Saudi Arabia is the one country in the Gulf that many predicted would always be the stable anchor for the region. Most aspects of life there seemed to be totally controlled by the royal family. That is until The Arab Spring sprung and suddenly the world became aware — thanks to social media — of the stresses within the Kingdom.
In addition to the general unrest in the area with dictatorial governments, Saudi Arabia has an additional unique situation — solely Sharia law and a particularly tough brand of Sunni Islam, called Wahhabism, govern the country. Women still cannot drive but they are slowly being integrated into public society. Using stoning to punish supposed adulterers is still allowed by law but is rarely used anymore; the concept of voting for one’s government is not an allowable thought but there have been street demonstrations expressing unhappiness with the regime. Alcohol is strictly forbidden. There is a 15% minority of Shia Muslims, who primarily live on the eastern coast, which is where the oil is based, and who are treated differently by the law than the majority of Sunni. (For instance, the Saudi government just rescinded a law that forbade Shia to buy property near Sunni families or villages.) Recently in Al Qatif there have been Shia protests demanding equality under the law. Many feel these riots are being instigated by Iran. So far, the government has prevented them from turning bloody but no one knows how long that can be maintained.
With the combination of the restrictive government that is being challenged in a unique Saudi way, tension between the two sides of Islam, and a rising unemployment problem with a growing youth population, and one has a bubbling pot. When the rest of the region is in turmoil, it would be natural for Saudi Arabia to start feeling some of the unrest within the Kingdom. This is what the royal family fears. If Syria’s civil war spills over the borders and begins to seriously threaten Lebanon or Jordan, what will the affect be in Saudi Arabia?
The Kingdom is trying to manage a highly unstable environment. For decades, the Al Saud has managed to keep all in check within the Kingdom and protect its rule. But it had oil and a closed, controlled environment that provided everyone with amazing financial security. Now, the financial security has changed due to the world wide economic crisis, a growing young population, and social media. This is why the royal family is trying to be proactive about the things they can affect. Rumors have it that they are desperately trying to solve the Syria issue as quickly as possible. Prince Bandar bin Sultan has been given the extra post of head of the Saudi intelligence service in addition to his post as head of the National Security Council. He has very close ties to the U.S. due to his years here as the Saudi ambassador. What a perfect person to work with the U.S. to promote Saudi’s involvement in solving Syria’s internal chaos.
The King called a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to meet in Riyadh this week to come to an agreement on a transition plan for Syria. Saudi Arabia is trying to take the lead in establishing a comprehensive plan that all of the Islamic states will sign up for. The OIS did suspend Syria from the organization, but it looks like Iran prevented the group from coming up with a coherent transition policy. Saudi Arabia, and its Sunni allies, will continue its support of the opposition, and Al Assad will continue the fight in Syria as long as Iran keeps supporting the government.
As one of my favorite columnists, David Ignatius, wrote in the Washington Post, this combination of combustibles is “why the Saudi monarchy is going to battle stations.” It should be an interesting year with the turmoil in the area. We should all be watching Iran to see if it plays an even bigger role in Syria in the aftermath of Al Assad (he will fall eventually) or in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. That could be the fuse that explodes the entire region.