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Diminishing Infleunce

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Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, Washington DC

September 23, 2013

Diminishing Influence And Cosmetic Announcements

Commentaries and Analysis

“Saudi Arabia stirs the Middle East pot”

CDHR’s Analysis: In a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, David Ignatius characterized the underhanded Saudi interferences in the affairs of other Muslim and Arab countries as “…partly to keep turmoil outside their borders. It’s what the divide-and-conquer British used to describe as a ‘forward’ strategy.” Many informed and pro-democratic-reform Saudi natives, including a small number of royals, have been trying to warn the international community, especially the Saudi regime’s Western supporters and protectors, of the Saudi’s dangerous domestic and foreign policy objectives and their implications for the Saudi people, the Greater Middle East and the international community. Given the pro-Saudi author of the Post’s opinion piece and his paper’s political orientation and appeal to the current Administration and other Democrats in the State Department and in the US Congress, it will be a big mistake not to remind the autocratic Saudi ruling princes that destabilizing other societies to deflect attention from their oppressed people’s demands for change will have consequences.

The Post’s opinion highlighted some of the Saudi regime’s past and present support for terrorist jihadis and proxy wars in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen and Egypt. ‘The list of Saudi interventions is long: With the Kuwaitis and others, they bankrolled the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon to the point of fomenting against the Christian-led government a civil war that raged for 15 years. They financed Saddam Hussein’s eight-year war against Iran; then, when an overconfident Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, they pleaded for a U.S. invasion to drive him back. After U.S. forces invaded once more in 2003 to overthrow Hussein, the Saudis backed Sunni groups in Iraq.’

Maintaining stability at home by the sword and doing all they can to export their lethal doctrine and to finance extremist groups to destabilize other societies are not only dangerous to others, but to stability in Saudi Arabia itself. Western Saudi allies are doing all they can to maintain stability in Saudi Arabia in order to avoid military intervention to protect the production and shipment of petroleum from the Persian Gulf without which the global economy could collapse.

Given the instability and turmoil in the Arab World and their inevitable spread to Saudi Arabia, the Saudi people and the international community, especially the West, would best be served by supporting Saudi reformers (including liberal royals) to lead a peaceful transition to a participatory form of government. By supporting genuine pro-democratic-reform Saudis who know the true nature and the underpinnings of the wily Saudi monarchy and its custom-made system, the US will more likely avoid a military campaign to secure the flow of oil from the region.

It should not be interpreted that lack of turmoil in Saudi streets now mean people are happy with the current political, social and economic arrangement in Saudi Arabia; in reality “…it would be a mistake to interpret that silence as satisfaction with the status quo.”

Given the Arab people’s rise against their tyrannical regimes, many of whom were less repressive than the Saudi regime, it is naïve at best to assume that the Saudi people will continue to submit to a system that persists in denying them basic human rights. The longer the Saudi regime relies on oppression at home and destabilization of other countries to avoid responding to demands for political, social and economic reforms at home, it is more likely that people will resort to violent revolt comparable to or worse than what is happening in neighboring countries.

Given the contagious fervor sweeping the Arab World for regime change in pursuit of political freedom, better economic opportunities, religious tolerance and gender equality, it’s only a matter of time before the Saudi people rise against the autocratic regime. The question is shall the Saudi regime’s Western supporters wait until that eventuality occurs or should they attempt to prevent it?

Gulf Arab Monarchs’ Dashed Hopes

CDHR’s Analysis: Championed by the Saudi oligarchy, the oil-rich authoritarian dynasties of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are doing all they can to mobilize the international community, specifically the US, to attack and topple the Syrian Alawite (Shiite) regime, ostensibly to save the Syrian people from their regime’s onslaught. This is hypocritical to say the least because these regimes, especially the Saudi and Qatari ruling dynasties, have been arming and financing the Syrian opposition groups, some of whom are known terrorists and executioners such as Al-Qaeda and Al-Nusra. These groups are also supporting an American attack on the Assad regime, on whose defeat they hope to “capitalize,” ascend to power, and turn Syria into a Taliban-like fundamentalist Islamic state.

