Tag: saudi arabia

Stop Reassuring Saudi Arabia, a Worse Threat to the Middle East than Iran

Secretary of State John Kerry recently traveled to Riyadh to reassure the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that the U.S. stood with them. “Nothing has changed” as a result of the nuclear pact with Iran, he insisted.

Washington’s long relationship with Riyadh was built on oil. There never was any nonsense about sharing values with the KSA, which operates as a slightly more civilized variant of the Islamic State. The royals run a totalitarian system which prohibits political dissent, free speech, religious liberty, and social autonomy.

At a time of heavy U.S. dependence on foreign oil a little compromise in America’s principles might have seemed necessary. Today it’s hard to make a case that petroleum warrants Washington’s “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia. The global energy market is expanding; the U.S. will soon become a petroleum exporter. The royal regime cannot survive without oil money and has continued to pump even as prices have collapsed.

In recent years Washington also treated Riyadh as an integral component of a containment system against Iran. Of course, much of the “Tehran problem” was made in America: overthrowing Iranian democracy ultimately led to creation of an Islamist state.

Reckless Frenemy Saudi Arabia Makes World More Dangerous for America

Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to turn their national struggle into a religious conflict. The first is dangerous. The second could be catastrophic.

Yet Riyadh, America’s nominal ally, just demonstrated that it is the more reckless of the two states by executing Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

There is much bad to say about Tehran’s authoritarian and interventionist Islamic regime. But even worse is Saudi Arabia, considered by Washington to be a valued ally.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is essentially a totalitarian state. Last year Human Rights Watch reported that Saudi Arabia continued “to try, convict, and imprison political dissidents and human rights activists solely on account of their peaceful activities.”

Freedom House rated the kingdom at the bottom in terms of both civil liberties and political rights. Purported “antiterrorism” legislation allowed the “authorities to press terrorism charges against anyone who demands reform, exposes corruption or otherwise engages in dissent.”

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States Have Accepted Many Syrians

Many more Syrians are living in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States than at the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011.  The World Bank reports that 1,000,000 Syrians resided in Saudi Arabia in 2013, a whopping 795 percent increase over 2010.  There were 1,375,064 Syrian migrants living in the Gulf States in 2013, a 470 percent increase over 2010.  Excluding Oman, the 2013 Syrian population in every Gulf State has increased dramatically since right before the beginning of the Syrian civil war. 

Syrian Population Residing in Each Country

  2010 2013 Increase Since 2010
Saudi Arabia

111,764

1,000,000

794.75%

UAE

0

60,926

 
Kuwait

122,878

142,000

15.56%

Bahrain

1,254

5,614

347.87%

Qatar

0

12,320

 
Oman

0

0

 
Iraq

5,228

154,204

2849.58%

All Gulf

241,123

1,375,064

470.27%

Source: World Bank Bilateral Migration Indices, 2010 and 2013

These Syrians are technically not “refugees” because Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States are not signatories to the 1951 UNHCR convention that created the modern international refugee system. 

NGOs that work in the region are harshly critical of the Gulf States’ response to the Syrian crisis.  Gulf State spokesmen also haven’t gotten their stories or numbers straight when explaining their policies.  Nabil Othman, acting regional representative to the Gulf States at the UNHCR, said Saudi Arabia has accepted 500,000 Syrian refugees but called them “Arab brothers and sisters in distress.”  Kuwait extended the residency permits for Syrians stranded there.  Spokesmen for the Gulf States have issued other statements claiming that they have accepted many Syrian refugees.  

Most likely, Syrians living in the Gulf States are largely workers and some could be related to the Syrian communities in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait that existed before the civil war.  Legal conventions, treaties, and the technical definition of the word “refugee” aside, there are many more Syrian migrants living in every Gulf State (except Oman) in 2013 than in 2010.  Every additional Syrian migrant living in the Gulf States is one fewer potential refugee elsewhere. Many immigrant groups in the 19th and 20th centuries were also refugees even though there was no legal category for them at the time.          

Some Americans and Arab critics argue that the Gulf States should accept more refugees. They should, but that shouldn’t blind us to the large number of Syrians who have settled there since the outbreak of the civil war. Gulf State intentions aside, allowing Syrians to live in their territory has helped relieve the humanitarian crisis somewhat.      

A note on the numbers and quotes here:  The World Bank data may be limited, omit some return flow numbers, be inaccurate in other ways, or/and updated spreadsheets may show a completely different situation.  I cannot verify the statements from the Gulf State countries because their publicly available government documents are in Arabic.  

With “Friends” Like Saudi Arabia, the United States Doesn’t Need Enemies

One striking feature of the first debate featuring the top tier GOP presidential candidates was how many of them described Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Persian Gulf as “friends” of the United States.  And clearly that is a bipartisan attitude.  Obama administration officials routinely refer to Saudi Arabia as a friend and ally, and one need only recall the infamous photo of President Obama bowing to Saudi King Abdullah to confirm Washington’s devotion to the relationship with Riyadh.

It is a spectacularly unwise attitude.  As Cato adjunct scholar Malou Innocent and I document in our new book, Perilous Partners: The Benefits and Pitfalls of America’s Alliances with Authoritarian Regimes, Saudi Arabia is not only an odious, totalitarian power, it has repeatedly undermined America’s security interests.

Saudi Arabia’s domestic behavior alone should probably disqualify the country as a friend of the United States.  Riyadh’s reputation as a chronic abuser of human rights is well deserved. Indeed, even as Americans and other civilized populations justifiably condemned ISIS for its barbaric practice of beheadings, America’s Saudi ally executed 83 people in 2014 by decapitation.

