The Politics of Neighbours
Both Arabia's internal situation and internal policies can safely be
said to reflect the Kingdom's foreign relations. Indeed, it is not easy
to understand the internal policy unless one knows its regional and international
relations, which is the role that countries of the region and the major
powers play in shaping Saudi policies; some of these are open, others are
secret and of a long term nature. So, who are the Kingdom's foreign partners
and to what extent do they influence Riyadh's policies?
Arabia's foremost relations are with the Gulf States and those having
joint borders with it. But being smaller, weaker and with less natural resources,
these states are unable to exercise direct influence over their neighbouring
"Big Brother". However, they are able to wield an indirect influence
over Riyadh by causing embarrassment to the Saudi rulers by means of their
economic activities and the high standard of services that they provide
to their peoples. For example, Kuwait's parliamentary experience; the United
Arab Emirates' high standards of social services and Qatar's freedom of
the press have become more than enough to worry the House of Saud.
The concern of the Saudi rulers is understandable: Kuwait's parliamentary
experience will sooner or later impel the Arabian people to demand elections
and popular representation in the various political institutions of the
country, something which has been ignored so far despite the advise of friendly
countries. Similarly, the high standards of living in the UAE will push
the Arabians to draw a comparison between themselves and the Emirate citizens.
In doing so, they will demand an explanation from the regime for the deprivation
that they suffer whilst knowing that their country is the richest, not
only in the area, but in the whole Arab world.
Yet the strongest reaction from amongst the Arabian population is expected
to come from the realisation that their Qatari neighbours enjoy an incredible
degree of press and media freedom, whilst the Arabians suffer the relentless
official and semi-official media hammering. In Qatar there is no censorship
of the press or any other printed material, whilst in Arabia it is illegal
even to talk at home about the country's problems, let alone about the ruling
class. Consciousness about this aberration, and about the reasons behind
it, will increase rapidly because since the freedom of circulation of people
has not been made illegal between Qatar and Arabia and the other Gulf States,
Arabian citizens are becoming informed as to the real issues at stake. This
is a course of history which no-one can stop.
The second country connected with Arabia is Yemen. President Nasser of
Egypt, head of the anti-imperialist camp in the Arab World in his time,
had thousands of troops stationed in Yemen for several years in order to
help protect this progressive State, but also to put pressure on the Saudi
rulers whom he rightly considered to be lackeys, furthering the designs
of American imperialism in the Mashreq. Since the withdrawal of Nasser's
forces in the late 1960's, Yemen has not been in a position to exercise
any pressure on its northern neighbour. On the contrary, with its oil wealth
and its abundant supply of dollars, it was Riyadh which had been influencing
events in its southern neighbour State. Even after its unity war of a few
years ago, Yemen has not been able to free itself from Riyadh's hegemony.
Yet Yemen is in a position to exercise pressure on the Saudis in a different
way. There has been increasing activities of various Islamic movements in
this small country, including the Saudi Arabian salafi movement. Moreover,
Yemen has an increasingly assertive Islamic trend which has been calling
for Yemeni direct influence in Arabia, instead of distant pressure.
Yemen has long borders with Arabia. Besides, large parts of the country
are not properly controlled by the central government; thus arms of various
kinds do circulate along the border without undue problem. These areas have
been important sanctuaries for Saudi mujahidin groups. Saudi Defence Minister
Prince Sultan's visits to the Yemeni capital to establish cooperation against
the Saudi Islamic opposition have led to the arrest and extradition to Arabia
of a number of mujahidin, but this was not made legally binding by the Yemeni
side, and has also done little to undermine the Saudi mujahidin groups.
With the Yemeni Islamic movement having asserted itself as a party to reckon
with in politics, Yemen will increasingly be in a better position to wield
influence over Riyadh.
There seem to be no real way in which either Syria or Jordan is able
to influence Saudi Arabian policies noticeably. Their influence, however,
arises from there relations with Iran and Iraq.
But as far as relations with Iraq are concerned, they will be determined
by the political changes that may take place inside it and are also linked
to the resumption of its oil exports. If Iraqi oil exports reach their full
quotas, then oil prices will drop sharply, which will affect the Saudi economy
and reveal the extent of its deterioration.
