Fear and loathing in Saudi Arabia

Editors’ Note: What does Saudi Arabia’s execution of Nimr al-Nimr say about the country’s domestic politics and foreign policy? As Ken Pollack explains, the leadership in Riyadh sees a Middle East spiraling out of control—that, combined with concerns about a general mobilization of the region’s Shiites, difficulties in controlling international oil markets, and other dynamics, has caused the Saudis to overreact in different circumstances. This piece originally appeared on
Foreign Policy

The true surprise about the Saudi-Iranian contretemps over the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr is that it caught so many people off guard in the first place. Anyone paying attention to Saudi Arabia knew that something like this was a long time coming. Unfortunately, not enough people were paying attention until it was too late.

It’s impossible to understand the current situation without delving into Saudi politics and foreign policy. But it’s equally important to be honest about the limits of our knowledge. Very much like the Islamic Republic of Iran, it’s very difficult for anyone outside the highest reaches of government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to really understand its fears and strategies. As my friend Greg Gause regularly warns, with Saudi politics, “those who know don’t speak, and those who speak don’t know.” It’s an important warning.

So with that caveat as our guide, what can we say about the dramatic shifts in Saudi policy.

First, I think it’s clear that Saudi policy has to be understood as an interweaving of Saudi internal and external interests, and right now those interests are overwhelmingly about fear. The external threats it seems to see are easier for Americans to recognize than the internal ones. But what we often miss is how the Saudis see external issues affecting their internal circumstances and creating domestic threats they find far more frightening than the external threat on its own.

At the broadest level, when the Saudis in Riyadh look at the Middle East around them, they see a region spiraling out of control. Since 2011, they have witnessed a massive increase in general instability across the region, with “the people” increasingly willing to protest or even overthrow their rulers. The complacency and popular “inertness” that categorized the Arab populations for decades is gone. That clearly worries the Sauds, the kingdom’s ruling royal family, who have always preferred a docile populace.

Civil wars are raging in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, spilling refugees, terrorists, armed militants, and powerful, radical ideas over onto their neighbors. Already, spillover from these civil wars has created nascent civil wars in Egypt and Turkey. It is eroding the stability of Lebanon, Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia, and even Kuwait. It has also created vast new opportunities for Iran to destabilize and rearrange the region to suit its own interests.

Indeed, both the civil wars and the spillover they generate have also produced a general mobilization of the Middle East’s Shiites, instigated and led by Iran. And that includes the Shiites in the Saudi kingdom. Officials in private and press reports occasionally note that hundreds of Saudi security service personnel have been killed and wounded in operations in the Eastern Province, the home to the vast majority of the kingdom’s Shiites. Americans tend not to pay attention to these operations because we see them as proof that the Saudis have things well in hand; but another way to look at it is that the Saudis are fighting pitched battles with someone in the cities of the Eastern Province. In other words, there seems to be a much higher degree of mobilization and violent confrontation among the Saudi Shiites than most realize.

Then there are Saudi fears about the oil market. Everyone seems to believe that the Saudis are purposely not cutting back production to kill off North American shale producers. But that is absolutely not what the Saudis are saying, either in private or public. Instead, they are saying that they can no longer control the oil market because there are too many other sources and all of the OPEC countries cheat like crazy whenever Riyadh tries to orchestrate a production cut. This has happened to them repeatedly over the past 20 to 30 years. They try to cut production to prevent oil prices from dropping, and the rest of OPEC takes advantage of it to pump as much as they can, contrary to what they promised and agreed to. The result is that there is no overall supply curtailment and the Saudis lose market share. This time around, they have stated that they cannot realistically control the OPEC oil supply, so they are not going to try to do so. Instead, they are going to fight for market share. But doing so means having to win a race to the bottom, with the result that their oil revenues are plummeting.

So that is another element of fear for them: They can no longer control the oil market the way they once did, and the low price of oil is obviously killing them. It has become so bad that they are now talking about real economic austerity, including repealing subsidies on gasoline and other fuel that average Saudis now see as part of their rights as citizens. Repealing subsidies and other austerity measures is always a very unpopular move and can easily cause widespread popular unrest — one need only remember events in Greece last year. The fact that the Saudi government now feels forced to take this route speaks to how desperate its financial situation is—and, given how it conjures the threat of popular mobilization that makes it so uneasy, it can only make the Saudis that much more apprehensive.

Meanwhile, the region’s civil wars have the Saudis so frightened that they have intervened in unprecedented ways. They have poured tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars into Syria and Yemen and to a lesser extent Iraq and Libya. They are pouring tens of billions more into Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, and Bahrain to shore up their governments, prevent state collapse under the strain of the spillover from neighboring civil wars, and thus prevent more civil wars on their own borders. But these increased foreign-policy costs coupled with reduced oil revenues have forced the Saudis to draw from their sovereign wealth fund at a rate of $12 to 14 billion per month—a pace that will wipe out those reserves in less than three years, but is likely to cause severe domestic political problems (including dissension within the royal family) long before.

And there sits Iran, at the intersection of all of these problems, from the Saudi perspective. The Saudis think the Iranians are to blame for the civil wars in Syria, Yemen, and (to a lesser extent) Iraq by mobilizing Shiites to destabilize the kingdom and its Sunni Arab allies. (They also blame the United States for the Iraqi civil war, appropriately, I might add.) They see the Iranians as threatening to pump new oil out onto the market to fight the Saudis for market share regardless of how low the price goes; Iranian officials openly crow that all of the money that will finally be released to them after the nuclear sanctions are lifted will be used to enable them to take market share away from Riyadh. In addition, the Iranians are waging proxy wars against the Saudis in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen and aiding subversive elements in Bahrain, Kuwait, and the kingdom itself. So, as the Saudis see it, Tehran contributes to Riyadh’s financial problems by driving down Saudi revenues and jacking up expenditures, both of which threaten the kingdom’s internal stability.

