Saudis’ New Mideast Challenges

Saudis’ New Mideast Challenges

With the upheavals in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia must grapple with a changing political landscape, including Salafis participating in elections, says F. Gregory Gause. At the same time, he says the country remains vested in curbing Iranian influence in Arab affairs.

December 9, 2011 4:34 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Though Saudi Arabia has avoided the political upheaval seen in the region in the past year, the country must still deal with the changing political landscape. F. Gregory Gause, a long-time Saudi expert, says the choice by Egyptian Salafis to participate in elections this month might lead prominent Salafis in Saudi Arabia to call for an elected legislature. Though the United States and Saudi Arabia have disagreed over events in Bahrain and Egypt, Gause says, "they are pretty much together on a number of other issues in the region right now," including Iran. He notes that "almost every place that the Saudis have contested with the Iranians for influence in the past five or six years, they’ve lost." Thus a regime change in Damascus, he says, "would be a real blow to Iranian power and influence in the Arab world."

You’ve just done a report on Saudi Arabia in the new Middle East, that is, Saudi Arabia in the time of the Arab Spring. During this time, of course, there have been a lot of questions about the future Saudi leadership. The current ruler, King Abdullah, is eighty-seven. What do we know about Crown Prince Nayef, possibly his successor?

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It’s hard to say. The crown prince, Prince Sultan, died very recently, and Prince Nayef (WSJ), who’s the long-serving interior minister, was elevated in October and became crown prince. The reputations for the Saudi princes tend to be based on the jobs that they’ve held before they become king. Nayef has been, in essence, the head policeman since 1975, so his reputation is of a tough guy, very conservative, close to the religious establishment. But we have to remember that King Abdullah’s reputation before he became king was also conservative, close to the tribes. When these princes become king, it’s possible that they can get rid of their past reputation.

At the time of the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, there was press speculation (Fox) that the Saudis were furious at Washington for not sticking by Mubarak. The Saudis, of course, had offered him political exile, as they had given to President Ben Ali of Tunisia, which Mubarak did not accept. Is that a real tension between the two countries or is that overblown?

It’s a real tension but not a crisis. At roughly the same time, you also had another serious division between the United States and Saudi Arabia over Bahrain. The Saudis sent in troops at a time when the United States was trying to broker a deal between the crown prince of Bahrain and the leading opposition group. So the Saudis and the United States were definitely not on the same page on Egypt or Bahrain, but that the severity of the differences has receded. The Saudis definitely have a different view of democratization in the Middle East than the Obama administration does, but it seems that both sides have come to an understanding. The United States really isn’t talking that much about Bahrain these days, and the Saudis are, as realists, coming to accommodate themselves with the changes in Egypt. The United States and the Saudis are pretty much together on a number of other issues in the region right now, like Syria and Yemen.

How do the Saudis feel about the success of the Islamist parties in the first round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections?

If you’ve got major Salafi groups coming around to wanting to participate in democracy, that’s something that in the longer term might be very troubling to the Saudis.

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It’s a really interesting dynamic here. On the one hand, you would assume that the Saudis would be happy that Islamist groups, both Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood, did so well in the first round. In Egypt, it’s almost an article of faith that the Salafis get lot of money from the Gulf, although I haven’t seen any hard evidence of that, but I think it’s more complicated. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudis have a long history, and it’s been not completely cooperative. In fact, Crown Prince Nayef has publically and on more than one occasion criticized the Brotherhood, basically saying that it’s the Brotherhood that brought all these bad ideas--that is to say al-Qaeda ideas--into Saudi Arabia. So he has no love for the Brotherhood, at least publically.

Al-Qaeda did come from Egypt.

At least part of it. The Salafi question is even more interesting. On the one hand, the Saudis are happy to see their brand of Islam doing so well in other places. They’ve spent decades and lots of money to promote their brand of Islam. But here’s the rub. The Salafis in Egypt have decided to participate in a democratic process--to run for elections and go into parliament. For years, the Salafi movement in general was very anti-democratic. They said, "We don’t need elections, we don’t need parliaments. We’ve got the law from God and we don’t need this human innovation of democracy." If you’ve got major Salafi groups coming around to wanting to participate in democracy, that’s something that in the longer term might be very troubling to the Saudis. There might be some signs that this year, with all the upheaval and the activism, some prominent Salafis in Saudi Arabia itself might have signed petitions calling for an elected legislature in Saudi Arabia. So if you get the Salafis--basically, much like the Muslim Brotherhood has in recent years--coming around to saying, "Well yes, democracy, elections, these are good things," it will make it harder and harder down the line for the Saudis to resist that.