The intent of both the Gulf rulers and the current dominant extremist opposition in Syria is to use the US not to ‘rescue’ the Syrian people as these monarchs and their proxies claim. Their objective is to create an environment in which Iran and its Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon, Assad’s major regional supporters, will come to the Alawites’ defense. This could provide the US and/or Israel with a justification to go after Iran’s nuclear and military infrastructure and dismantle Hezbollah’s economic and military capabilities for decades to come. If this were to happen, a scenario that is being shelved at least for now, the Gulf’s ruling dynasties will be in a position to dominate any regime replacing Assad directly or through Sunni jihadi groups.

By dismantling Iran and Hezbollah, Shi’a influence in Arab and Muslim countries will be diminished, providing further opportunities for the Gulf Sunni regimes to expand their influence, especially in Iraq, whose ruling Shi’a regime they consider a threat to their regional economic and strategic domination. In addition, these Gulf regimes are expecting and perhaps hoping that their oppressed and restive Shi’a citizens will take to the streets, not only to protest against the US attack on their Shi’a brethren, but against their governments’ support for the US attack, if it were to occur. This will provide the Sunni dominated societies with an excuse to clamp down on their Shi’a citizens, as exemplified by the current crackdown in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

The question is, will empowering the Gulf and other Sunni Muslim regimes, and by extension their extremist proxies around the world, bring peace, social justice, and stability to the Greater Middle East? Or will it empower anti-democratic elements and increase sectarian conflict as is occurring in the Gulf States and elsewhere? Given the current bloody sectarian conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, one would predict that empowering Sunni extremists, whether regimes or individual groups, will not eradicate the root cause of destabilizing sectarianism, the oppression of religious minorities.

However, the authoritarian Gulf regimes’ objectives of overthrowing Assad of Syria and crippling Iran and Hezbollah may not be realized in the near future, if ever. Not only has the US been reluctant to attack Syria, but the GCC overture has been rejected by the Arab League and major world powers.

In August 2013, the top Saudi deal-maker, Prince Bandar, was dispatched to convince President Assad’s staunch supporter, Russia’s President Putin, to let go of Assad’s regime, but Bandar was rebuffed despite lucrative economic and strategic offers by the Saudis. On September 1, 2013, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud Al-Faisal made a passionate plea to the foreign ministers of the 22 members of the Arab League to endorse the US intent to attack Assad’s chemical and other military targets, but he was turned down.

The Saudis and other Gulf rulers claim that their objective is to stop the massacres in Syria. However, the overriding reasons for lack of international support for their campaign against Syria’s Alawite regime include the increasing foreign mistrust of the Saudi monarchy and the international community’s deeper understanding of its intended objectives. The Saudis have made it clear that their objective is to foster a regime in Syria that they can control and use as a bargaining tool. This is why the intense Saudi efforts to topple Assad at any cost are met with cynicism among Arabs, Muslims, and major world powers, especially Western democracies.

Despite overt praises for the Saudis by their Western supporters, the US and European governments are becoming more suspicious of and less susceptible to Saudi pressure. This is partially due to discoveries of more energy sources and decreasing dependence on Saudi oil. The West no longer relies on Saudi territory for military bases and surveillance facilities. The bulk of the West’s military instillations have been relocated to neighboring countries such as Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, UAE, and some former Soviet Asian territories. Moreover, the West has realized that it’s only a matter of time before the Arab revolutionary fervor engulfs the Gulf Arab autocratic ruling dynasties.

Western democratic governments' beneficial economic collaborations with the despotic ruling Arab dynasties of the Persian Gulf have lasted for more than a century. However, these arrangements were destined to take a jarring nose-dive because the relationships were based on greed, manipulation, and mistrust. The democratic West was (and still is) mostly interested in economic gains regardless of how it's obtained and at whose expense. The autocratic Gulf Arab rulers were (and still are) interested in sharing the loot and buying protection to stay in power by oppressing their populations.

This century’s old collaboration is fraying because of rapidly evolving domestic, regional and global variables. Prominent among these variables are the Gulf peoples' increased restlessness due to their awareness of their usurped rights, their autocratic regimes' mismanagement of national wealth, women's insistent demands for their rights, as well as political and sectarian repression. These factors, combined with the West's decreasing dependence on the Gulf rulers and the ongoing revolt of the Arab masses against tyranny, have created a new environment in which the West has been compelled to re-evaluate its commitment to these autocrats who are heading for a disastrous end.

