03.08.11

Why the Saudi Royals are Scared

The House of Saud watches nervously as friends fall and the United States changes its alliances. Bruce Riedel on how money could help them—and why King Abdullah should not be underestimated.

The House of Saud watches nervously as friends fall and the United States changes its alliances. Bruce Riedel on how money could help them—and why King Abdullah should not be underestimated. Plus, our cheat sheet of the arguments for and against U.S. intervention in Libya.

The view from the enormous marble palaces in Riyadh and Jidda is becoming grim. For the House of Saud, the winter of Arab discontent has been unsettling so far as friends fall in waves. It may get a lot worse from the royal family’s perspective. But the Saudi royals are proven survivors who have been around and in power for centuries. They know how to survive and have the money to help.

One of the last absolute monarchies on earth, Saudi Arabia has been rattled by the toppling of old friends like Tunisia’s Ben Ali ( now in exile in the Kingdom) and Egypt’s Mubarak ( who may not be far behind in moving into a Saudi retirement home). The Saudis have no love for Libya’s Gaddafi, who tried to assassinate King Abdullah only a few years ago, but they are worried by the contagion of unrest that is rolling across North Africa and into the Arabian Peninsula. The unrest in tiny Bahrain next door is particularly alarming as it threatens a fellow Sunni Muslim kingdom linked by a causeway to the Saudi Eastern Province where most of the royals’ oil is located. The Eastern Province is also the home of the Kingdom’s small (10-15%) Shia minority. Unrest among the Shia is endemic, and protests have already begun this month. Shia protests are inevitably seen through the prism of Persian-Arab rivalry with Iran across the Persian Gulf. For the Saudis Shia gains are seen as Iranian gains and thus bad news.

The bad news extends to the south as well for the Saudis. They have never been fond of Yemen’s dictator Ali Abdallah Salih. They tried to overthrow him in 1994 by encouraging a revolt in southern Yemen which only united with the north in 1990. The Saudis lost out in the subsequent civil war to Salih and the north. But Salih is the devil they know and has been the recipient of billions in Saudi aid since the 1990s. Unrest in Yemen threatens to give more room for operation to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is dedicated to the overthrow of the Kingdom and the death of the family princes. Salih is now in deep trouble, he has lost the backing of the south, many key tribes and some senior Muslim clerics. But the Saudis have few if any options for buttressing him in power.

There are also rumblings of unrest next door in Oman, another longtime Saudi ally. So far this has been confined to a few relatively tame protests but the Sultan has responded by firing some of his cabinet members to appease the opposition. To date, there have only been stirrings of protest in the Sunni heartland against the Kingdom itself. But the royals are taking nothing for granted. After surgery in New York and months of recuperation in Morocco the King returned to the Kingdom a week ago and promised $36 billion in new jobs, pension bonuses and other hand-outs to buy off potential opposition.

As alarming as the unrest in Arabia is to the House of Saud, the American reaction is even more unsettling. The Kingdom has built its security on an alliance with Washington since 1945, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with King Saud in the Suez Canal to promise American security protection to the Saudis in turn for oil and influence in the Islamic world from the guardians of the two most holy mosques (in Mecca and Medina) attracting a billion-plus Muslims. But now the United States seems to be betting that history favors change in Arabia and change threatens absolutism.

The Saudi family has been a major player in the politics of the Arabian Peninsula since the early 18th Century. They forged a unique alliance with the arch- conservative preacher Muhammad Abd al Wahhab in 1744 that created a partnership between Saudi family political ambitions; Wahhab’s Islamist credentials that continues to this day. While the Kingdom’s territorial size has waxed and waned over the ensuing two and half centuries, the Saudis have outlasted their opponents from the Ottoman Turks and the British Empire to Saddam Hussein and the Soviet Union. Don’t count them out.

In particular, don’t count out King Abdullah. He was dismissed by many for a stutter early in his career. Then he was seen as too conservative and old fashioned. But he has turned out to be a reformer by Saudi standards and has tried to reform education in the Kingdom and transform the succession process to make it more orderly. He is a canny watcher of American affairs as well. He had little enthusiasm for George Bush, whom the King felt neglected the Palestinian issue and foolishly invaded Iraq. So the king kept his distance from the Americans for most of the Bush term. He was hopeful about Obama, but he can turn a cold shoulder should he need to for domestic political purposes.

The Saudi royals are proven survivors who have been around and in power for centuries. They know how to survive and have the money to help.

The King’s health is still a question mark. His brother Crown Prince Sultan is very ill and not up to the challenge of ruling. Next in line is the arch- conservative Interior Minister Prince Nayif, who would alienate reformers and might precipitate unrest. So much depends on whether the King’s steady hand holds the levers of power for a few more years. Politics in Saudi Arabia are not transparent, so Saudi watchers will have their hands full this spring deciphering the Kingdom’s effort to manage the storm around it.

Bruce Riedel, a former long-time CIA officer, is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. At Obama’s request, he chaired the strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. He is author of the new book Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad and The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future.