In Saudi Arabia, there were reported tensions in the Eastern Province with the Shiite population in the spring. Are things any better now? On YouTube, young Saudi dissidents have tried to publicize the fact that there’s a lot of unemployment and people living in poverty. Is there a lot of discontent in Saudi Arabia?

We have to separate out the Shiite issue in the Eastern Province from more general issues of discontent. In the Eastern Province, those were the biggest demonstrations in Saudi Arabia, back in the spring. There have been other demonstrations. There were incidents with the death of some protesters, even in the last few weeks. The situation in Bahrain increases tensions in the Eastern Province because there’s a lot of family connections there, and the whole sectarian issue of Sunni and Shiite is most prominent in the Eastern Province, where so many of the Saudi Shiites live. But so far, and I think this will hold, the protests in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia haven’t had any effect in other parts of Saudi Arabia, because of the sectarian differences.

[A]lmost every place that the Saudis have contested with the Iranians for influence in the past five or six years, they’ve lost. Lebanon, Iraq, even in Palestine.

Now there is a larger issue of discontent here. You mentioned the YouTube videos, and this discontent is as much economic as it is anything else. This is what the Saudi government tried to address with its promises back in February and March of a massive spending campaign. One of the big issues is housing. The government has promised to try to produce five hundred thousand new housing units, because the vast majority of Saudis rent. That’s considered a burden, obviously, especially in a country that has a relatively high per capita income and has enormous wealth in general. There is economic discontent that revolves around this issue. Housing revolves around inflation, and those are the things that the government was trying to get at back in the spring with these promises. That’s a performance issue. We’ll see how they do. I don’t think that’s likely to be converted into a large political movement against the regime right now, but it’s a troublesome issue that they have to get on top of.

Clearly the Saudis are very worried about the Iranians, as is the United States, particularly on the nuclear front. In the report, you recommend strong U.S. assurances to the Saudis and the other Gulf states about a continued U.S. military presence, even as we leave Iraq. What can be done?

This is a very sensitive and difficult issue because we don’t have that many levers. That there’s a lot of talk in Saudi Arabia about what they would do if Iran were to acquire a nuclear capability. The point man on this discussion is the former Saudi ambassador, former head of foreign intelligence in Saudi Arabia, Prince Turki al-Faisal, who has basically said that if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia is going to have to consider that option. They don’t really have a serious domestic nuclear industry, so it would have to be via a relationship with another country. Almost everybody who looks at this issue thinks Pakistan is the most likely source. So if the Iranians do it, the Saudis will be very inclined to do it, and it would take quite a bit of American diplomacy to try to stop that. It has to start now, because if it waits until the Iranians cross the threshold, if that’s what they do, then it might be too late.

Lastly, on Syria. Clearly the Saudis are very interested in what happens in Syria, which would have a repercussion in Lebanon. Are the Saudis actively supporting the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad?

There’s certainly rhetorical support. The Saudi newspapers are full of op-eds strongly supporting the opposition and castigating Assad and the Syrian government. What the Saudi government is doing is not clear on the ground. My assumption is that if members of the opposition in Syria want money and support and even guns, they can probably get them from Saudi Arabia. I don’t have any evidence that there’s a big Saudi push in that direction, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were happening. Publicly, the Saudis have, in effect, called for Assad to step down and have supported the Arab League resolutions against him. As I said, the Saudi press, which in many ways reflects government thinking, is even more harsh in the way they talk about Assad and the Syrian government. For the Saudis, Syria is a really interesting point because almost every place that the Saudis have contested with the Iranians for influence in the past five or six years, they’ve lost. Lebanon, Iraq, even in Palestine. You know, the Saudis tried to get Hamas and Fatah together back in ’07 and it fell apart, and Hamas took over Gaza and the Iranians have been much more supportive of Hamas. So I think for the Saudis, a regime change in Damascus would be a real blow to Iranian power and influence in the Arab world.


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