Saudi Prince Meets His Russian Emperor

CDHR’s Comment: More than at any time in its violent history, the oligarchical Saudi regime is petrified of becoming marginalized in the mosaic of changing variables in the Middle East. The causes of this apprehension are many—the impact of the Arab Spring on regional stability and political alliances, royal defectors, unabashed demands for political reforms and social justice coming from Saudi men and women, more energy sources, new players and discord within OPEC, western governments’ support for the overthrow of Arab dictators, and dwindling of American support for the Saudi monarchy.

The confluence of these unprecedented ominous challenges has created an environment of fear for the authoritarian Saudi rulers. Even though the Saudi royals have realized that their sway among their Western allies has been in decline for some time, they did not grasp the reality of their dispensability until the unexpected Arab Spring and Western support for the ouster of major strategic Arab allies. Given these daunting challenges, the Saudi regime concluded that it can no longer count on the West to promote Saudi interest and to protect the regime against domestic and regional threats.

For instance, after relentless efforts by Saudi King Abdullah to cajole the United States and its European allies into invading Iran to “cut off the head of the snake” under the pretext of destroying Iran’s nuclear program, the Saudi rulers have concluded that the US is pursuing policies that serve America’s interests and strengthen its strategic long-term objectives, which are not compatible with those of  the Saudi regime, especially as they relate to Iran.

Convinced that Western democracies no longer trust or depend on the Saudi rulers to promote and defend their interests, the Saudi regime naively tried to pressure the US again. This time, the Saudi rulers tried to compel the US to invade Syria and take out the tyrannical Syrian regime and to hand the Syria to Saudi and Qatari-supported Jihadi operatives whose ultimate objective is the destruction of Western democracy.

After realizing that the Western governments, whom the Saudi rulers have relied on and manipulated for decades, are not going to do their dirty work, the Saudi regime dispatched its supposed “big gun”, Prince Bandar, former ambassador to the US and current head of Saudi intelligence, to Moscow to tantalize (bribe) Russia’s hard-nosed top man, President Vladimir Putin into letting go of Syria’s Alawite regime. Despite Prince Bandar’s lucrative offers, including heavy financial investment in the Russian economy and a commitment to switching the Saudis’ allegiance from the US to Russia, he was snubbed. “During the meeting at the Kremlin, the Saudi official explained to his interlocutor that Riyadh is ready to help Moscow play a bigger role in the Middle East.”  Additionally, “Bandar proposed that Saudi Arabia buy $15 billion (11 billion euros) of weapons from Russia and invest ‘considerably’ in the country.” Prince Bandar assured Putin that “whatever regime comes after” Assad, it will be “completely in the Saudis' hands and will not sign any agreement allowing any Gulf country to transport its gas across Syria to Europe and compete with Russian gas exports.”

Putin’s unwillingness to accept the Saudi offer must have been very hard on Prince Bandar, who is accustomed to blackmailing, threatening, or purchasing Western officials for less than what he proposed to the unbending former Russian intelligence Tsar. Despite the generous offer, Bandar was soundly rebuffed by Putin and sent home empty-handed, with a bruised ego and loss of credibility among senior princes.

The cantankerous Saudi Prince and those who dispatched him to Moscow in the hope of cutting a quick deal with Putin seem to have made colossal business and political miscalculations. They forgot that the Russians (the former Soviet Union) have been fighting the Saudis’ brainchild, Al-Qaeda, and its affiliate terrorist organizations for decades in Afghanistan, in Chechnya, and in Russia itself, where civilians were massacred in theaters and in children’s schools. The Saudis did not appear to take into account the difference between doing business with the wily Russian politicians and the trusting Westerners.

Furthermore, the Saudis may have erroneously thought that they could capitalize on the US-Russian squabble over the Edward Snowden episode and their disagreements on other issues, but they failed to understand that Putin is too smart to fall for Saudi political tricks. The Saudis attempted to send a message to the Americans and Europeans, warning them that despite decades of Saudi-Western alliance, the West can be replaced.

Even if the ruling Saudi princes are serious about emasculating their associations with the West in favor of better strategic, military, and economic relations with the Russians, they may not be able to do so. The West has entrenched historical interests in the Gulf region which are protected by overwhelming land and sea military posts, specifically in Qatar and Bahrain, both bordering the gigantic, rich Saudi oil fields, refineries and ports. It is inconceivable that the West would surrender its economic, military and strategic advantages in the Gulf region to any other power, regardless of consequences.

