08/20/2012 12:09 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2012

Saudi Rides the Wave

The reverberations from the Arab Spring that have shaken the established order across the Middle East have been felt acutely in Riyadh, where Saudi leaders were badly rattled by the spread of revolutionary sentiments. The turbulent aftermath has confirmed their worst fears.

The critical moment came with last year's massive demonstrations of Bahrain's long subordinate Shi'ite majority directed against the ruling Sunni Khalifa family. In Saudi eyes, it raised the specter of sectarian, secular democratic and external forces coming together to pose a direct threat to their own rule. Although no evidence has come forth to credit Saudi and Bahraini claims of Iran's role in provoking the demonstrations, the strong perception was of a multifaceted, mortal challenge. For the Saudis, Bahrain was a proxy war of enormous importance for their own interests. Hence, the House of Saud moved to suppress it by lobbying against the making of concessions, and then by sending in their own military to suppress it forcibly.

Pervasive Sunni-Shi'ite tensions and mutual suspicions are now entrenched as a marked feature of politics in the region. They demonstrate in concrete form that classic Realpolitik and the peculiar sectarian divisions at the very heart of Islam are intermingled and more virulent than ever. Less well recognized is that radical Islamist political organizations that promote their own independent agenda are themselves also seen as possible rivals to the Gulf monarchies -- especially Saudi Arabia. The Muslim Brotherhood is the outstanding example. Partly financed over the years by Riyadh while in opposition and building grass roots support through an array of social services, the Brotherhood has been a tactical ally. However, there never was a strategic concert.

The House of Saud remains steadfast in affirming its position as the custodian of strict Sunni theology and practice that accompanies its role as defender of the Holy Places. The forces of change sweeping the Middle East have made all the keener to secure its stake in the world of Islam. That translates into an aggressive campaign against secular ideologies viewed as foreign to Islamic civilization, against any Salafist movement that claims to be a cynosure of an even truer orthodoxy, and against Shi'ism both as creed and as sectarian political rival (i.e, Iran and its fellow Shi'ite communities else in the region).

The Kingdom's material and diplomatic support for the rebellion against the Alawite regime in Syria demonstrates its commitment to channeling political trends in the Middle East. The hard trade-offs they are obliged to make and their readiness to court unpredictable outcomes are exceptional for a leadership that traditionally has preferred to move behind the scenes in risk averse ways. For the Saudis have no surrogate in the fight in whom they can place full confidence.

The intersection of the ideological and the political across the Middle East is reviving an historic competition that now matches Saudi Arab and its Sunni allies, on the one hand, and Iran in association with Shi'ites in Iraq (a majority in command of the government), Assad in Syria, along with communities scattered around the Gulf, on the other.

Where does this leaves the United States? It is evident that the Obama administration has not fashioned an overall strategy for the region that conforms to new realities. Faced with fluidity everywhere that has obscured most fixed reference marks, it has fallen back on an ad hoc pragmatism. Primary importance is placed on geopolitical considerations rather than ideology even as the rhetoric of democracy is kept alive so as to save face among secular democrats in the region.

Implicit in the strategy are three key premises. First, that protecting Israel's self defined safety, and confronting the Islamic Republic of Iran, are the United States' highest priorities. Second, that maintaining the status quo in the Gulf, with the alliance with Saudi Arabia as its linchpin, eclipses all else except the open ended commitment to Israel. Third, that Washington has the combination of assets (military and diplomatic) sufficient to preserve its dominant position in the Middle East for the foreseeable future.

How viable is the co-existence pact with the Muslim Brotherhood in the light of possible pressures from its own followers, and Salafist rivals, on issues like Gaza when those voices will be amplified and made manifest by the very democratic procedures the U.S. favors? Are we calculating enough, and skillful enough, to play the cynical games of being at once well-wishers to democrats, pragmatic partners of the Muslim Brotherhood, and faithful allies of Saudi Arabia -- all the while with the Israelis and their American backers kibbutzing at every turn? Finally, if Iran does not bend to external economic and political pressures, is the military option in play and how might IRI retaliate by fomenting rebellion among the disaffected Shi'ites of the Gulf?

None of these questions is raised, much less debated, in the presidential campaign.