Past Event

Managing Reform? Saudi Arabia and the King’s Dilemma

On June 28, 2011, the Saban Center at Brookings hosted a policy forum with Leigh Nolan, visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, and Michael Doran, Roger Hertog senior fellow at the Saban Center. Saban Center Director Kenneth Pollack gave opening remarks and moderated the discussion. Participants in Doha and Washington were connected via teleconference.

The policy forum addressed the fact that Saudi Arabia has largely avoided the wave of revolution sweeping the Middle East. One speaker began by saying that Saudi Arabia has managed to limit reform because it has numerous pillars of internal legitimacy. Yet, it still faces several challenges, most notably a youth bulge and significant youth unemployment in the country.

The speaker said that there are opposing forces that affect reform in Saudi Arabia: There are the ulema (religious scholars), who are far from monolithic—a more radical sahwa (awakening) movement pressures the regime to be more firm in its application of Shari’a (Islamic law). There is also a small group of elites, who have been emboldened to push for reforms.

The Saudi monarchy has historically had two methods of managing crises of legitimacy: using its largesse to “buy off” the population, and ceding significant social and educational ground to the ulema. The latter strategy has been employed in significant ways since the 1979 Grand Mosque crisis, and as a result, the focus of education on religious material at the expense of science, math, and other subjects has created a mismatch between labor supply and demand in the kingdom.

The Saudi monarchy has reacted to the Arab Spring by reverting to this traditional balance of co-opting the ulema and distributing money to the public. At the same time, while the regime has overreacted externally—specifically by sending military personnel to Bahrain—it seems to be in a “holding pattern” internally, as small protests have been limited to the Shi’i areas of eastern Saudi Arabia.

The second speaker began by asking two important questions: Does the Arab Spring mean the days of the Saudi monarchy are numbered? And, is the sixty-year-old U.S.-Saudi “oil-for-security bargain” effectively over? The answer to both appears to be “no.”

The monarchy has thus far benefited from its tried-and-true methods. In addition to the strategies already mentioned, the regime has been able to divide disparate reform movements that want very different outcomes by “tarnishing protesters with a Shi’i brush”: trumpeting the Iranian threat and suggesting that the opposition is a Shi’i fifth column.

In terms of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, this is a period of great tension between both countries. The Saudi regime wants the United States to be a “status quo power” in the Middle East, but feels the United States has not played this role. The Saudi government viewed the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 as the United States acting as a “revolutionary power,” and thought the Obama administration would break from this type of behavior. Therefore, the Obama administration’s ultimate support of the Arab Spring was surprising and exacerbated the tensions between Washington and Riyadh.

The flaw in the Saudi assessment, according to this speaker, is that the United States has not really decided to be an anti-status quo power. The United States has paid lip service to democratization but has calibrated its policies and its actions are different in Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria than they were in Egypt and Libya.

The speaker concluded by noting that while there are gaps between how the Saudi and American governments view current events in the region, there are significant shared interests. For instance, the United States and Saudi Arabia share concerns about al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula and Iranian influence in the region. “Barring some cataclysmic event, the old relationship will repair itself,” the speaker said.

In response to questions and comments from attendees in Washington and Doha, both speakers discussed Saudi Arabia’s regional role during the Arab Spring. One speaker argued that it is worrying that the Saudi regime, which is traditionally very cautious, has been getting out in front and publicly supporting counter-revolutionary measures in Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco. Both speakers agreed it is unclear whether or not the Saudi regime can influence events in these countries, but, as one put it, the Saudis are “going to be a big factor just by the amount of money they have to spend.”

One speaker warned that an eventual crisis point in Saudi Arabia will likely come from an event that riles up a dissident religious establishment. The other speaker hypothesized a prolonged succession debate leading to different parts of the al-Saud family appealing to different sectors of society for legitimacy. Another participant expressed concern that if the next monarch breaks from King Abdullah’s reform path, the now-hopeful youth could rise up and protest.

The speakers were asked what leverage the United States has to encourage the Saudi regime to reform and begin a path toward democratization. One speaker questioned this premise, asking whether encouraging democratization in Saudi Arabia should be a U.S. long-term interest. If stability is a U.S. interest, the speaker argued, then Saudi democratization may not be (instead economic liberalization may be a more desirable outcome). Because of this, the speaker said, the United States is likely to accept “gestures” instead of real political reform. Another attendee said that it is to the United States’ advantage that King Abdullah wants to implement specific reforms; U.S. policymakers should recognize that economic and educational reforms are just as critical as political reforms. One speaker agreed that the Saudi monarchy is moving toward education reform because it realizes that this is crucial for jobs and social stability.


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