Wednesday, August 01, 2012
Will Saudi Arabia Be The Next to Fall In The Arab Spring?
Commentary's Michael Rubin examines the question:
After the Tunisian protesters sent Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, dictator for almost a quarter century, packing, the Central Intelligence Agency famously predicted the Arab revolt would not spread. Almost two years later, dictators have fallen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and a fifth appears on the ropes in Syria. Despite what regional experts and Arab autocrats hoped, the desire for freedom and liberty is contagious. So when Bashar al-Assad’s tenure ends with a bullet in his head or a broomstick in his bottom, what will be the next domino to fall?
There is no shortage of dissatisfaction across the Arab world. Just ask the Bahrainis. Tension is also high in Kuwait. Most Jordanians are seething at King Abdullah II and especially at the high-spending Queen Rania. But the next dynasty to fall may very well be the Saudi monarchy.
Saudi Arabia is an artificial state, cobbled together in the 1920s and 1930s by military force. Oil wealth has both helped paper over differences and promote a radical and intolerant reinterpretation of Islam. Still, regional identities remain, sectarianism is increasing, and the gap between rich and poor has bred resentment toward the ruling family whose grip on power will slip as octogenarians succeed octogenarians and factional rivalries percolate.
Human rights groups and journalists tend to focus on Bahrain. There certainly are myriad problems in that Arab island nation, but the focus is disproportionate, determined more by access than by degree of repression. While the Bahraini government uses rubber bullets, the Saudis prefer live ammunition, especially when the protesters are Shi’ites in the oil-rich Eastern Province.
While I have no love for the House of Saud, there are a few things that bear mentioning, in my opinion.And they're crucial.
First, all of the states cited above, with the exception of Libya had no oil wealth. And that's a crucial element. Because the key word in understanding the Arab Spring is not 'democracy' but food.
World food prices and the cost of basic staples have skyrocketed, and as I've mentioned before, whereas it used to be Indians and Chinese who bore the brunt of the suffering in these situations, those economies have developed. Now it is the Arabs and their dysfunctional kleptocracies who are the low man on the food chain, so to speak.
Countries with oil wealth and relatively small populations can curb this by keeping prices artificially low with subsidies, and the Saudis, among other countries have done so.Those without oil wealth,like Egypt, Syria and Tunisia were unable to do so.
Libya was different because of two important elements Michael doesn't mention..tribalism and overt western intervention.
The Libyan rebellion against Khaddaffi was very much a product of tribalism, with the rebels being concentrated in the east, Benghazi and Cyrenaica. And there's no doubt Khaddaffi would have defeated the rebels if not for western interference.
The EU nations got involved for one reason. Initially, when the rebellion began, the rebels made a great deal of progress, and the Europeans, particularly Britain and France whom had multibillion oil contracts to protect promptly dumped Khaddaffi and signed new oil deals with the rebels. When Khaddaffi recovered and sent the rebels fleeing towards Benghazi, those all important oil contract were going to be worthless unless something was done. So the Europeans went to rescue the rebels and those oil contracts and later turned it into a NATO mission.
President Obama, of course, joined in for his own reasons. Yes, ironically, this really was a War for Oil.
Tribalism figures in most of the other potential flashpoints he mentioned. Syria is essentially a conflict between Muslim Brotherhood Sunni rebels backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the Alawite Assad regime backed by Iran and Hezbollah. If Assad falls, ( and it's by no means certain) it will be because of overt intervention by the Obama Administration in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The tensions in Bahrain features a Sunni monarchy and upper class versus a Shi'ite majority, with tensions sparked by Shi'ite Iran. But it's worth noting that when Iran fomented unrest last year among Bahrain's Shi'ites, the Saudis and the GCC countries reacted promptly and forcefully to back the ruling Al-Khalifa royal family with troops and armor, and used their navies to block Iranian ships from aiding the rebels. Iran backed down, and while a certain amount of unrest still exists, it's largely contained. Bahrain's oil wealth will keep prices down, and because of a huge American base there, western intervention isn't going to happen.
In Saudi Arabia, the situation is reversed. The Shi'ite underclass is a minority largely situated in the eastern part of the Kingdom, and not only do I doubt they have the numbers to really wage a revolt, but based on how Iran backed down on Bahrain last year I doubt the mullahs are going to make much of a fight of it in Saudi Arabia...unless they openly invade, which would likely bring America into it. Plus the Saudis also have the oil wealth to keep food prices down and the possibility of western intervention on the side of the Shi'ite rebels is nil.
Which brings me to my own favorite candidate for the next Arab Spring revolt - Jordan.
Everything's in place there...tribalism, no oil wealth, a stagnant economy, and historical grievance.
Unlike the other conflicts, this tribal divide isn't between Sunni and Shi'ite, but between Bedouin and Palestinian.
In 1924, when the British created Jordan, the original idea was to partition the Palestine Mandate so that the Arabs would get the 80 per cent of the Mandate east of the Jordan River and the Jews would get the 20 per cent west of the Jordan. That arrangement was codified by the League of Nations in the 1924 San Remo Agreement. But the Brits pulled something at the last minute that pretty much changed things. They put one of the Bedouin Hashemite Sherif Hussein bin Ali's sons Abdullah ( the present King's grandfather) in as King, along with a minority faction of his fellow Hashemite Bedouins that proceeded to rule the country as an upper class over the non-Bedouin Arabs, the Palestinians, if you want to refer to them by that term.
Foisting what was essentially a foreign monarchy on the Palestinian Arabs didn't sit well with them, and Abdullah was later murdered by the Palestinians in 1951 on the orders of the pro Nazi Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini.
Later, in 1970, Yasser Arafat and the PLO attempted and failed to overthrow Abdullah's son, King Hussein, resulting in the killing and expulsion of thousands of Palestinian Arabs in 1970, an event Palestinians refer to as Black September.
At present, Jordan is composed of a large majority of Palestinian Arabs and a minority of Bedouin, including King Abdullah II. He's personally unpopular because of economic unrest, for being an American ally, for preserving a peace treaty with Israel, and for arbitrarily taking Jordanian citizenship away from Palestinians residing in Jordan who have held it for years.
The opposition to King Hussein is largely composed of the Muslim Brotherhood, and with the Brotherhood now established in Egypt and Gaza and increasing its influence right next door in the Arab occupied areas of Judea and Samaria (AKA The West Bank), my personal bet would be that the next victim of the Arab Spring wouldn't be Saudi Arabia, but Jordan.
In fact,I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Jordan eventually become the actual Palestinian Arab state - which after all , was what it was supposed to be all along.