Just like the Shah’s White Revolution, the Saudi rulers’ efforts to diversify the country’s oil dependent economy, cut its bloated civil service to encourage entrepreneurship and expand educational opportunities for its youth are being pursued under the banners of modernization and reform; its Governing Model for Achieving Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030.
Back in 1979, an anti-Imperialist revolution put a sudden end to the Shah’s ambitions and robbed the West of one of its key allies in the Middle East. While Saudi Arabia shows no signs of succumbing to a popular uprising, its inability to reform presages alarming indications that the kingdom’s ruling elite could fall from grace. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Saudis’ foreign policy choices which appear overly assertive, controversial and doomed. Embroiled and out of depth in conflicts and controversies of their own making, the Saudi rulers are as lost as children in a playground of adults.
For one thing, the Saudis are hampered by entrenched positions which cannot be easily shifted or put aside in the name of reform. In the past thirty years, Saudi support for Wahhabi inspired groups around the Middle East region was tolerated by Western governments because it coincided with their interests. Now these groups have morphed into the terrorists currently decimating post-Soviet Afghanistan, post-Saddam Iraq, Syria and post-Ghaddafi Libya, Saudi Arabia has belatedly recognised that its support for these Islamic extremists has turned back on itself and Islamist terrorism has now become one of the main threats to the kingdom. Not only that, Syria and Iraq exposed the Wahhabi agenda and – in the public mind – forever linked the Sunni religion and the Saudis with the worst kind of terrorism perpetrated by Daesh.
But although the West can keep at arm’s length from terrorism, Saudi Arabia’s all-consuming confrontation with Iran means that any intention of withdrawing support for terrorists is automatically compromised in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. These conflicts represent the front line against Iran and they are being pursued by precisely those terrorists which are linked to Saudi through finance and which are rooted in Wahhabism. To withdraw support for them would mean giving Iran the advantage. This means that while Russian and American pragmatism enables them bring other countries on board and to creep toward a negotiated resolution on Syria, the Saudis simply see their interests being trashed and they want to keep the fighting going.
This strategy has led not to any foreign policy successes. Instead, repeated demonstrations of Saudi ineffectiveness and incompetence, such as the 2015 Haj disaster, has allowed Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei to call into question the Saudi leaders’ suitability as guardians of Islam’s most holy sites. The response of Saudi Arabia’s leading Mufti, that Shias are not Muslims, came across as an ineffective, immature even, tit-for-tat rather than reasoned counter argument.
Iran has also fully exploited international public perception that Wahhabism is linked to terrorism. Wahhabism is the state religion and the House of Saud cannot disengage from it. But when Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, published a highly critical article in the New York Times, ‘Let Us Rid the World of Wahhabism’, the Saudis were incapable of responding in a measured, diplomatic way. Instead, their response exhibited belligerent tribalism rather than seasoned diplomacy, which was further compounded by resorting to ‘wallet diplomacy’: paying to have this response repeated across the internet for Google searches.
And if Saudi Arabia continues on this path of failure and aggression, this trajectory will more and more harm Western interests. The House of Saud is looking increasingly like a house of cards, resting only on its imperial status and propped up by money.
Money is important. Compared with other Muslim countries, Saudi Arabia is extremely wealthy. The West needs this oil money to keep flowing back into their coffers. It seems the chosen conduit is simply to sell more arms. But this response is self-defeating. Can the House of Saud really be saved by bombing Yemen out of existence? This is what the billions of dollars of weaponry sold to the Saudis by the West is being used for, even while the ensuing human catastrophe draws international condemnation. This is not sustainable.
We could usefully take lessons from the fall of the Shah and what happened afterwards. The weaponry which the West was so keen to sell him ended up in the hands of the mullahs. When Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980 it was the Shah’s old air force in the hands of the nascent Islamic Republic which repulsed the Iraqis for at least two years with superior airpower.
In Saudi Arabia, the sudden collapse of the House of Saud would leave a void which would be filled with Wahhabi clerics and tribal leaders far more regressive than the current rulers. All those Western armaments landing in their hands.
Now, meeting in New York, Western governments have an opportunity for backroom discussion over the future of the House of Saud. Can they reform or will the royal family have to be deposed? Will this be bloody, like Iran, allowing the danger that the country’s – let’s be honest, the West’s - vast wealth, arms and strategic location be lost to those Wahhabi clerics and tribal leaders? Is there a solution within the world Muslim community themselves? Can they come together to confront this version of Islam?
For the West, the continued integrity of Saudi Arabia as a Western ally is more important than propping up the House of Saud. Instead of selling more arms and enabling them to get into deeper trouble, Western governments need to provide the Saudis with the tools to rapidly reform from within. The kingdom’s failure to resolve the political problems of a small country like Bahrain shows they need help not arms. Whether that means Saudi Arabia goes forward with its royal family or with an alternative, the West simply cannot afford to lose this country as an ally.