Saudi Arabia and the New Strategic Landscape - Teitelbaum (2010)


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Interesting piece by Stanford scholar Joshua Teitelbaum about the complicated - and changing - mix of Saudi internal and external policy considerations.

And about how we are now at the beginning of a new era. Written just before the Middle Eastern turmoil and revolutions started.

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Saudi Arabia and the New Strategic Landscape - Teitelbaum (2010)

  1. 1. SAUDI ARABIA AND THE NEW STRATEGIC LANDSCAPE By Joshua Teitelbaum*Since the end of the Cold War, a new strategic landscape has appeared in the Middle East. Nolonger dominated by a U.S.-Soviet rivalry, this new landscape is dominated by U.S.-Iranianconfrontation. In this struggle, the United States’ most important Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, plays akey role. As the Obama administration policies allow Iran to run out the clock on getting a nuclearweapon, it would appear from its recent policy moves that it believes Riyadh is primarily concernedwith the Arab-Israeli conflict. While this is a concern in Saudi Arabia, it is far and away not theprimary one. Indeed, there is no doubt that in its foreign policy Riyadh is much more worried aboutIran’s rise as a key regional actor.INTRODUCTION Persian Gulf, where it operates to curtail Saudi interests in Iraq and project its power into Two decades after the end of the Cold War, neighboring countries, particularly via theira new strategic landscape has appeared in the Shi’i populations.Middle East. No longer dominated by a U.S.- But the depth of Saudi Arabian concernSoviet rivalry, this new landscape is about Iran goes beyond the basic regionaldominated by U.S.-Iranian confrontation. In balance of power or balance of threatthis struggle, the United States’ most considerations, reaching deep into theimportant Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, plays a key regime’s calculus about its own security. Thisrole. As the Obama administration policies magnifies manyfold the importance to Saudiallow Iran to run out the clock on getting a Arabia of confronting the Iranian-Shi’i threat.nuclear weapon, it would appear from its Much of the regime’s legitimacy comes fromrecent policy moves that it believes Riyadh is its role as the guardian of Sunni orthodoxy, theprimarily concerned with the Arab-Israeli majority branch of Islam and the branchconflict. While this is a concern in Saudi followed by most Saudi Arabians. This is aArabia, it is far and away not the primary one. role felt keenly by the royal family,Indeed, there is no doubt that in its foreign particularly the king, Abdallah bin Abd al-policy Riyadh is much more worried about Aziz.1 As the regime takes halting stepsIran’s rise as a key regional actor. toward liberalization,2 a rate of progress As a regional challenger, Iran threatens designed to mollify conservative forces withinSaudi interests in Lebanon, where it operates and without the royal family, Saudi Arabia’swith Syria and its Shi’i proxy Hizballah to own minority Shi’a, supported by Iran, pushundermine the Saudi-supported government; for greater rights within the kingdom. But thein the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, where it Sunni majority looks to the regime to upholdsupports the terrorist organization Hamas Sunni primacy at home and abroad. Andagainst the Palestinian Authority; in Yemen, important groups of Sunnis and Shi’a call thewhere it is assisting rebels who are fighting rule of the Al Saud into question.the Saudi-supported regime of President Ali If Iran gets the upper hand, the royal familyAbdallah Salih; and closer to home in the may face serious threats by Saudi Arabian38 Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 14, No. 3 (September 2010)
  2. 2. Saudi Arabia and the New Strategic LandscapeSunni radicals determined to stop the spread of ful. Differing visions of Islam, from the Shi’aShi’ism, and by Saudi Arabian Shi’a encour- of the eastern region of al-Hasa to more liberalaged by the rise of Iran and its Shi’i regional Islamists and extremist Wahhabis, whoallies. Both sides would seek to exploit the believe that the current regime is not extremesituation, leading to instability in Saudi Arabia enough, have all challenged the rule of the Aland reverberations of further regional Saud over the years. Underscoring all of this isinstability. the fact that the centralizing establishment of the Saudi state came at the expense ofBACKGROUND: THE GENESIS OF significant tribal autonomy. While discreteSAUDI ARABIAN SECURITY tribal loyalties have lost much of their politicalCONCERNS significance over the years because of the efforts of the Al Saud, the tribal ethos of a The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has its ori- decentralized government and considerablegins in the mid-eighteenth century, when an tribal autonomy still presents a