Saudi Behavior Risks Greater Regional Instability

By designating the Brotherhood as terrorists, the Saudis hope to sow conflicts that will envelop oil supply and shipment with the intent of forcing the West to intervene military and in the process dismantle Iran, the Brotherhood and their proxies.


Saudi King Abdullah with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Saudi regime’s recent domestic and regional risky conduct is indicative of its inability to absorb domestic demands for reforms and to deal with regional transformative developments (i.e., the Arab Spring).

Domestically, the regime is being challenged by many of its disenfranchised subjects, including its power base, the dogmatist religious establishment.

The regime’s unwillingness to recognize that evading domestic strife (revolt) depends on restructuring the archaic political arrangement to incorporate the people’s evolving aspirations.

The current religious and political structure bestows all powers on the Saudi and Wahhabi ruling dynasties. Given this arrangement, they believe that the country is their private property. With such a mindset, it’s unlikely that the royals would peacefully accept any change to the status quo even when common sense and pragmatism suggest otherwise.

However, demands for far-reaching reforms in the country are mounting and transcending regional, ethnic, gender and religious affiliations. Women are demanding the removal of the male guardian system (or modern slavery), the right to drive, release of their relatives from Saudi prisons, full employment and participation in the decision-making process. They are also defying the misogynistic religious establishment.

Religious minorities are demonstrating and dying to obtain social justice, religious freedom and elimination of all discriminatory state laws and policies. Prominent male and female human rights activists are demanding non-sectarian rule of law, freedom of expression, free elections, constitutional monarchy and government accountability.

Myopically, instead of responding to public demands for political and social reforms, King Abdullah issued and ratified “decrees and laws” which explicitly criminalize criticism of the state, its institutions and its rulers. Furthermore, the regime equates pro-democracy activists with atheism.

Regionally, the Saudi regime’s opposition to the “Arab Spring” and its concomitant geopolitical challenges demonstrates its unwillingness to acknowledge that the Arab revolutions are justified, for fear of facing the same fate as the former repressive regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen.

Although the Saudi oligarchy is still in power, its influence in the region, especially in its own backyard, has significantly eroded as exemplified by the collapsing of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which the Saudis have doggedly tried to unite and control.

The GCC is splintering into opposing factions. The rulers of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain continue to show unity. Qatar and Oman decided to pursue their separate interests, neither of which is compatible with that of the Saudis. Oman continues its beneficial relations with Iran while Qatar is embracing the Muslim Brotherhood (aka “Brotherhood”), which the Saudis helped overthrow and recently designated as terrorists and criminals, despite the fact that they were allies, both are Sunni Muslims and share repressive ideology. The rulers of the 6th GCC member, Kuwait, are facing unprecedented challenges to their political survival.

After failing to intimidate Qatar into abandoning the Brotherhood and to shut down its critical, pro-Brotherhood pan-Arab satellite channel, Al Jazeera, the Saudis withdrew their ambassador from Qatar with the intent of forcing the Qataris to capitulate. Saudi demands boomeranged.

The Qatari rulers not only continue their support for the Brotherhood, but unmuzzled Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a spiritual guide of that group and a harsh critic of the Saudi regime’s support for the Egyptian military government. In addition, the Qatari Emir flew to the Sudan, Jordan and Tunisia, countries home to strong affiliates of the Brotherhood, presumably to rally support for his loyalty to the Brotherhood.

Qatar is not the only country that embraces and supports the Brotherhood. The governments of Turkey, Iran and the Sudan are known allies of the Brotherhood. Additionally, the Brotherhood has influential affiliates in Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, Kuwait and Syria. Hezbollah, Hamas and numerous supporters of the Brotherhood are spread throughout the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

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Given the Brotherhood’s popularity among many Egyptians and its powerful supporters elsewhere, many people are wondering about Saudi intentions in designating the Brotherhood as a terrorist party, especially when significant numbers of the Brotherhood are members of parliaments in friendly countries like Jordan and Kuwait.

Saudi intentions

Is it the Saudi rulers’ intent to instigate multiple conflicts throughout the region between governments and pro-Brotherhood segments of their societies that could potentially spill over and disrupt production and shipment of oil from the Middle East?

If this is what impelled the Saudi rulers to declare the Brotherhood and its allies and supporters terrorists, then the questions that come to mind are what drove the Saudi rulers to take this action and what do they hope to achieve

It’s no secret that one of the Saudi rulers’ overriding fears is of Iran’s rising power and spread of its influence in the Middle East. Consequently, decimating Iran’s capabilities as a major religious and political rival in Arab and Muslim states is one top priority for Saudi Arabia.

Having failed to convince its Western allies and others to disable Iran’s military and economic infrastructure, as well as to rally support for the overthrow of Iran’s draconian proxy regime in Syria, the Saudis decided to “go it alone” as exemplified by their unprecedented public support for regime change in Egypt.

Another major factor is diminishing Saudi sway regionally and globally. However, they know that restoring their receding influence cannot be realized without eliminating major regional competitors, specifically Iran and the Brotherhood. The Saudis’ extensive efforts to enlist the West’s military intervention anywhere in the Middle East have been rebuffed repeatedly.

The West (with the exception of France) has made clear it will not intervene militarily in the Middle East unless its economic and national security interests are under imminent threat, as argued by opponents of military intervention in Syria. However, if a major disruption of oil production and shipment from the Persian Gulf were to occur, it’s most likely that the West, specifically the US, will have no choice but to take military action.

Given this probability, the Saudis may have decided to create an environment in which disruption of oil supplies is almost guaranteed. By designating the Brotherhood, its supporters and allies as terrorists, the Saudis hope to sow conflicts that will envelop oil supply and shipment with the intent of forcing the West to intervene military and in the process dismantle Iran, the Brotherhood and their proxies.

Due to their multitude of policy and diplomatic letdowns, dwindling influence and fears of being replaced as a major strategic and economic power in the Middle East, the Saudi rulers may have decided to play the most dangerous weapon in their arsenal: plunge the region into chaos from which they hope to restore themselves as an indispensable power broker in the region and beyond.

Risky calculations, but desperation does not leave room for prudence or even for survival, especially in the Middle East.

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Dr. Ali Alyami is the founder and executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, in Washington, DC. CDHR focuses on promoting peaceful and incremental democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia, including empowerment of women, religious freedom, free flow of information, free movement, free press, privatization of government industries, free elections, non-sectarian constitution, and codified rule of law, transparency and accountabilityRead other articles by Ali.