The Political Crossroads Facing Saudi Arabia
By LTC Sargis Sangari and Steven Weingartner
(Updated November 27th for grammar and rearrangement)
On 9 August 2015 NEC-SE posted the article titled: “The World Community’s Ultimate Goal for Saudi Arabia.” In that article we stated that
Saudi may not last past September and may end up breaking up into several emirates. With numerous bombings and protests taking place throughout the country, and with the body bags starting to come home from the war in Yemen, Saudi leaders need to significantly change their political mindset for Saudi Arabia to survive as a viable state within the region.
We further predicted that Saudi will either split out into three states or be part of the world community: “It is their choice!”
Today Saudi has reached a political crossroads, facing the choice we predicted for it just over two years ago. In recent weeks the political and religious reforms undertaken by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman signal that the regime is turning away from the path of dissolution, instead moving in the direction of remaining a part of the world community as a unitarian state.
This move, if it proceeds along the lines Prince Mohammed has set for it, will have both positive and negative consequences for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). On the one hand, it will strengthen and enhance Saudi’s position as a power broker in Middle East, hence global, affairs. At the same time, however, it will undermine Saudi’s long-held authority as the religious and political leader of Sunni Islam.
This is already happening. Throughout the Sunni Ummah there are stirrings of concern – a “disturbance in the force,” as it were, of Sunni Islam. Observant Sunnis are uncomfortable with Prince Mohammed’s reforms because they constitute a de facto admission that Saudi leaders have, in the past, committed errors in their interpretation of Islam as well as the political philosophy that has grown out of the faith.
In the circumstances, Sunni Muslims now find themselves asking whether the reforms are required. Which is to say, were the Saudis truly wrong in the past? Or are they wrong now?
In order to answer these questions, it is important to grasp that KSA is not a normal nation. It is, rather, a nation that is expected to conduct its affairs strictly according to the tenants of Islam, as set forth in the Qur’an and the Hadith. It is the north star of faith for Muslims everywhere, the site of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the place they literally turn to for prayer and for religious, moral, ethical, and political guidance.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman most assuredly recognizes the KSA’s topmost position in Islam’s theological firmament, and he certainly knows how and why his reforms, insofar as they constitute an admission of error in a realm where, traditionally, infallibility was assumed, has shaken that the firmament to its very foundations. Even so he has fast-tracked his agenda for reform with a single-minded focus and determination to achieve his goals.
Clearly, the prince believes that the Saudi nation must change or die, and that change must come now or death will soon follow.
Of course change in Saudi will inevitably entail change in all the other Sunni states as well. Everyone in the Sunni universe, but particularly the leaders of those states, will be presented with a veritable galaxy of issues that must be confronted and decisions that must be made.
For example: until very recently Saudi women were severely restricted in what they could do and where they could go; now, by order of the crown prince, they can walk unaccompanied on the street without male escorts and even drive cars. Thus, within the space of a single day, the crown prince has eradicated important elements of a system of social control over women that had been place for centuries. Saudi women now enjoy not only unprecedented freedom of movement, but also a measure of personal autonomy that such freedom inevitably confers.
It would be an understatement to say that this development constitutes a profound departure from traditional Saudi social norms. It is nothing short of revolutionary, and its effect is not confined to Saudi borders. Sunni Muslims outside Saudi, who have always looked to the Saudi for guidance on matters of proper societal conduct, tend to be quite taken aback by it. They are, many of them, confused and tormented by a gnawing doubt. In their view, the Saudi’s are committing a breach of trust. Which leads them to ask: they the Saudis will do the right thing with respect to the region? Can they any longer follow the lead of the Saudis in matters of faith?
If they decide they can’t, they will likely conclude that they cannot follow the lead of the Saudis in the geo-political sphere as well.
Such wavering by Sunni states comes at inopportune time for KSA, given its steadily deteriorating relations with Iran. Lately, and for quite some time, the two nations have been rattling their swords and waging a war of words that seems, increasingly, to be a harbinger of a real shooting war.
In the event of armed conflict between Saudi and Iran, Saudi will need Sunni allies with which to build a coalition. But, for reasons stated above, Saudi might find the Sunni states of the Middle East unwilling to join them in what would amount to an Islamic civil war, a war between Sunni and Shia Islam.