challenge toalliance was formed in the central Najd region the regime and finds its expression inbetween a local strongman, or emir, Muham- opposition movements.mad bin Saud (d. 1765) of the Al Saud family, One of the keenest historians of Saudi Ara-and a radical Islamist preacher, Shaykh Mu- bia, Madawi al-Rashid, has observed: ‘‘Thehammad bin Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1791). A 20th century witnessed the emergence of abargain was struck between these two ambi- [Saudi Arabian] state imposed on people with-tious men: Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab out a historical memory of unity or nationalwould give religious approbation for the ex- heritage which would justify their inclusion inpansionist desires of Muhammad bin Saud, a single entity.’’5 The security calculus of theand the latter would give the former the mili- Al Saud is therefore highly dominated bytary force to spread his ideas of a more puri- internal security concerns.tanical form of Islam than that which was The Saudis have dealt with these domesticpracticed in the Arabian Peninsula. This alli- challenges in several ways. Tribal challengersance was successful and, despite various ups were coopted into the Saudi Arabian Nationaland downs, by 1932 the Al Saud had con- Guard, which functioned essentially as a wayquered most of the peninsula, including the to funnel oil rents to the tribes and buy theirrelatively liberal and Islamically cosmopolitan cooperation rather than as an effective fightingRed Sea coastal area of the Hijaz, ruled by the force. Sunni religious fanatics were givenHashemite family,3 with the holy cities of control of the religious establishment and theMecca and Medina, and al-Hasa in the east, educational system, a move that wouldwith its extensive Shi’i population. eventually backfire on the regime. The Shi’a The formation of modern Saudi Arabia in- were ruthlessly suppressed, to the delight ofvolved the subjugation of a diverse popula- the Sunni Wahhabi extremists who viewedtion—religiously, tribally, and regionally—to Shi’ism as pure heresy.the whims of one family, the Al Saud. The External defense concerns have also been aroyal family sought to identify itself with the significant part of Saudi securitystate to such an extent that it named the state considerations. In the first years of the state,after itself—Saudi Arabia—one of only two the descendants of the Hashemite family,states in the world named after a family.4 recently ensconced by the British in Jordan This subjugation came at a price. Although and Iraq after being thrown out of the Hijaz bydistribution of massive oil revenue has helped the Al Saud, sought to regain control of theirthe Saudis to buy off much of the opposition ancestral homeland.6 This led to the initialover the years, it has not always been success-Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 14, No. 3 (September 2010) 39
  3. 3. Joshua Teitelbaumsuspicion of the British and contributed to a Soviet encroachment and Arab radicalismbias toward the U.S. in the immediate post- were not the only Saudi external concerns.World War II period. Indeed, in 1950 King Across the Persian Gulf lay Iran. Saudi ArabiaAbd al-Aziz confided to U.S. Assistant has always had an ambivalent relationshipSecretary of State George McGhee that the with Tehran. On the one hand, Iran, with itsHashemites were his greatest fear, and for that majority Shi’i population, was deeplyreason he wanted military aid and an urgent concerned about the establishment of anti-military alliance with America.7 Shi’i Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and what that American interest in Saudi Arabia dates would mean for access to holy places and forfrom the 1930s with the development of oil. the fate of Saudi Arabia’s sizable Shi’iThe desire to have access to oil outside the population. But aside from some minorUnited States during World War II led the friction, this did not develop into conflict.Roosevelt administration to declare in 1943 Religion was not a part of the shah’s foreignthat ‘‘the defense of Saudi Arabia is vital to policy.the defense of the United States,’’ in order to More important, during this period Riyadhprovide Riyadh with Lend-Lease aid.8 and Tehran were joined in their distrust ofTWIN PILLARS: SAUDI ARABIA AND Communism and Soviet designs on the region.IRAN AS U.S. ALLIES IN THE PERSIAN Iran, which had a border with the SovietGULF Union, had suffered years of Russian imperial- ism. The two countries even cooperated in the Indeed, America’s initial response to Saudi early 1970s to help the Sultan of Oman fight asecurity concerns had more to do with oil than Maoist rebellion in the region of Dhofar. Bothwith the Hashemites. But the end of World countries sought and received military equip-War II brought the Cold War, which had an ment and training from a very willing Unitedimportant Middle Eastern theater. Traditional States. This policy earned the