And while we may believe that the Saudis exaggerate both Iranian capabilities and intentions, the Saudis have a number of good points when it comes to Iran. The Iranians do seek to overturn the regional order, and they have repeatedly attempted to overthrow Arab governments (including Saudi Arabia’s, albeit several decades ago). The Iranians do tend to back Shiite populations, whether they are in power or out, majority or minority. And they do often incite them to violence and provide them with the wherewithal to do so. As a result, the Iranians have become deeply embroiled in the civil wars of the region. I would argue their involvement in both Iraq and Syria is primarily defensive (seeking to preserve the control over the state by their allies), but in Yemen it has unquestionably been offensive. There is no other explanation for Iran’s involvement in Yemen other than to annoy, weaken, or even undermine the Saudis—as strategic leverage or a genuine bid at regime change. And the Iranians do not make matters any better by arrogantly dismissing Arab fear and interests and placing themselves on a higher level than their neighbors across the Persian Gulf.

Finally, the Saudis feel frustrated and abandoned by the United States. Many Saudis and other Gulf Arabs consider President Barack Obama deeply ignorant, if not outright foolish, about the world and the Middle East. They evince out-and-out contempt for him and his policies. From their perspective, the United States has turned its back on its traditional allies in the Middle East. Washington is doing the least it can in Iraq, and effectively nothing in Libya and Syria, with the result that none of those conflicts is getting better. If anything, they are actually getting worse. Moreover, Saudi Arabia seems to differ over whether Obama is using the new nuclear deal with Tehran to deliberately try to shift the United States from the Saudi side to the Iranian side in the grand, regional struggle or if he is allowing it to happen unintentionally. The more charitable Saudi position is the former, because that suggests that Obama at least understands what he is doing, even if they think it a mistake and a betrayal. The latter view, for Saudis, sees him as a virtual imbecile who is destroying the Middle East without any understanding or recognition.

The depth of Saudi anger and contempt for the current American leadership is important to understand because it is another critical element of their worldview and policies, as best we can understand them. With the Middle East coming apart at the seams (in Saudi Arabia’s view), the United States—the traditional regional hegemon—is doing nothing to stop it and even encouraging Iran to widen the fissures. Since the United States can’t or won’t do anything, someone else has to, and that someone can only be Saudi Arabia. The dramatic increase in Riyadh’s willingness to intervene abroad, with both financial and military power, has been driven by its sense that dramatic action is required to prevent the region from melting down altogether and taking the kingdom down with it.

That is why the Saudis have been consistently overreacting to events in Washington’s eyes. We look at Bahrain and see an oppressed Shiite majority looking for some degree of political participation and economic benefit from the minority Sunni regime. The Saudis see an Iranian-backed mass uprising that could spread to the kingdom if it were to succeed—which is why the Iranians are helping it do so. We look at the Yemeni civil war and see a quagmire with only a minor Iranian role and little likelihood of destabilizing Saudi Arabia. The Saudis see an Iranian bid to stealthily undermine the kingdom. We see a popular Saudi Shiite cleric who would become a martyr if he is executed. The Saudis see an Iranian-backed firebrand stoking revolution in their country’s oil-producing regions. In the Syrian peace talks, we see a need to bring the Iranians in because of their critical support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The Saudis see the United States legitimizing both a Shiite/Persian/Iranian influence in a majority Sunni Arab state and the murderous, minority Shiite regime. The list goes on.

And in none of these situations is the United States, the power that Riyadh traditionally counted on to help fix its problems, doing much. And where we are, we are just as often favoring Iran or even opposing it.

And though many have always assumed that the Saudis look to free-ride and will bandwagon with whoever is the strongest power in the region, history is quite the opposite. Instead, the Saudis have traditionally fought back against any major power they didn’t like—from the Soviet Union to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—and Iran is now obviously at the top of that list.

So, the Saudis are scared of the rising tide of popular mobilization and Shiite mobilization; they are scared by their loss of control over the oil market and what that is forcing them to do domestically; they are scared by the spillover from the region’s civil wars and the costs that they are being forced to bear to try to prevent that spillover from affecting them; and they are scared that we are abandoning them for Iran. The Saudis’ world, in other words, is pretty scary. And their modus operandi today is the same as it always has been: to lash out to try to beat back the threats that they see and regain control of their circumstances. Hence their stunning intervention in Yemen, their constant escalation in Syria, and now this latest flare-up with Iran.

It’s also why America’s constant appeals to them to just calm down will have no impact except to infuriate them further. Unless we want to take up some of these burdens for the Saudis (their first choice, as always), then we have nothing that they want. It only adds insult to injury when Washington refuses to recognize the threats that they see, does nothing to help them with those threats, and then tries to keep them from doing what they think they need to do to deal with those threats themselves.

It’s also why we should expect to see other crises like this one in future. The Saudis are going to keep taking whatever actions they feel necessary to deter or defeat what they see as Iranian efforts to undermine their external power and their internal stability. In the unstable Middle East of the early 21st century, that aggressiveness is going to have very unpredictable effects. But what looks chaotic to Washington will continue to seem entirely logical from the perspective of Saudi Arabia.