Additionally, it’s not to the Saudis’ advantage to forge an alliance with a non-Western major power without including the smaller Gulf Arab states whom the Saudis use as a bargaining tool and as a buffer against countries like Iran. However, it is unlikely that the smaller Gulf states, which enjoy strong ties with the West, can or would follow the Saudis into such a new alliance. They prefer to be outposts of the West rather than to depend on the ruling Saudi princes’ domination. These states do not care much for the Saudi rulers, whom they consider rigid and even threatening to their domestic stability and to their preferred “live and let live” regional relations, especially with Iran, Iraq and Israel.

Given these realities, it looks like the repressive Saudi royals do not have as much room and power to maneuver as they have come to believe. This is what happens when arrogance and ignorance outstrip reality.

America is Irreplaceable Despite Saudi Complaints and Search for Substitutes

CDHR’s Commentary: One of the Saudis’ persistent and frequent complaints, publicly and in private, is about US support for Israel, which the Saudis and other Arab regimes blame for their homegrown failures to advance their lagging societies. Another major current complaint is the US reluctance or unwillingness to invade Iran and dismantle its economic and military infrastructure, which will eliminate the Saudis’ last regional dictatorial competitor. However, the issue that seems to be taking a toll on the Saudi-US collaboration is the Obama Administration’s refusal to topple president Assad of Syria which could result in handing Syria to Saudi sponsored Sunni extremists, weakening Iran’s and its Hezbollah proxy’s influence in Arab and Muslim countries.

Frustrated by the US’s reluctance to invade and topple the Allawite regime in Syria and fearful of possible looming US fence-mending with Iran, the Saudis tried to recruit the Europeans, the Arab League and the Russians to do their bidding in Syria, but were rebuffed despite lucrative financial, strategic and information-sharing offers.

Despite their disproportionate influence, the Saudi royals are discovering that many powerful and trusted countries are not willing to risk their long term relations with the US and side with an autocratic monarchy on major issues like the ongoing bloody war in Syria and revolts in the rest of the Arab World. Realizing this reality, the Saudis are going back to the effective, but not the only, option available to them, financial influence, the other option being the use of terrorism to intimidate and extract favorable deals.

Having concluded that the US is not as susceptible to previous Saudi methods of chicanery and manipulation, the Saudi royals went back to the drawing board and dusted off their tools of economic entrapment. In a recent business conference “The U.S-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum” American companies were sought after and passionately urged to take advantage of proposed $1 trillion massive projects in Saudi Arabia. Based on historical experiences, the Saudis know that if the Americans invest hugely in long term business relationships, the US government will be committed to protecting American property and technological knowhow as has been the case during the last 80 years.

Although the Saudi oligarchs and controlled media are quick to blame America for many Arab and Muslim self-inflicted defeats and other ills, they are doing their utmost to renew America’s commitment to protect them from domestic and foreign threats. Foremost among the shrewd and contrived methods the Saudi royals use to keep America on their side are lucrative economic deals such as procuring military hardware and gargantuan long term contracts such as exploration for, producing, refining and marketing Saudi oil, the major source of the royals’ income.

Given these historical experiences, it should not be that difficult to predict that the longer the Saudi autocratic and theocratic rulers remain in power and possess large amount of cash, the more they will continue to export their lethal ideology and finance extremists worldwide. Paradoxically, our democratic values and national security are the targets of Islamists’ murderous intent. The question to be asked is, should we be participating in undermining our empowering values, compromising our incomparable way of life and risking our freedom of choice for financial gain?

Saudi Women Gain New Reforms”

CDHR’s Commentary: “Against the expectation of many observers, social change continues in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Recent reforms have particularly affected the status of women. At the end of August, the Saudis took a remarkable and surprising step by criminalizing domestic violence.” This article "Saudi Women Gain New Reforms" makes it sound as if the autocratic and theocratic Saudi rulers are opposed to abuses of women. By describing opposition to barbaric maltreatment of women as “remarkable” begs the question. While the authors of this article have been critical of the Saudi regime’s religious intolerance (and rightfully so), they are misrepresenting facts on the ground about the Saudi rulers’ efforts to protect women from male cruelty.