nicknameMiddle Eastern monarchies such as Jordan and ‘‘Twin Pillars’’ under the NixonSaudi Arabia sought to stymie Soviet Middle administration.10Eastern subversion, particularly through re-gional client states such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, The February 1979 Islamic Revolution inand Yemen.9 For the Saudis, concerns about Iran and the December 1979 Soviet invasionthe Hashemites had given way to concerns of Afghanistan prompted President Jimmyover Communism. Early on the Saudis sought Carter to announce what became known as themilitary support from the United States and re- Carter Doctrine, during his January 1980 Stateceived it through the United States Military of the Union address. Carter stressed that the:“Training Mission, established in 1953. Soviet effort to dominate Afghanistan has The Cold War coincided with increased de- brought Soviet military forces to within 300velopment, education, and modernization in miles of the Indian Ocean and close to theSaudi Arabia. This process brought with it Strait of Hormuz, a waterway through whichsome associated ills that affected internal most of the world’s oil must flow. The Sovietsecurity. Communist and Ba’athi cells were Union is now attempting to consolidate adiscovered, and labor unrest by Shi’i workers strategic position, therefore, that poses a gravein Aramco’s oil fields in the Eastern Province threat to the free movement of Middle Eastwere frequent. These were cases of internal oil.”11dissidents influenced by imported ideologies. His conclusion was quite forceful: “Let ourThe United States cooperated, with the help of position be absolutely clear: An attempt byAramco, in keeping a lid on these any outside force to gain control of the Persiandevelopments. Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on40 Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 14, No. 3 (September 2010)
  4. 4. Saudi Arabia and the New Strategic Landscapethe vital interests of the United States of with Iran. When Iran threatened Persian GulfAmerica, and such an assault will be repelled shipping in 1987 during the Iran-Iraq War, theby any means necessary, including military United States led a reflagging effort, robustlyforce.”12 confronting Iranian aggression. ‘‘After the set- The Carter Doctrine was given a back wrought by the Iran-Contra affair,’’ concluded Shultz, ‘‘Ronald Reagan was backspecifically Saudi twist in October 1981, when in business.’’15President Ronald Reagan issued what hasbecome known as the Reagan Corollary: ‘‘We A PILLAR COLLAPSES: FROM THEcannot permit Saudi Arabia to become Iran,’’ IRANIAN REVOLUTION TO THEReagan declared. The Carter Doctrine and the END OF THE COLD WARReagan Corollary were responsible for theincrease of the U.S. military presence in the 1979 was a crucial year in the Persian Gulf.Persian Gulf, first in the form of the Rapid The Islamic Revolution ended decades of aDeployment Force, and eventually, a full pro-American regime in Tehran, and one thatmilitary command, the U.S. Central was more or less agnostic about Saudi Arabia.Command. But unfortunately for the United States and Saudi Arabia, the new regime had a radical The Reagan administration never lost hope new agenda. It was not content dealing withthat Iran could still be courted. Given the internal affairs—it sought to export itscountry’s long border with the Soviet Union, revolution and to rectify perceived Westernthe effort to return Iran to the fold was deemed domination and oppression.too important to give up. The United States For Saudi Arabia, an ascendant, religiouslyhad an arms embargo against Iran, which had based Iran presented new and unprecedentedbeen embroiled in a war with Iraq since 1980 challenges. For the first time, a militant Shi’iand was desperate for anti-tank and anti- regime, flush with oil wealth, was poisedaircraft missiles. In what became known as the across the Gulf from the Saudi guardian ofIran-Contra affair of the mid-1980s, the Sunni orthodoxy. And the Iranians wastedadministration, with Israeli mediation, tried to little arms to Tehran for U.S. hostages held bypro-Iranian Shi’a in Lebanon. (Some of the Shi’i Riots in the Eastern Province and the Rise of Islamist Shi’ism in Saudi Arabiafunds from the sale of the missiles werediverted by Lt. Col. Oliver North of the Iranian-inspired riots broke out toward theNational Security Council to the Contras in end of the year in the Shi’i sections of SaudiNicaragua.) Secretary of State George Shultz Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province and contin-had opposed the deal and was joined by ued into 1980, encouraged by the success ofSecretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger the Iranian Revolution. While the rioters had(‘‘Cap Weinberger and George Shultz re- justifiable grievances based on years of Saudimained very much opposed, with Shultz discrimination, they also drew encouragementespecially strong in his opposition’’13). But, from