The Saudis Flex Their Muscles

Foreign challenges and pressure from a young population have brought change to Saudi Arabia
April 9, 2018 4:45 pm Last Updated: April 12, 2018 10:32 am

For decades, the Saudis have been economic giants and political dwarfs.

Throughout most of the post-World War II period, Saudi Arabia, with its apparently endless oil reserves, has been vital to the West as a (reasonably) safe and secure source of energy. As such, the United States committed to Saudi defense, provided the country with massive amounts of high-tech weaponry and training for its armed forces, and worried over the future of a kingdom headed by leaders with essentially absolute power.

For their part, Saudis steadily jacked up the price of oil, and they—and their oil-soaked partners—became rich as Croesus while luxuriating in relatively cost-free protection from their customers.

In reality, Saudi Arabia is a fragile, artificial political construct. It was founded in 1932 by Ibn Saud, who united four of the Arabian peninsula regions into a single state through conquests, beginning in 1902 with the capture of Riyadh.

The country remains an undisputed monarchy, effectively a hereditary dictatorship governed along Islamic lines by the ultraconservative Wahhabi religious movement. The Saudi government has de facto bought off the ultraconservatives by financing their global expansion; in return, Wahhabi Islamics have played live-and-let-live with Ibn Saud’s descendants, who have largely spent their lives enjoying the trappings of vast wealth.

The Saudi preeminence in Sunni Islam derives from the economic leverage of enormous wealth, but reinforced by its position as religious custodian of Al-Masjid al-Haram (in Mecca) and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (in Medina), the two holiest places in Islam.

For over a generation, the Saudis toddled along content with their de minimis international political influence. Internal politics saw one aging son of Ibn Saud replace another—some by natural causes, others by de facto coup, and one by assassination. But their focus remained the same: total political dominance by the royal family (one estimate suggests 7,000 princes), indifference to human rights, and reliance on the United States for military protection.

Wake-Up Calls

The first “wake-up” call came with the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Now instead of a secular Shah with whom Saudis could have a benign relationship, Tehran was controlled by fanatical, revolutionary Shia Islamists. Consequently, the Saudis supported Saddam Hussein during his 1980s war against Iran, presumably calculating that Saddam was better than fanatical Iranian Islamists.

The defining wake-up, however, was Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. With horror, the Saudis realized that if Iraqi armor had kept rolling, its own (expensive) defenses would not have sufficed to prevent Iraqi conquest. Nevertheless, with considerable reluctance, the Saudis played host to the U.S. coalition juggernaut that expelled and annihilated Saddam’s forces in Kuwait.

But status quo ante did not return. Still another war removed Saddam but left Iraq in fractious chaos. And the Iranians moved implacably toward nuclear weapons capability, leaving Saudis appalled that Washington had endorsed a nuclear treaty with Tehran.

MBS Emerges

Faced with foreign challenges and increasing pressure from a population of which 70 percent is under 30 and chaffing under draconian Wahabi restrictions, the old order had to go.

Such led to the emergence of Mohammed bin Salman (generally known as “MBS”) following a series of machinations reminiscent of “Game of Thrones.” Officially crown prince, MBS in effect rules Saudi Arabia.

MBS has announced a sweeping reform agenda. He has scaled back funding for Wahhabi international activity, promised that women will have the right to drive, and arrested 200 of the country’s wealthiest plutocrats, including a number of princes, for corruption, forcing them to surrender assets that MBS claimed amounted to $100 billion.

MBS’s foreign policy ventures have been less successful. Saudi remains bogged in Yemen combat attempting to restore pro-Saudi leadership. Combined Gulf State efforts to dominate Qatar and force it inter alia to cease supporting Iran, have damaged Qatar, but the country has sufficient wealth to withstand the pressure.

Reportedly MBS also pressed Palestinians to accept a Saudi plan to recognize Israel’s Jerusalem claims and much of its West Bank settlements. Openly, MBS has said Israel has “a right to have its own land.”

Working to change the Saudi “brand,” MBS has been on an international charm offensive. Now in the United States, following a visit to England where he dined with the queen, he has met with a wide range of U.S. economic, cultural, and political figures, including President Donald Trump.

MBS is clearly “high risk, high gain.” He has many balls in the air. If successful, he will radically transform Saudi Arabia. Failure will see him buried—forgotten in the Saudi sands.

(Courtesy of David T. Jones)

David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.”