Perhaps that war is already underway in Yemen, where Saudi is battling Iranian-backed Shia Houthis in a conflict with no end in sight and military confrontation with Iran looming on the horizon.
The prospects for a war with Iran do not bode well for the KSA. The Saudis would likely find themselves fighting not only the well-equipped and highly competent Iranian armed forces but also civilian militants drawn from the large Shia populations both within the KSA and in the neighboring Gulf States and Iraq. Nor does Iran lack the means to exploit the military potential of these populations against Saudi. Twice every year the Iranian government facilitates the movement of tens of millions of Shia pilgrims from throughout the Middle East and beyond to take part in the biannual religious observances held in the holy city of Karbala in Iraq, where the Shia imams Husayn and Abbas are buried. Such capabilities would, of course, prove highly useful against the Saudis in time of war, and one doubts that the Iranians would be slow to take advantage of them.
In formulating a strategy for using civilian population movements to strike at Saudi, Iran cannot have failed to notice, and draw the relevant lessons from, the success of ISIS and AQ fighters fleeing the battlefields of Syria and Iraq in infiltrating across Saudi’s borders to reconstitute in the KSA. Saudi has proved incapable of stopping the flow of foreign fighters on to its soil, despite the provision by Egypt of some 40,000 troops for this purpose.
Foreign fighters setting up shop in the KSA are not the only internal threat to Saudi’s security. The KSA is swarming with princes and a number of them are corrupt, engaging in financial dealings with Kuwaiti banks that has called into question their loyalty to the regime. Recently no fewer than eleven of these princes were arrested on Prince Mohammed’s orders and their assets were seized, to the tune of trillions of dollars. Their fate has yet to be determined. The regime may choose to imprison them for an indefinite period or simply kill them, but in any case it has made many enemies of their families, clans, tribes, and loyal business associates.
The arrest and imprisonment of the Saudi princes has sent shock waves through the Middle East, adding yet another element of instability to a region already poised on the brink of general war. Such a war, if it does break out, will almost certainly assume terrible dimensions, pitting Shia against Shia in Iraq and Iran, Shia against Sunni in Lebanon, and Sunni against Sunni in Saudi Arabia. It will quickly go global, engulfing all Muslim-majority nations with significant Sunni and Shia populations living next to each other. It will reveal, fully and violently the “internal contradictions” General Dempsey spoke of in his recent speech on the Middle East:
The Curse of Internal Contradictions: Dempsey’s Speech on the Middle East Angers Friends, Emboldens Enemies
The coming of war seems to have been presaged in the course of events involving Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. An “ally” of the Saudis, Hariri was in the uncomfortable position of holding high office in a state where Hezbollah, a tool of Iran, is the dominant power. Hariri was to provide Saudi with victory over Hezbollah in Lebanon, but he proved inadequate to the task. Knowing that he had failed, and fearing assassination by the agents of Hezbollah and Iran, Hariri announced his resignation on November 4, 2017.
Seven days later Lebanese President Michael Auon rejected Hariri’s resignation, stating that “Lebanon does not accept its prime minister being in a situation at odds with international treaties and the standard rules in relations between states.” Hariri responded by absconding to France, ostensibly to discuss the situation French President Emmanuel Macron. In actual fact, Hariri had fled Lebanon for the safety of France, where he holds citizenship. His family soon joined him, but only after Saudi provided guarantees to France that Hariri’s financial assets would follow him.
Saudi’s initial support of Hariri followed by its acquiescence in his ouster has further undermined its position as a political and religious leader of the Ummah. The millions of Muslims worldwide who looked to Saudi as Islam’s proverbial “strong horse” are becoming increasingly disillusioned with House of Saud and its ruling prince.
And no wonder. The KSA is in disarray, floundering from crisis to crisis. In Yemen, the Saudis are in fight from which they cannot extricate themselves. In Lebanon they have no policy and all their plans have come to ruin. Nevertheless, Prince Mohammed seems to put the KSA collision course of war with Iran. If Saudi and Iran go to war, will the Sunni states unite behind Saudi to fight it? Or will they stand on the sidelines and let Saudi fend for itself?
The answer to these questions may well be determinative of both the survival of the Saudi state as well as the character of Islam in the twenty-first century.