the victories of fellow Shi’a in Iranthe president, who had the support of CIA across the Gulf. The Saudi authorities used theDirector William Casey and national security Saudi Arabian National Guard to suppress theadviser Robert McFarlane, overruled them riots ruthlessly.16 The government did not hesitate to use helicopter gunships against theboth. Shultz had even threatened to resign, but demonstrators.17 Many leaders of the Shi’iReagan convinced him otherwise, and was community went into exile or were arrestedglad he had.14 following these protests. According to Shultz, the Iran-Contra affair The main Shi’i opposition group, the Orga-was an unnecessary distraction in relations nization of the Islamic Revolution (Munazza-Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 14, No. 3 (September 2010) 41
  5. 5. Joshua Teitelbaummat al-Thawra al-Islamiyya), was established Lebanon was made final by the officialby Shaykh Hasan al-Saffar, a Shi’i cleric, in recognition of the status of its allies Syria andDecember 1979, following the first burst of ri- Hizballah.oting. The group functioned as a political andreligious outlet for feelings of oppression and Wahhabi Extremists on the Offensiveinsult.18 On the Sunni scene in Saudi Arabia, the years Saffar was echoing the thoughts of of catering to Wahhabi extremists of variousAyatollah Ruhollah Khomeini when he wrote: kinds were beginning to be felt. As it will be …we are genuinely part of the realm of the remembered, the Al Saud had given control of downtrodden [mustad‘afun] while the the mosque network and educational system to despots of Al Sa‘ud… are genuinely part of the Wahhabi establishment, which preached the realm of oppressors… and colonizers. an extreme puritanical and anti-Western The ongoing battle is now between these doctrine. In exchange, the theory went, two realms…. Our struggle against… religious leaders would give approbation for tyrannical rule is a cycle of a long chain of a the modernization of the state and look the universal revolution which will, inevitably, other way at the sometimes ‘‘un-Islamic’’ lead to the collapse of imperialistic su- behavior of the royal family. But this bargain perpowers and the rise of the world of the was not working out as expected.20 downtrodden….19 Sunni Islamist extremists took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca nearlyAfter the uprising Saffar found asylum in Iran, simultaneously with the Shi’i uprising ofand his organization established offices in 1979, protesting what they saw as the laxTehran, London, and Washington. Islamic system in Saudi Arabia and the un- Islamic behavior of the royal family. TheyMaking Trouble in Lebanon: Iran and held out for two weeks.21 Both eventsthe Rise of Hizballah demonstrated the difficulties of Saudi internal security and their connection to regionalAs it spread its revolutionary Islamist message developments.throughout the Middle East, Iran put a special The regime decided to deal with Wahhabiemphasis on the Shi’i population of Lebanon, extremism in a unique way. First, it joined thewhich was the largest but poorest and least- Wahhabi religious establishment in encourag-represented sector of Lebanon’s intricate con- ing Saudi youth to travel to Afghanistan tofessional framework. It was involved with the fight the Soviets after their 1979 invasion. Theprecursors of the radical terrorist organization idea was essentially to ‘‘export’’ violentHizballah, which struck twice in Beirut in extremists and—the regime hoped—have1983, bombing the U.S. Embassy (63 killed) them ‘‘martyred’’ overseas. This dovetailedin April and the Marine barracks (241 killed) nicely with the cooperative U.S. and Saudiin October. Hizballah, whose leader, Hasan efforts to confront the Soviet Union in the lastNasrallah, is a follower of Iranian Supreme decade of the Cold War. The other aspect ofLeader Ali Khamene’i, would grow to be a dealing with the problem of homegrownpowerful force in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia’s efforts to negotiate an end to Islamist extremists was to export their zeal andthe Lebanese Civil War finally bore fruit in an money overseas to the West, where they couldagreement signed in the Saudi city of Ta’if in preach their doctrine at local mosques, often1989, which sought to distribute power in built with money from the Saudi royal family.Lebanon more fairly. But it regularized the In this manner, it was believed, these forcesSyrian presence in the country and allowed could be coopted and their energy could beHizballah to maintain its arms, ostensibly to channeled to foreign lands.confront Israel. Thus Iran’s presence in42 Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 14, No. 3 (September 2010)
