June 18, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Saudi Arabia: Pivotal U.S. Ally Facing Domestic Challenges

As of mid-June 2012, the succession challenges many experts have long predicted are now facing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sooner and more directly than Saudi leaders had expected. After reeling from the death of heir apparent and Defense Minister Prince Sultan in October 2011, the Kingdom had been adjusting to his replacement as Crown Prince by Interior Minister Prince Nayef. The sudden and unexpected death of Nayef, announced on June 16, re-surfaced succession issues a mere eight months after Sultan's death. King Abdullah, having now outlived two Crown Princes, is himself 88 years old and believed to be in failing health, which brings to the fore the vital question of who will ultimately assume the mantle of leadership in the Kingdom.


The Challenges of Succession and Reform Facing the Kingdom

Fortunately for the leadership, there is a consensus candidate to succeed Nayef: Prince Salman, who served for five decades as Riyadh's governor before replacing Sultan as Defense Minister in November 2011. He is almost certain to be named Crown Prince/heir apparent in coming days, a decision that will likely unfold with little evident dissent. Like the King, Sultan, and Nayef, Salman is a son of the founder of the Saudi state, King Abd al-Aziz, and the consensus surrounding Salman means that Saudi leaders can, at least for now, avoid any material dispute over whether to include the next generation in the existing succession plan. However, if and when Salman succeeds Abdullah as King, a struggle may ensue between the rapidly disappearing older generation and the next generation composed of the grandsons of Abd al-Aziz. At 76 years old, Salman is more than a decade younger than the King and, despite a minor stroke suffered several years ago, his overall health is believed to be stable.  

At the same time they are facing succession (and health) issues, Saudi leaders are grappling with unprecedented demands related to the 2011-2012 Arab Spring uprisings. Since the Arab Spring began, there have been periodic demonstrations and riots in the Kingdom's eastern provinces by Shiite Muslims who are prevalent in the east, but constitute only about 10% of the overall Saudi population. While there has been low level Shiite unrest in that region for several decades, demonstrations have occurred more frequently since the beginning of the Arab Spring movement. These demonstrations do not pose a marked threat to the government's grip on power, but the unrest — which has not been addressed by the government with any meaningful reform — has the potential to evolve into larger and more serious manifestations, to include strikes that could cripple oil production in the east or violence such as bombings and suicide attacks.       

Even within the Sunni heartland of the Kingdom, the Arab Spring has inspired growing demands for reform. To date, the government response has been slow in coming, with the Kingdom instituting a small number elections for municipal councils, the latest of which were held in 2011. There are, however, still no elections for the national Consultative Council, a quasi-parliament.

In September 2011, King Abdullah announced that women would be eligible to vote and to run for public office in the municipal elections, but only beginning in the 2015 election cycle. Since early 2011, Saudi women have been increasing the level of their challenges to the longstanding law that prohibits them from driving an automobile, going so far as to upload their protest messages to Youtube and other worldwide outlets. Expanding the role of popular elections and bestowing more rights upon women are issues that will no doubt continue to confront King Abdullah — and likely Crown Prince Salman — in the near-term and beyond.


Increasingly Crucial U.S.-Saudi Cooperation

The challenges facing the Kingdom domestically come at a time when the United States is arguably as dependent on its alliance with the Kingdom to achieve regional objectives as at any time in the past. The likely elevation of Prince Salman poses no obstacle to this cooperation as he is well known to U.S. officials and is perceived as a moderate on most major issues. Nor is the eastern province unrest or demands for broader reform likely to cause distance between the United States and Saudi Arabia, although U.S. officials might at some point publicly urge Saudi leaders to institute reforms more expeditiously.

Nonetheless, U.S. officials do not wish to jeopardize the political health of the Kingdom; instead, they hope to retain close alignment and cooperation on key geopolitical issues. First and foremost among these issues is the containment of Iran's regional ambitions and its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability. Washington looks to Saudi Arabia to lead the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) toward greater defense cooperation with the United States, including on an integrated regional missile defense architecture — a capability clearly directed at Iran. Further, as the United States works to persuade Tehran's customers to reduce their purchases of Iranian oil, the United States is depending on Saudi Arabia to increase production and provide Iran's customers with additional petroleum supplies. Saudi Arabia remains the largest source of spare oil production capacity in the world (1.5 million barrels per day of spare capacity) and the strategic ability to effectively reduce Iran's oil revenues is therefore heavily dependent on Saudi cooperation.


U.S., Saudi Arabia, and the GCC Stand Together on Regional Issues

The other vital U.S.-Saudi joint project focuses on ensuring the uprising against President Bashar Al Assad of Syria ultimately succeeds. Under Assad, Syria continues to be a close ally of Iran, and Saudi Arabia — along with the other GCC nations and the United States — view the downfall of Assad as pivotal to weakening the regional influence of Iran. The GCC has added interest in the events unfolding in Syria: the opposition in Syria fighting against a Syrian regime dominated by the Shiite-related Alawite community is mostly comprised of Sunni Muslim, as are the leaders of GCC member states.

The GCC was instrumental in suspending Syria's membership in the broader Arab League in November 2011. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, joined by Qatar, has advocated stronger steps against Assad and reportedly has begun arming the Syrian opposition in an attempt to help them prevail over Assad's military. The Saudi/Qatari initiative is, by some accounts, vetted or directed by U.S. advisers to ensure that the weapons flow to trained rebels who can make the best use of them...and who also support democracy. The provision of arms has aided the rebels in gaining new momentum on the battlefield as of June 2012.   

Perhaps nowhere is Saudi Arabia more pivotal to U.S. interests than in Yemen, where a weak central government — itself in transition from the rule of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh — is having trouble keeping at bay elements of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Saudi intelligence, which is able to use its familial and tribal contacts in Yemen, is widely reported as pivotal to U.S. efforts to uncover terrorist cells and plots in Yemen and to disrupt them with armed drone strikes and other methods. Saudi efforts in Yemen are also alleged to have helped the United States foil several AQAP terrorist plots against U.S. aviation in recent years.     

On Bahrain, the United States and Saudi Arabia both want to see the Sunni Muslim regime of the Al Khalifa family remain in power, although there are differences over how to accomplish that outcome. The United States believes the Al Khalifa regime needs to institute more significant reforms with an eye toward satisfying the majority Shiite population that has been demonstrating for more rights and political power since February 2011. The Saudis believe the opposition in Bahrain was instigated by — and continues to work on the behalf of — Iran; its success would therefore further embolden Saudi Shiites in the eastern provinces. For these reasons, Saudi Arabia has sided with hardline, anti-compromise factions in Bahrain's ruling family who believe that confronting demonstrators with security forces and prison sentences is the right solution.



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