By Zayd Alisa
As popular uprisings swept the Arab world, many experts stressed that Saudi Arabia was incomparable to others. It was immune from turbulence, let alone, regime-ousting uprisings.
Confident that its internal front was impeccably secure, the Saudi regime moved swiftly to achieve its external overarching goals, which ranged from holding at bay the spread of popular uprisings clamoring for democratic change and political reform, to severely undermining, if not, reversing what it perceives, as the mounting
Iranian and Shi’ite influence, and ensuring the survival of other monarchies.
The Saudi regime offered Ben Ali, Tunisia’s dictator, refuge and has steadfastly refused to hand him back to face trial. The Saudi king gave, not just his emphatic support to Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s tyrant, but also threatened the US that he was ready to bankroll him.
Saudi Arabia’s tireless effort to spearhead the counter-revolution suffered its first setback at the hands of its closest ally the US, which encouraged the Egyptian army to turn against Mubarak. The Saudi regime has made concerted effort to make up for lost ground in Egypt. It has gained huge influence with the military council by providing it with $4 billion in aid, as well as by throwing its weight behind the extremist Salafi movement, which emerged second after the Muslim Brotherhood in the parliamentary elections.
As for Yemen, the Saudi regime initially supported Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s dictator, but when his brutal crackdown spectacularly backfired, it launched its own initiative to ensure that Saleh was replaced by another staunch ally, namely his deputy, Abd-Rabbu Mansour, through a cosmetic election. Just as important, however, was the Saudi regime’s clear message that uprisings were absolutely futile, since Saleh was ousted by its own initiative rather than an uprising.
For the Saudis, the Bahraini uprising was indisputably a nightmare scenario that sent shock waves right across the kingdom. This was hardly surprising, since Bahrain was a brutal dictatorship governed by the Al Khalifa family, from the Sunni minority, while the vast majority of Bahrainis were Shi’ite.
In Saudi eyes any concession, no matter how insignificant, let alone a triumph by the Bahraini uprising, would inspire its own Shi’ites to rebel against the regime. Shi’ites form an overwhelming majority in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich eastern province, which is located just some five kilometers from Bahrain.
Like the Shi’ite in Bahrain, they have constantly complained of being subjected to intolerable discrimination and marginalization. Despite the undeniable failure of their supposed “day of rage” in March last year, it nonetheless unnerved the Saudi regime.
In response, the king announced unprecedented measures ranging from billions of dollars in benefits and new jobs to a stern warning that security forces would pull no punches in confronting protestors. He also gave massive rewards to the Wahhabi Salafi religious establishment and,
Most ominously, gave a green light for the Saudi army to invade and occupy Bahrain. Within 24 hours of the occupation, Bahraini forces backed by Saudi forces unleashed a ferocious onslaught against the peaceful protesters in Manama’s Pearl Square.
In another strenuous attempt to placate the dramatic escalation in exhortations for political reform, the king suddenly declared last September that municipal elections supposed to be held in 2008 would finally take place. Not surprisingly the turnout was hugely disappointing – 1.08 million Saudi men of the country’s 18 million population registered to vote – since it is abundantly clear that the council is a powerless body.
Behind such machinations a pivotal role was being played by the radical and regressive Wahhabi Salafi religious establishment in propping up and lending religious legitimacy to the Saudi regime, which in turn provides it with the vital funding to propagate and export its extremist ideology.
According to the Wahhabi ideology it is strictly forbidden to oppose the ruler. Far from questioning the highly contentious actions of the Saudi regime, the religious establishment has issued religious fatwas to back them up. These fatwas were utilized by the Interior ministry headed by Nayef, to declare last February that these protests were a new form of terrorism that would be confronted with an iron fist, as was al-Qaeda. It also indirectly blamed Iran for the protests.
