Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S.-Saudi relations

Will Saudi Arabia be Next to Fall?

After the Tunisian protesters sent Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, dictator for almost a quarter century, packing, the Central Intelligence Agency famously predicted the Arab revolt would not spread. Almost two years later, dictators have fallen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and a fifth appears on the ropes in Syria. Despite what regional experts and Arab autocrats hoped, the desire for freedom and liberty is contagious. So when Bashar al-Assad’s tenure ends with a bullet in his head or a broomstick in his bottom, what will be the next domino to fall?

There is no shortage of dissatisfaction across the Arab world. Just ask the Bahrainis. Tension is also high in Kuwait. Most Jordanians are seething at King Abdullah II and especially at the high-spending Queen Rania. But the next dynasty to fall may very well be the Saudi monarchy.

Saudi Arabia is an artificial state, cobbled together in the 1920s and 1930s by military force. Oil wealth has both helped paper over differences and promote a radical and intolerant reinterpretation of Islam. Still, regional identities remain, sectarianism is increasing, and the gap between rich and poor has bred resentment toward the ruling family whose grip on power will slip as octogenarians succeed octogenarians and factional rivalries percolate.

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After the Tunisian protesters sent Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, dictator for almost a quarter century, packing, the Central Intelligence Agency famously predicted the Arab revolt would not spread. Almost two years later, dictators have fallen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and a fifth appears on the ropes in Syria. Despite what regional experts and Arab autocrats hoped, the desire for freedom and liberty is contagious. So when Bashar al-Assad’s tenure ends with a bullet in his head or a broomstick in his bottom, what will be the next domino to fall?

There is no shortage of dissatisfaction across the Arab world. Just ask the Bahrainis. Tension is also high in Kuwait. Most Jordanians are seething at King Abdullah II and especially at the high-spending Queen Rania. But the next dynasty to fall may very well be the Saudi monarchy.

Saudi Arabia is an artificial state, cobbled together in the 1920s and 1930s by military force. Oil wealth has both helped paper over differences and promote a radical and intolerant reinterpretation of Islam. Still, regional identities remain, sectarianism is increasing, and the gap between rich and poor has bred resentment toward the ruling family whose grip on power will slip as octogenarians succeed octogenarians and factional rivalries percolate.

Human rights groups and journalists tend to focus on Bahrain. There certainly are myriad problems in that Arab island nation, but the focus is disproportionate, determined more by access than by degree of repression. While the Bahraini government uses rubber bullets, the Saudis prefer live ammunition, especially when the protesters are Shi’ites in the oil-rich Eastern Province.

If unrest strikes Saudi Arabia and if the monarchy falls, the results could reverberate further than former Egyptian President Mubarak’s fall:

  • It’s one thing for Libyan oil to temporarily go offline, and quite another for Saudi oil to do so. Then again, if the White House encouraged greater shale exploitation, new pipelines, and new drilling offshore, then it could blunt any future Saudi oil shock. Even at the best of times, that’s a good idea.
  • Saudi Arabia, like it or not, has been a key U.S. ally. Despite the conspiracy-ridden and often anti-Semitic blogosphere, America has never gone to war for Israel. It has, however, gone to war for Saudi Arabia. Kuwait’s 1991 liberation was as much about protecting Saudi Arabia from Iraqi aggression as it was about freeing the tiny emirate. If the Kingdom fell, upon whom in the Arab Middle East could the United States really count?
  • On the other hand, when President Obama leads from behind, the country from behind which he leads is, more often than not, Saudi Arabia. Republicans are in no position to castigate the president for deference to Riyadh, however, because so many Republican presidents and secretaries have also sucked at the Saudi teat. Freed from the Saudi constraint, how might U.S. policy be different?
  • There is a reason why Saudi Arabia has been an ally. Saudi Arabia may have incubated al-Qaeda and extremism, but they have also cooperated greatly on counter-terrorism. If the Saudi regime falls, would a new government be so forthcoming with counter terror aid and assistance?
  • Next to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia is most likely to fracture into its constituent parts if it ever faces state failure. The Hejaz might be more cosmopolitan and moderate, but Iran would make a full-court press to become the predominant influence in the Eastern Province. That could be the death knell for a more moderate regime in Bahrain. The question is what extremists in the Nejd would do, and whether they could be contained. What might happen if more extreme elements consolidate control across the country?
  • Whether or not Saudi Arabia has been an American ally, its influence across the Islamic world has certainly been as malignant as Iran’s. If the Kingdom collapsed, would such subsidies continue? As some of my AEI colleagues have pointed out, for all the billions of dollars they have expended, the Saudis have failed to win hearts and minds across the broader region. Simply put, no one likes the Saudis. If the Western economy was shielded from a Saudi descent into chaos, would anyone really care?
  • The end of the Saudi gravy train would reverberate not only across countries, but also among institutions in the United States. The Saudis have generously funded universities, think tanks, public relations firms, lobbyists, advocacy groups like CAIR, and writers. The Mujahedin al-Khalq in recent years may have exposed how so many American figures follow the dollar sign rather than principle, but that’s nothing compared to what the Saudis have managed. Who would fill that void, if anyone?  Perhaps the world would be a better place if the advice put forward on the back of Saudi petrodollars no longer received such a favorable hearing in Washington, and if students were no longer indoctrinated by the curriculum Saudi oil money bought.

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