What Happens when Arab Autocrats are Left to Fend for Themselves? Turmoil Galore
We have been given the impossible task of telling you in the words of Hollywood director and actor Woody Allen everything about the Middle East that you want to know and never dared to ask and all of that in 15 minutes. I am going to provide a series of headlines so that we can flesh some of those out in the subsequent discussion. In doing so, I may be a bit provocative which will hopefully make debate more interesting.
The rise of Asia shares significant responsibility for the turmoil the Middle East is experiencing. Yes, you heard me correctly. What I mean to say with this is that popular wisdom has it that a war weary, indecisive and weak President Obama’s disengagement from the region lies at the root of nations with Saudi Arabia in the lead adopting more assertive foreign and defensive policies with disastrous consequences in places like Syria and Yemen and the potential to destabilize others in the region.
Yes, there is a degree of US disengagement but not out of weakness but out of strategic reinterpretation of US national interests. That reinterpretation reduces the importance of the Middle East to the United States with some exceptions like Israel and attributes significantly increased significance to Asia. It also involves a realization that support for autocratic regimes that are fighting for survival irrespective of the cost constitutes a failed policy, a policy that has fueled anti-Americanism and militant interpretations of Islam.
That is particularly true for Saudi Arabia with its decades-long export of Wahhabism and Salafism that has catapulted a puritan, inward looking and intolerant interpretation of Islam into an influential force across the Muslim world. In his interviews with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, Obama noted that the Saudi campaign, the single largest public diplomacy campaign in history, has begun for example to alter the tolerant character of Islam in Indonesia. Witness the predicament of Ahmadis and Shiites and the conservative turn in public morals that Indonesian society is experiencing.
Which brings me to my second point, the hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This is a battle for regional hegemony that has been going on at least since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. It is a battle that fueled the Saudi campaign to export Wahhabism and Salafism in a bid to counter the revolutionary appeal of Iran and prompted Saudi Arabia to support Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s eight-year long costly war in the 1980s against Iran.
This is a battle for hegemony that Saudi Arabia lost on day one and never stood a chance of winning. Saudi Arabia’s predicament was long alleviated by the fact that hostility towards Iran, think back of the occupation of the US embassy in Tehran, and subsequent international sanctions kept Iran in check for much of the last decades. All of that changed with the nuclear agreement and the lifting of the sanctions.
As a result, Saudi Arabia sees its window of opportunity closing. It explains why Saudi Arabia’s main objection to the nuclear agreement was not so much whether or not it would stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons but the fact that Iran would be returning to the international community less fettered by sanctions.
Saudi policy at whatever cost has since been to attempt to strengthen Iranian hardliners in the hope that they would complicate Iran’s return and make it as difficult as possible for Iran to get access to technology and funding needed for the rehabilitation of its economy. This is why Saudi Arabia refused to agree to oil production cuts that would raise oil prices without Iran being part of the agreement. Iran’s goal is not price stabilization but the regaining of market share lost as a result of the sanctions.
Fact of the matter is that Saudi Arabia lacks the intrinsic building blocks to retain its regional leadership status on a level playing field. It lacks the assets that countries like Iran, Turkey and Egypt have irrespective of what state of political and economic disrepair they currently may be experiencing. Those countries have large populations, diversified industrial bases, battle hardened militaries that at least at times have performed, histories of empire and geography. Saudi Arabia has Mecca and money, the latter in lesser amounts given the fall in commodity prices and heightened expenditure. Turkey, Iran and Egypt figure prominently in China’s vision of “One Belt, One Road,” Saudi Arabia does not.
Saudi policy appears to operate on the principle of Marx’s Verelendungstheorie, it’s got to get worse to get better. And the worse it gets the more likely it will be that the United States will have to reengage and delay its pivot to Asia. Even if that is true, it would not be a return to the status quo ante in which US support for Saudi Arabia was absolute. The nuclear agreement with Iran has made sure of that. Granted, the outcome of the US presidential election could rewrite the landscape.
Saudi efforts to avert the inevitable relies on sectarianism that threatens not only regional but also domestic stability and effects ethnic and sectarian relations elsewhere in the world and particularly in Asia. That is not to say that Iran does not nurture and support forces with sectarian identities in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Nor does this deny the fact that Iran opposes monarchical rule, it toppled its own monarch, the first pro-American icon to fall in the region in a popular revolt, and denounces Wahhabism. The question is how Iranian policy would have evolved in the wake of the Iran-Iraq war had Saudi Arabia adopted a more conciliatory approach.
All of this takes place at a time that Middle Eastern autocrats are seeking to reorder the Middle East and North Africa in ways that will ensure their survival. They are doing so in the wake of the 2011 Arab popular revolts that changed the paradigm even if the immediate consequence has been collapse, counterrevolution, and widespread bloodshed; the changing security architecture in the region as a result of the redefinition of US national interest; changing economic imperatives, and the fact that the end of oil is in sight. Most people born in the Gulf today will witness the end of oil in their life time.
There is a lot of discussion of the demise of the early 20th century Sykes Picot agreement having sparked the disintegration of states like Syria and Iraq in the Middle East. I would take issue with that. Middle Eastern nation states are fragile not because their post-colonial borders are artificial but because they were governed for so long by regimes that were not inclusive and did not deliver. Africa, the continent that was perceived to have been populated by fragile states that would collapse in a domino effect if only one state broke apart disproves the theory. Biafra, Eritrea and the Western Sahara did not spark the domino effect.
Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman who is driving policy in the kingdom is a popular figure. He represents a new generation in a country with a youth bulge. His Vision 2030 constitutes a needed upgrading of autocracy. Leaving aside economic questions about the vision, Mohammed will not be able to turn Saudi Arabia into a diversified, 21st century knowledge economy on the basis of a backward looking interpretation of Islam that harks back to the 7th century. In addition, Wahhabism is becoming an international liability given its undeniable association with jihadist ideology.
Let me conclude by noting two things: Saudi Arabia in the early 20th century was what the Islamic State is today. If the Islamic State survives it will become what Saudi Arabia is today. In many ways, it does not matter whether the Islamic State is destroyed or not. The key to defeating Islamic State-like groups and ideologies is tackling what makes them attractive to multiple audiences. Root causes is the latest buzzword but no government has so far adopted policy changes that truly address those causes.
Second of all, the ruling Al Saud family and the religious establishment are nearing a restructuring of their relationship as the cost of adherence to Wahhabism becomes domestically and internationally too costly. There is no necessarily good result from that process. The key word in arguments between the Islamic State and the kingdom is deviant. In other words, we agree on the base but you, the other, are deviating from it.
The restructuring can entail the religious establishment bending over further to accommodate the regime. That will spark more radical religious opposition and undermine the credibility of religious leaders. The Al Saud’s legitimacy and claim to the right to rule is vested in the religious establishment. Watch this space. The 2011 popular revolts unleashed processes that are still unfolding and will take years to settle down.
While Asia may only have been a player in the kicking off of these processes in terms of American policy calculations, it certainly will not be immune to their fallout.
This article is adapted from a lecture originally delivered at the Asia Pacific Roundtable.