The peaceful protests in the eastern province entered a highly perilous phase in October 2011, when the savage crackdown turned into a campaign of cold-blooded murder. The dramatic escalation coincided with the death of Sultan bin Abdulaziz, the heir to the throne and the appointment of Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, who died on June 16 this year, as a replacement.
The Saudi regime’s overriding priority has always been to establish and bolster its position and image as the indisputable guardian of Sunni Islam, even though it firmly endorses the Wahhabi ideology.
Ever since 1979 – when the Iranian revolution toppled the shah – the Saudi regime has vigorously endeavored to portray and present all major events and conflicts in the region as an integral part of an ongoing existential sectarian war waged against the Sunnis by the Shi’ites, namely Iran, in order to become the unrivalled power in the region.
As the uprising began in Bahrain, the Saudi regime started deliberately ratcheting up sectarian rhetoric in order to instigate inter-religious strife which would stave off any uprising by the Sunni majority.
However, media reports in July have confirmed that that open dissent and protests have spread far beyond the eastern province to Sunni areas in Hejaz, and even to the Saudi regime’s heartland and powerbase in the capital Riyadh.
The United States, which considers Saudi Arabia as a central pillar of its Middle East policy, must be holding its breath as Saudi Arabia’s uprising surmounts the regime’s impregnable shield: sectarian divisions.
Among the principal reasons behind the increasingly deepening cracks in the Saudi regime’s internal front are: first, the inescapable reality that the regime has emphatically supported brutal dictators in crushing uprisings by the Sunnis in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.
Second, the inconsistent position of the regime in unequivocally backing secular monarchies like Morocco, Jordan and secular establishments like the Egyptian military against Sunni Islamic movements.
Third, the inexcusable failure by the king to activate the much-trumpeted allegiance council – set up by him as a showcase of reform – to select the heir to the throne twice within eight months, prompting senior figures from the royal family to bitterly criticize the lack of consultation. This, has evidently, not only consolidated the widespread perception that the royal family is in the midst of a vicious power struggle, but also added weight to the argument that this is a royal family that marginalizes its senior members, never mind, the ordinary citizens.
Fourth, the undeniable success of people in other countries, such as Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Iraq, and to a lesser extent Yemen in ousting their dictators and democratically electing new leaders.
Fifth, the sheer hypocrisy in the King’s call on the Syrian president, Bashar Al-Assad, to implement genuine reform and halt the killing machine, while he has spectacularly failed to lead by example.
Sixth, the failure of the authorities to tackle chronic problems, such as unemployment, corruption and poor housing, despite the billions of dollars in oil revenue.
Seventh, foreign-educated Saudis are beginning to question the legitimacy of such a rigid dictatorship.
Eighth, the mounting fears that the ruthless crackdown in the eastern province would dramatically intensify the increasingly vocal demands for secession. Finally, the death of Nayef and his replacement by Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who is perceived as more sympathetic to reform have laid bare that even though Nayef was a hardliner, he was nonetheless used by the regime as the perfect pretext for not undertaking meaningful reform.
Although it has been more than a month since Salman took over, but there are absolutely no reforms in the pipeline. Even more revealing, however, has been the dramatic surge in the regime’s savagery, which has reached an unsurpassed level, especially with the arrest and alleged torture of Shi’ite religious leader Nimr Al Nimr.
The US should be deeply concerned about the rapidly deteriorating situation in Saudi Arabia, not only because its implacable support for the Saudi regime has made a mockery of its pretention of defending democracy and human rights, but, more menacingly, Saudi Arabia was the country where the vast majority (15 out of 19) of the 9/11 suicide bombers came from, never mind, the mastermind, Osama Bin Laden. This is also where nearly all fatwas giving religious legitimacy to al-Qaeda’s atrocities emanate from. Now is the time for the US to stand on the right side of the present and future of Saudi Arabia, by extending the oil-for-protection deal to an (oil and concrete democratic reforms-for-protection deal).
Zayd Alisa is a political analyst and a writer on Middle East affairs.