The House of Saud strikes back

Saudi Arabia isn't taking this whole democracy thing lying down. It's putting down uprisings, beefing up alliances with fellow autocrats, and distancing itself from the US.

By , Staff writer

Over the past couple of months, Saudi Arabia has been vigorous in trying to ring-fence itself from the democratic uprisings that toppled Egypt and Tunisia's established leaders.

In the process, it's working directly at cross purposes with the stated aims of President Obama, who has publicly put America in the camp of Middle Eastern democratic change – shaking up the longtime US-Saudi alliance.

For decades, US presidents and Saudi kings have worked to maintain the regional status quo under the old "autocracy equals stability" equation. That alliance was strengthened after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, with Saudi money and American muscle dedicated to containing the regional ambitions of the Shiite theocracy.

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But when Hosni Mubarak, a junior partner in those efforts, ran into trouble at home, Saudi Arabia watched the United States abandon a man who'd been a stalwart. The Saudis were unhappy that the US helped install an Iran-friendly, Shiite-heavy government in Baghdad, but understood how Saddam Hussein ended up in American's sights.

Mr. Mubarak, by contrast, had reliably played ball for 30 years. Suddenly, he ran a "regime" that had to go. The House of Saud, wary of being "regime-ified" itself, has decided not to take chances.

The kingdom's measures have involved making mutual survival arrangements with fellow regional monarchies, sending troops to fellow Sunni monarchy Bahrain to bash the heads of Shiite democracy protesters, and spending massively at home. As with Saudi Arabia, the US has been largely silent about the crackdown in Bahrain, which hosts the US Navy's Fifth Fleet.

Unlike the US, whose selective encouragement of pro-democracy movements make it seem – in the language of pseudo-psychology – "conflicted," the Kingdom has a laser-like focus on its interests, which begin and end with regime survival. Since the US isn’t a wholehearted supporter of the status quo anymore, the Saudis are creating alternative networks to prevent regime change.

"We’re sending a message that monarchies are not where this is happening,” Prince Waleed bin Talal, the billionaire nephew of King Abdullah, told The New York Times. “We are not trying to get our way by force, but to safeguard our interests.”

Saudi model: Buy off citizens

Writing in Foreign Policy, economist Steffen Hertog points out that the Gulf monarchies, especially the Saudis, have successfully bought their subjects' acquiescence during past crises. But he says those transfers "pale in comparison" to the roughly $130 billion the Sauds have promised so far this year.

"The new spending measures ... include the creation of 60,000 new jobs in the Ministry of Interior – an agency that is already said to employ almost as many nationals as the whole Saudi private sector – the building of 500,000 houses, the setting of a minimum wage of 3,000 Saudi riyals ($800) in the public sector, one-time bonus payments for incumbent civil servants, the creation of a general unemployment assistance scheme, budget increases for various public credit agencies as well as supplementary funds for a number of religious organizations," he writes.

Probably the most important regional effort has been the attempt to expand the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to include Morocco and Jordan. The GCC is the grouping of the oil-rich Sunni monarchies on the Persian Gulf. The Moroccans and Jordanians haven’t been members of the club because they’re not rich, and they’re nowhere near the Gulf.

But they are, after all, monarchies, who are as terrified of democratic change as their wealthy Gulf cousins. The Saudi plan, which is being met with enthusiasm in both, is to provide the two states with outside funding, which could help stave off Moroccan and Jordanian subjects' calls for democratic change, in exchange for their diplomatic support. Closer defense and intelligence ties could result in joint actions to put down political uprisings, like the Saudi effort in Bahrain. Call it the legion of the Arab monarchs.

If the expansion is completed, we will soon see the largest per capita recipient of US economic aid in the world (Jordan) teamed up with one of America's biggest military allies (a $60 billion sale of advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia is currently being finalized by the Obama administration) in an effort to oppose democratic change – by force if necessary.

Efforts to create Arab alliance against Iran

Saudi Arabia is also reaching out farther afield.

A Wall Street Journal story last week says that the Kingdom's powerful Prince Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud sought Pakistani military support for the intervention in Bahrain. The Journal says that Prince Bandar told the Pakistanis that the US was an unreliable ally and that his efforts were part of a Saudi effort to rally "Muslim nations across the Middle East and Asia to join an informal Arab alliance against Iran.”

Pakistan already contributes a hefty chunk of Bahrain’s police force (the country has a policy of recruiting foreign mercenaries to fill its security jobs since it doesn’t trust its Shiite inhabitants). Bandar also recently visited Indonesia and Malaysia – whose prime minister has voiced full-throated support for the crackdown in Bahrain (which has involved the detentions of hundreds of democracy activists and credible allegations of systematic torture). Bandar was the Saudi ambassador to the US for 20 years until 2005, and when he went home, he took the reins of the national security council.

Unsustainable policy

Will all this work? For a time, certainly. Perhaps for a very long time. But Mr. Hertog argues at Foreign Policy that at some point the Kingdom will break the bank and find itself as vulnerable as Egypt was this spring.

"It is a lot nicer to be thrown money at than to be shot at and tortured, but neither strategy of containing political challenges appears sustainable," he writes. "The ranks of the young are swelling and their aspirations rising. Expectations of lucrative and low-effort public jobs are bound to be disappointed one day. By shifting precious resources toward a bloated bureaucracy, the regimes are kicking the employment problem down the road – and making it worse, as incipient private job creation for nationals is undermined."

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