For its part, Iran seems to have lost hope in asserting itself over its
southern neighbour after coming a cropper several times in the past. Observers
point out that this is the reason why Tehran gave its blessing to the agreement
made between Riyadh and the Arabian Shi'a movement in 1993. Meanwhile, there
are rumours of a secret agreement passed some time ago between Iran and
the Saudi rulers whereby Riyadh would stop harassing the Arabian Shi'a,
on condition that the Iranians would stop embarrassing the Saudis with their
regular demonstrations during the hajj period and in other ways. Obviously,
the agreement does not prevent mutual media attacks which contribute to
covering up the existence of such an accord.
Some Iran watchers believe that within the Iranian political establishment,
there exist elements which favour the House of Saud over a Sunni model of
political Islam in the land of the Two Holy Shrines of Islam. They are thought
to fear an Islamic regime in Arabia which would attract all of the attention
of the Muslim world and, thus, cause the marginalisation of the Iranian
shiite experience. Saudi relations with Egypt have a special character.
After the passing of Nasser in 1969 and Egypt's pro-Western shift, Saudi-Egyptian
relations changed towards an unprecedented rapprochement. Egypt is a big
Arab State and has a large community in the Kingdom. It has also one of
the most efficient intelligence services in the Arab world. According to
information reaching MIRA about their movements in Arabia, the Egyptian
intelligence have succeeded in infiltrating the Saudi regime at various
levels. Egypt's main interest in Arabia is mainly two-fold: One, to pressurise
the Saudi rulers into further repression of the Islamic trend without discrimination;
and two, to give consistent support to the Sudeiris against Crown Prince
Abdallah in the battle that is raging over the succession to the ailing
Israel is the other entity actively interested in Arabian developments
as it considers its stability the guarantee of its own security. Tel Aviv
is in a position to foster changes in the Kingdom for several reasons. Apart
from having agents implanted in the Saudi Administration and throughout
the country, Israel enjoys secret relations with the Saudi rulers. Furthermore,
it receives unreserved and unquestioning support from the United States,
and the world's Jewish influence on the world's media has given Israel regional
leverage, which reinforces its influence over the House of Saud. Like Egypt,
Tel Aviv backs the Sudeiris, in the succession battle against Prince Abdallah
who is seen as the possible initiator of change which could possibly lead
to an Islamic era in Arabia.
There is not a single European country that has secured any real influence
over Arabia, except for Britain, despite vain attempts by France and Germany.
The Europeans would like to compete with the Americans in the Gulf region,
but at the same time they do not want the Saudi regime to be destabilised.
In fact, they do not have enough instruments of influence despite France's
and Germany's strong economic relations with Riyadh.
Britain has a different status altogether. It was present when the Kingdom
was born and is aware of all the details in the area. It enjoys good relations
with the Gulf region unlike any other power. Moreover, military and economic
relations with Arabia were boosted with the great al Yamama deal of the
early 1980's, providing the British with the notion that the Saudi Kingdom
is a significant factor behind the strong British economy.
Britain also has an army of intelligence agents in Arabia and thus, the
means to influence events there. Regarding the Kingdom's succession problem,
the British have traditionally tended to support the existing process, which
would thereby infer that they would support the succession of Crown Prince
Abdallah to the Arabian throne. However, this attitude may have altered
to some extent due to several arms deals passed with the Saudi defence ministry.
This change of stance may be linked to Press allegations which have linked
the British Ministry of Defence with alleged bribes offered by Prince Sultan
and the other princes in his ministry. This may eventually influence Whitehall's
decision-making bodies. Observers believe that the Saudi princes' personal
gains in the arms deals are very likely to cause some confusion amongst
the British who would possibly sacrifice their long term strategy in order
to please Sultan and the ruling Sudeiri family.
The last power, and the most important in this respect, is the United
States. In a nutshell, its influence over the Saudi Kingdom started with
oil extraction deals in the 1940's and increased gradually. In the 1950's,
Washington secured a political and military presence in Arabia; in the 1960's
it took it upon itself to ensure the security of the House of Saud in the
face of the Yemeni-Nasser threat; in the 1970's, and the 1980's the Americans
came to consider Arabia as a cornerstone for their presence in the Middle
East; and finally, in the 1990's they openly reached the ultimate form of
neo-colonialism by directly instilling a direct, military and political
presence on Arabian soil.
