By Prasanta Kumar Pradhan
Saudi Arabia’s concerns about regional stability and its domestic vulnerabilities have risen to the fore amidst protests in neighbouring Bahrain, Oman and Yemen as well as in its own Shia-populated and oil-rich Eastern Province. With protests spreading from North Africa to the Gulf, Saudi Arabia announced a financial aid package of about US$ 36 billion for its citizens, promising more jobs, pay hikes, scholarship for students, and so on. Sensing trouble in its Eastern Province, the government banned all protests in the Kingdom. With the situation deteriorating further in the neighbourhood, King Abdullah addressed the nation and announced another multi-billion dollar package, which included creating 60,000 jobs in the security forces and 500,000 new homes, to appease his citizens.
Oil is the main strength of the Gulf economies and massive oil revenues have provided rulers with the resources to consolidate their regimes and to gain legitimacy from the people by distributing wealth. Thus, the uninterrupted production and supply of oil has a domestic political connotation too, as it serves as the lifeline for these rulers. In the event of oil production and supply getting disrupted, it will not only affect the national economy, but also undermine regime stability. This is another reason why Saudi royals are concerned about the spread of popular protests in the Eastern Province as well as in the Gulf region.
Saudi Arabia’s principal domestic challenge is discontent in its Eastern Province among the Shias, who constitute around 15 per cent of the total population. The majority of the Kingdom’s oil fields are located in this province. Thus, any protests or instability there may disrupt the production and supply of oil. Small scale protests were reported in the Shia-dominated areas of Hufuf, Awwamiya and Qatif, where protesters demanded the release of the arrested Shiite cleric Tawfiq Al Amir. On several occasions in the past, the Shias of the Eastern Province have protested against political and economic inequality; in particular, they have raised the issue of members of their community not being appointed to the top ranks of the military, police, bureaucracy and the Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura), as well as about not economically benefiting from the country’s huge oil wealth. Shias also oppose religious discrimination as practiced by the Saudi ruling family, which follows the Sunni Wahhabi puritanical version of Islam with its disdain for Shias. For decades, Shias have been forbidden from performing their religious practices, publishing their religious materials and publicly celebrating their religious functions in the Kingdom.
The Saudi Government is apprehensive about the connection between the Shias in its territory and their co-religionists in Iran. Long oppressed and neglected by the state, the Saudi Shias have looked towards their Iranian co-religionists for inspiration and guidance. This is viewed adversely by the Saudi Government, which suspects their loyalty because of the Iranian connection. The government also accuses Iran of inciting protests and rebellion among its Shias. Thus, the old Saudi-Iran ideological conflict has come to play a role in the present protests in Saudi Arabia.
New challenges have emerged for Saudi Arabia with the situation getting murkier day by day in Bahrain and Yemen. Saudi foreign policy has always given high priority to the Gulf region with the aim of increasing Riyadh’s influence over the smaller neighbours. Saudi regional policy also aims to prevent Iranian influence over the internal affairs and foreign relations of its Gulf neighbours. The situation in Bahrain poses a significant challenge for Saudi Arabia because it believes the protests by the Shias there may inspire and incite its own Shia population. Saudi Arabia is also concerned about the situation in Bahrain, given that around 70 percent of Bahrain’s population is Shia and, in addition, Iran is said to have significant influence over them. It is worried that Iran may take advantage of the situation, thus undermining the Saudi role and influence over Bahrain. Concerned about the undue Iranian enthusiasm over the popular protests in the Arab streets, Riyadh has warned against any external intervention (meaning Iranian) that seeks to exploit the opportunity provided by these protests in its neighbouring countries. Saudi Arabia was the first country to send troops to Bahrain, thus sending a clear message that it has high stakes in the peace and stability of that country. King Abdullah justified the act by stating that, “Threats to harm the security of any member state are regarded as harming the security of all Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.” Thus to maintain its influence over the region, Saudi Arabia has used the GCC to the fullest. Saudi troops crossed the King Fahd Causeway, which connects both countries. The Causeway was fully funded by the Saudi government and was allegedly built, partly, with the long term strategic intent of influencing Bahrain and also making military access easy. Iran, on the other hand, considers Bahrain as falling in its natural sphere of influence and has termed it as an ‘invasion’ of Bahrain. The Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Ali Larijani, warned that Saudi Arabia and other regional countries that are backed by the USA will pay the price for military intervention in Bahrain. But, clearly, at present Saudi Arabia has an upper hand in Bahrain.
Similarly, to Saudi Arabia’s south, Yemen is facing trouble, with protesters continuing to voice their demands including the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. This is, in addition, to the challenge posed to Saleh by the al Qaeda, the Houthi rebels and the secessionist movement in southern Yemen. For Saudi Arabia, Iran’s influence among Yemen’s Shiite Houthi rebels is a cause for worry since it could give Iran a strategic advantage. Iran has supported the Houthis by providing them with money, arms and training, while Saudi Arabia supports the Saleh government’s efforts to suppress them. Saudi Arabia also has other interests in Yemen in terms of securing the long porous border and fighting against al Qaeda. It has significant influence over Saleh and has been giving billions dollars in aid to ensure Yemen’s stability. Thus, for obvious security and strategic reasons, Saudi Arabia considers President Saleh and his regime a preferred partner and will not prefer a political upheaval there that could change the balance of power. Against this backdrop, Saleh has reportedly invited Saudi Arabia to mediate in the conflict in Yemen. Though there has not been any official response from Riyadh so far, the situation in Yemen certainly remains a challenge as well as an opportunity for Saudi Arabia.
Apart from dealing with the popular protests, Saudi Arabia carries the extra burden of being the leading oil producer and a regional power. Within a short span of time, the major challenges of internal dissent, turmoil in the neighbourhood, increase in oil prices, and the imperative of despatching troops to Bahrain have come to face the country. Saudi Arabia has taken up these challenges seriously and, so far, has been able to deal with them suitably. It has dealt with the internal situation by announcing social and economic measures and strengthening security, and it has also managed to maintain intact its influence on its neighbours while at the same time restricting the space for Iran to spread its influence.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/ChallengesforSaudiArabiaamidstProtestsintheGulf_pkpradhan_250311