An Uncertain Future (2013) Chloe Mulderig aptly notes that this is a generation confronting “adulthood denied.”

There is a different profile in Saudi Arabia. The respected journalist Caryle Murphy lived from more than a year in the kingdom to research A Kingdom’s Future (2013). She interviewed many Saudi youths and certainly encountered complaints and yearnings for change. Even so, her respondents revealed great trepidation about following the paths of revolutionaries in Tunisia, Egypt, or Yemen, not to mention Iraq. Among her interlocutors stability was highly valued; unlike young Egyptians and Tunisians they do not want regime change, but reform and improvement in life’s circumstances.

Of course, Saudi Arabia has demonstrated a keen intolerance for protests, and doubly so in the case of the minority Shiite population, which is often subjected to harsh punishments. In recent weeks, protesters in Qatif have been tossed in prison for 20 years for having the temerity to protest publically. The Shiite Saudis are not merely anomalous in the Wahhabi worldview, but they are regularly portrayed as stalking horses for Iran. In fact, the historical affinities of the Saudi Shiite population of the Eastern Province are to the Arab Shiite (Baharna) of Bahrain, Kuwait, and Iraq. The hawza of Najaf, Iraq looms far larger that the domes of Qum, Iran and the leading jurisconsults in recent years have been Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of Najaf and the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah of Beirut, Lebanon. Most demands for meaningful accountability and expanded personal rights in Saudi Arabia are seen as a potential security threat, but this is particularly so of Hasawi demands, which are perceived, as Fred Wehrey notes, as Iran-supported demands.

This was certainly so in Bahrain in March 2011, when Saudi troops accompanied by a convoy of UAE troops intervened to attempt to write finish to popular demonstrations and a U.S. mediated reform initiative. The initiative would have shifted Bahrain toward a constitutional monarchy and enhanced the standing of Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa while expanding the rights of the majority Shiite community. The intervention was facilitated with the collusion of long-serving Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Khalifa (“Mister Ten Percent” is a common moniker of Bahrainis speaking privately), who is no advocate of reform. The operative principle for the Saudi monarch, a Gulf diplomat observed, is that no diminishment in the power of a monarch will be permitted. Bahraini and the Saudi officials alleged (largely non-existent) links between moderate reformists in Bahrain and Iran. Indeed, the best evidence for Iranian meddling was an inopportune visit to Beirut (including meetings with Hezbollah officials) by officials of al-Haq, the radical opponent of the mainstream al-Wefaq. The predictable subsequent radicalization of the majority Baharna is marshaled by Saudi Arabia and its allies to validate its narrative. Even if unconfirmed recent reports of tripartite Saudi-Iranian-U.S. talks in Oman prove accurate, the status quo in Bahrain is unlikely to change significantly.

The Saudi regime is intent on solidifying its sphere of influence, as demonstrated in its recent effort to ostracize Qatar for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and other sins. The UAE and ever-obedient Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar, and succeeded in revealing a decisive, perhaps fatal crack in the Gulf Cooperation Council. This coincided with Riyadh’s declaration that the Muslim Brotherhood (and some affiliated groups such as Hamas) is a terrorist organization, which provides yet another bludgeon to wield against both domestic opponents and many who resist the coup d’etat in Egypt.

In Riyadh, the uprisings that began in Tunis merely were a prelude to chaos, which is certainly arguable. Yet, Saudis have proven quite willing to make their own contributions to chaos.

Augustus Richard Norton,, is a professor of anthropology and international relations at Boston University. His latest publication is the forthcoming third edition of Hezbollah: A Short History (Princeton University Press, May 2014).

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