It’s a well-known fact that discrimination and abuses of women's basic rights are government policy in Saudi Arabia, as exemplified by the “male guardian system” and denying women the right to drive. Furthermore, lack of free access to employment and restrictions on freedom of movement force the overwhelming majority of Saudi women into a position of submission to men. Even the few women who can afford to buy or rent property to live in still have to get a male relative’s permission. This near-total dependence on men makes it easier for males to abuse women who cannot escape them, especially when the system holds male relatives accountable for women’s conduct.

Like many westerners, the authors of the article above refer to the ministerial announcement as a "law" when in reality a codified rule of law is considered antithetical to Islamic teachings on which Shariah is predicated. If the Saudi autocrats and theocrats are serious about protecting women from abuses then they should institute a non-religious rule of law that is enforced by an independent judicial system where judges are popularly elected or confirmed by freely elected assemblies rather than being appointed by and only accountable to the king and his ruling family.

For the authors of "Saudi Women Gain New Reforms" to justify their argument by repeating the Saudi government controlled media’s praises of the Saudi oligarchs’ cosmetic steps designed to silence their critics and appease the international community is deceptive at best.

“It’s about time we have laws against harassment”

CDHR’s Commentary: An announcement was made by the Saudi Council of Ministers recently which “criminalizes violence against women at home and in the work place.” While on the surface, this announcement (not a “law” as it’s being dubbed) sounds good, it will remain only ink on paper because there are no established legal institutions to guarantee its consistent implementation. Many of these ministerial announcements have been made before and none has produced the results the public hoped they would. As a Saudi woman rightfully suspected “This law was long overdue and my biggest concern is in its effective implementation. Passing a law is a necessary first step but it is not a stand-alone process. Without recourse to trained officers, empathic civil courts, safe houses and professional rehab services as well as relocation mechanisms such a law will not serve the purpose it was passed for.” It is not surprising that the people are suspicious of these appeasing announcements because they are not backed up by a supportive legal system or the institutions to implement them. Announcements can be ignored and arbitrarily annulled.

The Saudi ruling oligarchs and theocrats consider non-sectarian codified rule of law antithetical to the teaching of Islam and to its arbitrary Shariah law. The rulers of Saudi Arabia designated Shariah law (arbitrary interpretations of religious codes) as the law of the land when they stamped their name on the country and its religiously diverse population in1932. The Saudi theocrats, who share power with and work under the directive of the dominant oligarchs, the Saudi royals, are in charge of religious affairs, the judicial system, public conduct and the educational system. They interpret the Shariah as they see fit to ensure public submission to the ruling family and by extension to the religious establishment. The ruling partners, autocrats and theocrats, consider and treat the country as a family business. This arrangement was forced on the repressed population for the last eight decades.

However, most Saudi citizens, including an increasing number of royals and the religious establishment (the bedrock of the oligarchs’ legitimacy), are becoming more aware of the regime’s manipulation of religion as a tool of oppression, fabrication and deception. This awareness can be attributed to more educated and savvier citizens, especially women who are strong advocates of social justice and codified rule of law to replace the dated arbitrary Shariah law. Furthermore, Saudis, particularly youth, are among the highest users in the world of the game-changing social media.

This uncontrollable and unstoppable medium provides the Saudi people of all stripes, ages, and genders with a very powerful vehicle to communicate with each other and with the rest of the world about issues they were not permitted to debate publicly. These include religion, the validity of Shariah law in modern times, the royals’ siphoning of public wealth, the absence of accountability and transparency in government, as well as oppression of women and minorities. Now people are not only debating these taboos, but also the very legitimacy of the ruling family and its ultra-repressive religious establishment.

By communicating with each other via social media, Saudi citizens began to realize that the ruling elites’ political, religious, economic and social arrangements were designed to subjugate them to government’s abuses and to sanction violence against women, especially young girls whose fate and every aspect of life are controlled by male relatives and reinforced by the Shariah-based legal system.

The Saudi regime’s rejection of codified rule of law is being challenged by many Saudi women and men. They are realizing that the government’s insistence on ruling according to Islamic (Shariah) law is no more than a ploy to deceive the people and justify the system’s corrupt and repressive policies.



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