America's project in Arabia has three main goals: First, to ensure the
production of oil in large quantities and at a very cheap price; Second,
to ensure Israel's security; third, to influence the world's Muslims, individuals,
states and organisations, by using the Kingdom's spiritual weight, in accordance
with US interests. Experts in American affairs agree that Washington's aim
is to force the Saudi rulers into a contract which would secure the USA
most, if not all, Arabian oil. This would therefore, gain the USA an advantageous
position in that it would be able to intervene militarily and invoke international
law to ensure that oil production was maintained. The USA would require
this contract in the case that a new regime came to power which could then
be tempted into applying a sovereign or nationalist oil policy.
But this hegemonic policy is not without its long term danger. The American
policy-makers are known to shine with the absence of long term vision when
it come to dealing with some hot international issues. In Turkey, however,
they showed a great degree of wisdom in dealing with the coming of an elected
popular Muslim leader last year. (This is in stark contrast to France's
dealings with Algeria who were in a similar situation). However, when it
comes to the Middle East the Israeli question seems to blind Washington's
decision-makers. The danger for the Americans and for the whole area is
that the consciousness of the region's people concerning their sovereignty
and dignity is a historical process which cannot be stopped by America's
sheer force. The November 1995 and June 1996 bomb attacks targeting American
military installations in Riyadh and al-Khobar are seen to be a clear indication
of such a popular consciousness, and some Saudi armed opposition groups
have already emphasised that those bombings were not isolated cases.
The greatest change in Arabian-US relation was the 1991 second Gulf war.
This war which turned out to have been masterminded by Washington to paradoxically
secure a firm presence in a Middle East which was becoming increasingly
aware of its Islamic identity and consequently its anti-imperialist stance.
This gave the Americans the opportunity to permanently station tens of thousands
of troops in the Kingdom, unprecedented in the history of Arabia, without
hardly any visible social or religious opposition at the beginning.
Yet, this presence soon propelled to the forefront of social peaceful
protest an already mature, social and intellectual, yet evolutionary and
peaceful, Islamic opposition movement. Disillusioned by the harsh repression
against the social protest movement, a great many elements were thus forced
to break away from the latter and opt for armed struggle which has so far
targeted only the Americans and not the Saudi rulers. Repression is of course
the easiest action to take, but will it work ? By now the Americans must
have realised that in Arabia, just as in Algeria, Palestine and Egypt (and
rising steadily elsewhere) the only opposition and the only credible and
popular one is Islamic, despite all of the Western press attempts to distort
its images through slander. Will, then, repression be the long term solution
for a clearly logical social trend ?
Obviously, Washington's intelligence network in Arabia is extensive.
Every new detail on the royal family, the regime or the general social and
economic situation lands the same day on the Saudi desk of the CIA. Meanwhile,
the American intelligence services are present in many of the Kingdom's
State departments and private bodies. This enables the Americans to exercise
great control over the Saudi rulers' internal, regional and international
Yet, in spite of all this strength, attentive observers are surprised
that the Americans seem to have such difficulty in coping with the Middle
Eastern-Gulf State-situation. The reason for their inability is blamed on
the now customary lack of vision at the level of the political decision-making
process. The Americans seem to rely for their judgments on their own immediate
reading of events rather than the complex social, historical and even psychological
and ideological background of the Middle East.
The first element of this political immaturity is demonstrated in Washington's
persistence at plundering the Kingdom's wealth at a time when the regime's
economic situation is steadily deteriorating. This can only lead to increased
social protest and possibly, to a serious, uncontrollable uprising. America's
gamble with a military presence on Arabia's soil and also its political
control over the Saudi rulers indicate that Washington's policy-makers
have not learnt the lessons of Vietnam, Lebanon or Somalia. Meanwhile, their
wavering and constant change of stance relating to the succession of the
Saudi throne clearly shows how confused the American Administration is.
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