Today's date:
Summer 2011

The Saudi Counter-Revolution II

Graham E. Fuller is a former vice-chair of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA. His most recent book is “A World Without Islam.” He is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.

Vancouver—A panicky Saudi Arabia has now openly seized the banner of outspoken opposition to Iran across the Muslim world, surpassing even Washington’s long and obsessive Iran-centered interpretation of Middle East events. Riyadh is perpetuating a false—and hence dangerously misleading—reading of key regional issues.

The Saudi Kingdom grows understandably fearful as “stable” autocratic rule in the region now faces the severest threats since the heyday of Arab nationalist revolution half a century ago. The Saudi regime has chosen to single out Iran as the primary source of populist agitation and revolution. This in itself is an irony since Iran’s own regime—a complex, messy, unpleasant, fractured and opaque blend of autocracy and quasi-democratic institutions—faces threats from domestic forces that demand greater openness. But that’s not the issue. Iran has played its foreign policy cards shrewdly over the years, so that to most Middle Eastern publics, Tehran has displayed the defiance of Washington dominance and criticism of Israeli policies in Palestine that have always had street appeal—especially in states dominated by supine United States-supported dictatorship. Polls indicate that Arab publics rate concern over potential Iranian nukes quite low.

Take the Palestinian resistance organization Hamas, that enjoys Iranian as well as Arab support. Hamas surely does not threaten Riyadh by dint of being a Sunni fundamentalist movement; its threat is that it is basically anti-monarchical, has called for armed resistance in Palestine and represents activist popular anti-autocratic forces at work. That is what unnerves the House of Saud: uncontrolled populism. Similarly Riyadh also seeks to neutralize the dominant Shi’ite community in Lebanon led by Hizballah—that enjoys much popularity among Sunnis outside Lebanon for its resistance to Israeli power.

So today Riyadh seeks to portray Iran as the heart of a new super-menace to Arab monarchy. Not so much because it is Persian, but above all because it is Shi’ite—a sect theologically detestable in Wahhabi, as well as al-Qaeda eyes. Wahhabis not only loathe Shi’ism but also fear the internal threat of an oppressed Shi’ite minority in Saudi Arabia—only some 10 percent of the population—that must be kept under muzzle. More important, the oppressed majority Shi’ite population in Bahrain must never be allowed to come to power through any kind of political action or election, as happened in Iraq. These two states are fighting the tides of history and are losing.

This all represents a dangerous diversion because in fact the future of the Middle East is not basically about sectarian power. Yes, key dispossessed minorities—Shi’ites in Iraq and Bahrain, Sunnis in Syria—will seek to right skewed political balances; sectarian tensions often develop out of that unsettling process. Instability develops most sharply when fossilized and unjust political orders burst open, leading to a scramble for a new political order. But an historical sectarian stasis will eventually emerge. Most Arabs are more concerned with liberation from harsh autocracy, corruption, jobs, dignity and national sovereignty. Reversion to sectarianism, or racism, is everywhere the ruling scoundrel’s last ploy.

So Riyadh’s desperate call to create a club of Sunni monarchs and allied Sunni states in South and East Asia to hold the line on Iran runs counter to what enlightened Washington policy should want in this region. Anti-Iranian policies do not create a meaningful framework for a new regional order. Egypt may have no special love for Iran, but its new regime now clearly views hostility with an important state like Tehran as counterproductive. Turkey, too, sees greater benefit in trying to integrate Iran rather than engage in fruitless and truculent confrontation. No Gulf state is truly “threatened” by Iran, and basically none has been at war with Iran in a very long time—except for a brief skirmish over a few islands under the Shah. Only the oppressive Sunni-minority monarchy of Bahrain is threatened and typically now clings to Riyadh in a desperate end-game.

Saudi Arabia actually probably does not want actual war with Iran. But it hopes its stance on Iran will gain Washington’s unconditional acquiescence for Riyadh’s own anti-democracy stance.

But should Washington go that route? As Saudi Arabia escalates the confrontation with Tehran on largely spurious grounds, and as Saudi Arabia seeks to crystallize sectarian Sunni-Shi’ite confrontation all across the Muslim world, is that the kind of stable and sound future that Washington wants? Saudi Arabia will always sell its oil to the world—even if it reduces its extravagant arms purchases from the US arms industry. Riyadh may well succeed in buying off its own population from domestic revolt for some years to come. But the US should not be tying its star to a “flagship Saudi Arabia” even under the best of circumstances. And especially not now that Riyadh exploits extreme ideological and sectarian appeals in an effort to blunt the slow but inexorable, complex process of Arab Spring.