Archive for October 24th, 2013

The Saudis are the Problem

President Obama with Saudi King Abdullah

President Obama with Saudi King Abdullah

Apparently the Saudis are upset with the US.   We aren’t doing enough to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria and we’re thawing the strained relationship with Iran.   The Saudis prefer Iran remain an international outcast and that we dispose of Iran’s Syrian ally.

The Saudis have feared Iran since the revolution in 1979, and see Assad’s Syria as a disruptive force, supporting terrorism and aiding Iran. Understandable.   What the Saudis don’t get is that the whole international system is in a state of fundamental transformation and they are not going to be able to survive it due to a fundamental problem with their regime: it is rooted in a deep conservative ethos.

Note I’m using “conservative” in its real meaning here, not the political meaning in the US.   The Saudis are desperately afraid of change because it could cause the Kingdom to unravel.    The conservatism is seen in their flag, which simply reads “there is no God but God and Muhammad is his messenger, underlined by a sword:


The Kingdom has nearly 30 million citizens, half of them under 21.   The population has been growing at breakneck speed even as oil wealth prevents the kind of poverty and anger that drove the Egyptian Arab Spring.  Yet they can’t employ their youth because their economy is still based almost completely on oil.   Even if they get a government created jobs or money to pay rent and live, the lack of a purpose or future creates a psychological dependency.   These youth are the prime target of extremists who promise glory, a clear mission, and some kind of meaning for an otherwise drab existence.

Saudi history shows the problem.   King Abdul Aziz captured Riyadh in 1910 as the Ottoman Empire was collapsing.   Fighting with the British against the Turks in WWI, Aziz managed to expand his reach and by 1933 controlled what is now the Saudi Kingdom.  To insure stability the royal family made a deal with the Wahhabi clerics – they would allow the clerics to define religious teachings in exchange for their political support.   Wahhabi theology is severely conservative.   It is not extremist in a Bin Laden sense — there is no desire to fight the West or for political upheaval — but it envisions society in  a cultural deep freeze.    For them, “progress” is a dirty word.

The anti-progressive nature of the clerics is why women in Saudi Arabia still have to shop at female only shopping malls, cannot drive cars, and walk five paces behind their husband.   The Wahhabis oppose music, pictures of humans and any religious innovation.   Many educated in the West would like to open things up, but that risks enraging the clerics.  They note that Saudi Arabia is home to Mecca, the holiest city in Islam and a desired destination of every Muslim for a pilgrimage at least once in their lives.

The Kabbah filled with Muslim pilgrims

The Kabbah filled with Muslim pilgrims

On November 20, 1979 an extremist group attacked the Kabbah in Mecca – the holiest relic in all Islam, and a place where non-Muslims are not allowed to enter.   The Saudis quietly had to ask for French assistance, meaning that non-Muslims came armed to clear out the rebels.  From then on the Saudis have focused on building a rigid, ruthless and ubiquitous secret police.   They rank second behind North Korea in terms of repression.

Osama Bin Laden and most of the hijackers on 9-11 came from Saudi Arabia.   The growing resentments and the demographic trends mean the anachronistic and hyper-conservative regime cannot last.    Sooner or later something has to give.    Moreover their entire economy depends on oil, and many think that oil production in Saudi Arabia may decline.   Already the US, thanks to new finds, has replaced Saudi Arabia as the number one producer of oil and gas for the first time since the early 70s.

So the conservative regime hangs on.   They maintain repression at home because they don’t know what else to do.   They see foreign policy in similar terms.   They prefer an extremist theocracy in Iran that is held at bay than a successful progressive democracy.   Democracy there could spread, or Iran could challenge the Saudis on other fronts.   They’re not sure, but they don’t want to try anything new.

In Syria they simply want Assad gone so that they can help shape the post-Assad regime.   They would prefer the US arm rebels the Saudis can influence, and support Saudi efforts to remake Syria.   Given how addicted we are to their oil, they can’t understand why we don’t join them in something they see of utmost importance.

Syrian fighting is intense, but not something we can "fix"

Syrian fighting is intense, but not something we can “fix”

The US should not buckle to Saudi pressure.   It’s in our interest to get a nuclear agreement with Iran, and to help the country get back on track to slowly building a functioning democracy.   Iran’s population is far more modern than its government, and unlike the Saudis the Iranian government has allowed considerable social and political progress.    There is no reason to define them as a permanent enemy.

The US also is doing the right thing on Syria – backing a peace conference, working with other countries to develop the capacity to end the fighting that has killed over 100,000 people so far.   It’s not in the US interest to intervene (look what that got is in Iraq) or take sides with particular members of the opposition.  It is in our interest to have a stable transfer of power in a process that is clear than to have Assad fall and whoever has the most guns grab power.

So the Saudis should be politely told that we do not share their opinion, and we make our foreign policy decisions based on American interests, not Saudi ones.   Oil is a global commodity, there is no need to fear the Saudis will retaliate by cutting oil supplies.  We also need to let them know that we don’t see the Royal Family holding an iron tight grip on the Kingdom forever.    We need to condemn Saudi repression and pressure them to think about making fundamental changes to their society and country.  They’re afraid if they do everything will fall apart.   But if they don’t, ten years from now we may be watching the Saudi secret police and military crack down on rebels with the same kind of ruthlessness as the Assad regime is now showing.



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