By Zayd Alisa
As popular uprisings swept the Arab world, many experts stressed that Saudi Arabia was incomparable to others. It was immune from turbulences, 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 clamouring for democratic change and political reform, to severely undermining, if not, reversing what it perceives, as the mounting Iranian and Shia 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. And the Saudi king gave, not just his emphatic support to Mubarek, Egypt’s tyrant, but also threatened the USA that he was ready to bankroll him. Saudi Arabia’s tireless effort to spearhead the counterrevolution suffered its first setback at the hands of its closest ally the USA, which encouraged the Egyptian army to turn against Mubarek. 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, 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 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 the nightmare scenario that sent shock waves right across Saudi Arabia. This was hardly surprising, since Bahrain was a brutal dictatorship governed by Al Khalifa family, from the Sunni minority, while the vast majority of Bahrainis were Shia. In Saudi eyes any concession, no matter how insignificant, let alone, a triumph by the Bahraini uprising would definitely inspire its own Shia to rebel against the regime. The Shia form the overwhelming majority in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, which is literally a stone-throw from Bahrain. Just like the Shia in Bahrain, they have constantly complained from being subjected to intolerable discrimination and marginalisation. Despite, the undeniable failure of a supposed day of rage, on March last year, it, nonetheless, unnerved the Saudi regime. Thus, the king announced some unprecedented measures which ranged from billions of dollars in benefits and new jobs, to a stern warning that security forces would pull no punches in confronting protestors, to massive rewards for the Wahhabi Salafi religious establishment and, most ominously, giving the green light to the Saudi army to invade and occupy Bahrain. Within 24 hours of the occupation, the Bahraini forces backed by the Saudi forces unleashed a ferocious and murderous onslaught against the peaceful protesters in pearl-square. In another strenuous attempt to placate the dramatic escalation in exhortations for political reform, the king, suddenly declared on September last year, that the municipal elections, which were supposed to be held in 2008, will actually take place. Yet, not surprisingly the turn out was hugely disappointing, since it was abundantly clear that the council was a powerless body, where half its members were handpicked.
What is undoubtedly incontestable is the pivotal role played by the radical and regressive Wahhabi Salafi religious establishment in propping up and giving the religious legitimacy to the Saudi regime, which in turn provides it with the vital funding to propagate and export its violent and extremist ideology. According to the Wahhabi ideology it is strictly forbidden to oppose the ruler. And, 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 utilised by the Interior ministry headed by Nayef, to declare, on February 2011, that these protests were the new terrorism and that it would confront them with an iron fist, just as it did with Al-Qaida, It also indirectly blamed Iran for the protests. The peaceful protests in the Eastern Province entered into 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, the heir to the throne and the appointment of Nayef, as a replacement.
The Saudi regime’s overriding priority that supersedes all other priorities 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 endeavoured to portray and present all the major events and conflicts in the region as an integral part of an ongoing existential sectarian war waged against the Sunnis by the Shias, namely Iran in order to become the unrivalled power in the region. So, as the uprising began in Bahrain, the Saudi regime started deliberately ratcheting up the sectarian rhetoric in order to instigate sectarian strife, which would undoubtedly stave off any uprising by the Sunni majority.
As it becomes increasingly apparent 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 USA, which considers Saudi Arabia as a central pillar of its 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 criticise 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 marginalises 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 the 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. And finally, the death of Nayef and his replacement by Salman, who is perceived as more sympathetic to reform have laid bare that, even though, Nayef was a hardliner, nonetheless, he was 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 is 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 even torture of the Shia religious leader Nimr Al Nimr.
The USA should be deeply concerned about the rapidly deteriorating situation in Saudi Arabia, not only because its implacable support to 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, never mind, the mastermind, Osama Bin Laden, came from. It is also, where nearly all fatwas giving religious legitimacy to Al Qaida’s atrocities emanate from. Now is the time for the USA 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).