  6. 6. Saudi Arabia and the New Strategic Landscape The main regional story of the Persian Gulf 4in the 1980s was the Iran-Iraq War (1980- The other is the Hashemite Kingdom of1988). Iraq sought to exploit Iranian internal Jordan, named after the Hashemite family. 5turmoil and expand its narrow territory along Madawi Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia (Cambridge: Cambridge Universitythe Persian Gulf. In its rhetoric, Baghdad, Press, 2002), p. 3.drawing on Islamic history, portrayed its 6 For example, see Joshua Teitelbaum,attack as defending the Arab east from the ‘‘Pilgrimage Politics: The Hajj and the Saudi-predations of Persian Shi’a. Saddam Hussein Hashemite Rivalry,’’ in Asher Susser andwas widely supported by the Arab states of the Aryeh Shmuelevitz (eds.), The HashemitesGulf, fearful of the implications of an and the Modern World (London: Frank Cass,ascendant Iran. 1995), pp. 65–85. See also Joseph Kostiner, This was a time of extreme tension between The Making of Saudi Arabia, 1916–1936:Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iran saw Saudi Arabia From Chieftaincy to Monarchical State (Newas trying to undermine the Islamic Revolution York: Oxford University Press, 1993). 7by supporting Iraqi aggression, while Saudi David Ottoway, ‘‘The U.S. and Saudi ArabiaArabia suffered from Iranian agitation and since the 1930s,’’ presentation to the Foreigneven violence during the annual pilgrimage Policy Research Institute, June 25, 2009. 8(hajj) in Mecca. For many years, the Iranians Ottoway, ‘‘The U.S. and Saudi Arabia sinceused the pilgrimage as an arena of confronta- the 1930s.’’ 9tion with the pro-Western Al Saud, holding Malcolm Kerr, The Arab Cold War: Gamalprotests and encouraging rioting that some- ‘Abd Al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958–1970times resulted in the loss of life.22 (London: University Press, 3rd ed., 1971); Yezid Sayigh and Avi Shlaim (eds.), The*Dr. Joshua Teitelbaum is Principal Research Cold War and the Middle East (Oxford: Clare-Associate at the Global Research in ndon Press, 1997); Galia Golan, SovietInternational Affairs (GLORIA) Center and Policies in the Middle East: From World WarVisiting Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover II to Gorbachev (Cambridge: CambridgeInstitution, where he is a contributor to the University Press, 1990). 10Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on For a critique of the Twin Pillars policy, seeIslamism and the International Order. Howard Teicher, From Twin Pillars to Desert Storm: America’s Flawed Vision in the Middle*Reprinted from Saudi Arabia and the New East from Nixon to Bush (New York: WilliamStrategic Landscape by Joshua Teitelbaum, Morrow, 1993). 11with the permission of the publisher, Hoover Jimmy Carter, State of the Union address,Institution Press. Copyright © 2010 by the January 23, 1980. 12Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Ibid. 13Junior University. Ronald Reagan, An American Life: The Autobiography (New York: Simon andNOTES Schuster, 1990), p. 516. 14 Reagan, An American Life, p. 523.1 15 See Abdallah’s interview with the Kuwait George Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph: Mydaily Al-Siyasa, January 27, 2007. Years as Secretary of State (New York:2 Joshua Teitelbaum (ed.), Political Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993), p. 935.Liberalization in the Persian Gulf (New York: 16 Toby Jones, ‘‘Rebellion on the SaudiColumbia University Press, 2009). Periphery: Modernity, Marginalization and the3 See Joshua Teitelbaum, The Rise and Fall of Shi’a Uprising of 1979,’’ Internationalthe Hashemite Kingdom of Arabia (New York: Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 38, No. 2New York University Press, 2001). (May 2006), pp. 213–33. Fouad Ibrahim, The Shi’is of Saudi Arabia (London: Al Saqi,Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 14, No. 3 (September 2010) 43
  7. 7. Joshua Teitelbaum2006).17 Toby Jones, ‘‘Rebellion on the SaudiPeriphery.’’ While the regime was busyputting down a Shi’i uprising in the EasternProvince, Wahhabi radicals took over theGreat Mosque in Mecca. On this incident, seeJoshua Teitelbaum, Holier than Thou: SaudiArabia’s Islamic Opposition (Washington,D.C.: The Washington Institute for Near EastPolicy, 2000), pp. 19–22, and YaroslavTrofimov, The Siege of Mecca: The ForgottenUprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine and theBirth of al-Qaeda (New York: Doubleday,2007).18 Ibrahim, The Shi’is of Saudi Arabia, p. 33.19 Hasan al-Saffar, Kalimat al-Haraka al-Islamiyya, p. 30, quoted in Ibrahim, The Shi’isof Saudi Arabia, p. 132.20 Teitelbaum, Holier than Thou, pp. 98–113.21 Thomas Heggehammer and StéphaneLacroix, ‘‘Rejectionist Islam in Saudi Arabia:The Story of Juhayman al-Utaybi Revisited,’’International Journal of Middle East Studies,Vol. 39, No. 1 (January 2007), pp. 103–22.See also Trofimov, The Siege of Mecca.22 See Martin Kramer, ‘‘Khomeini’sMessengers in Mecca,’’ in Martin Kramer(ed.), Arab Awakening and Islamic Revival(New Brunswick: Transaction, 1996), pp.161–87.44 Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 14, No. 3 (September 2010)