In addition to its awful domestic conduct, Riyadh has consistently worked to undermine America’s security.  As far back as the 1980s, when the United States and Saudi Arabia were supposedly on the same side, helping the Afghan mujahedeen resist the Soviet army of occupation, Saudi officials worked closely with Pakistan’s intelligence agency to direct the bulk of the aid to the most extreme Islamist forces.  Many of them became cadres in a variety of terrorist organizations around the world once the war in Afghanistan ended.

Saudi Arabia’s support for extremists in Afghanistan was consistent with its overall policy.  For decades, the Saudi government has funded the outreach program of the Wahhabi clergy and its fanatical message of hostility to secularism and Western values generally.  Training centers (madrassas) have sprouted like poisonous ideological mushrooms throughout much of the Muslim world, thanks to Saudi largesse.  That campaign of indoctrination has had an enormous impact on at least the last two generations of Muslim youth.  Given the pervasive program of Saudi-sponsored radicalism, it is no coincidence that 16 of the 19 hijackers on 9-11 were Saudi nationals.

Riyadh also has shown itself to be a disruptive, rather than a stabilizing, force in the Middle East.  Not only has Saudi Arabia conducted military interventions in Bahrain and Yemen, thereby eliminating the possibility of peaceful solutions to the bitter domestic divisions in those countries, the Saudi government helped fund and equip the factions in Syria and Iraq that eventually coalesced to form ISIS.  Although Saudi officials may now realize that they created an out-of-control Frankenstein monster, that realization does not diminish their responsibility for the tragedy.

In light of such a lengthy, dismal track record, one wonders why any sensible American would regard Saudi Arabia as a friend of the United States.  We do not need and should not want such repressive and untrustworthy “friends.”

ISIS and Saudi Sectarianism

This morning, a car bomb exploded outside a mosque in Saudi Arabia, the second such attack in a week. The attacks, which have killed at least 25 people, were aimed at the minority Saudi Shi’a community. In doing so, ISIS is expertly capitalizing on Saudi Arabia’s internal sectarian divide, which is worsened not only by domestic repression, but by the propaganda supporting Saudi Arabia’s activist foreign policy in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. Saudi rulers should remember that sectarianism, though convenient for political purposes, also carries substantial risk.

In an interview shortly before the recent Camp David summit, President Obama committed the faux-pas of pointing out the internal problems faced by many of the GCC states. He noted that these states contain “populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances… The biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries.”

He’s not wrong. Saudi Arabia is well-known as one of the world’s most repressive states, with little political representation and no rights for women or minorities. Further, oil prices remain low, and while the Saudi state has massive cash reserves, the rise of shale oil has diminished its role as the world’s main oil producer. Saudi Arabia also has a growing youth population, with 51% of the population under the age of twenty five.

This is itself less concerning than the inability of the oil-dependent Saudi state to provide stable employment opportunities; the unemployment rate for those between fifteen and twenty-five years of age is at least 30%. It is no wonder that many of the unemployed youth of Saudi Arabia are attracted by movements like ISIS. Indeed, by some estimates, more than 2,500 of the foreign fighters in Syria come from Saudi Arabia. The newest iteration of this threat is seen in attacks like those of the last week, as young men susceptible to ISIS avoid travel to Syria, and instead carry out attacks inside Saudi borders.

Yet the ISIS attacks also highlight the pernicious influence of state-supported sectarianism. The bombers astutely aimed the bombings not at Sunnis, but at the state’s minority Shi’a population. While targeting Sunnis would likely have increased resolve among Saudi citizens, targeting Shi’a mosques instead served to cast worshippers as heretics, highlighting domestic sectarian tensions.

The attacks remind Saudi Shi’ites that their own government uses sectarian messaging on state TV, and has close ties to clerics which rail against Shi’a heretics. Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia don’t even enjoy the same minimal political rights that their Sunni compatriots do, and the state has repeatedly cracked down on calls for increased representation.

These tensions are being further inflamed by the war in Yemen, which is being presented by Saudi state TV as a crusade against Houthi Shi’ites. The same applies to the state’s newly activist foreign policy, which is portrayed broadly as a challenge to Iranian and Shi’a interests across the region. The high civilian death toll in Yemen – as many as 2,000 people – and the reticence of the Saudi government to seek a political settlement with the Houthis also contributes.

In short, the ISIS attacks targeted a potential cause of instability within the Saudi state, requiring Saudi rulers to strike a delicate balancing act. They must show support for the attacked communities, while avoiding upsetting the hardline Sunni clerics which support the royal family. Balancing these factors while continuing to use sectarian language to justify the state’s wars in Yemen and elsewhere may prove impossible.

As the Arab Spring illustrated, even states which appear relatively stable can suffer from instability and chaos. It also showed that once the Pandora’s Box of sectarianism has been opened, it is extremely difficult to shut. As ISIS attacks within Saudi Arabia seek to increase tensions between Sunni and Shi’a populations, this is a lesson Saudi Arabia’s rulers would be wise to bear in mind.  

Operation Decisive Failure

A front page story in today’s Washington Post highlights that the failure of the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition campaign in Yemen is already becoming apparent:

Two weeks into a Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, airstrikes appear to have accelerated the country’s fragmentation into warring tribes and militias while doing little to accomplish the goal of returning the ousted Yemeni president to power, analysts and residents say.

Foreign Policy makes similar points:

Through its backing of Saudi Arabia—with bombs, intelligence, refueling, and search-and-rescue capabilities—and Riyadh’s military intervention in Yemen, the United States is effectively at war with the impoverished land that occupies the southwestern heel of the Arabian Peninsula. That war is going spectacularly badly.

None of this should be surprising. Yemen’s history is replete with tribal conflict and failed invasions, as I highlighted yesterday in the New York Times. Yemeni insurgencies have defeated the British, the Egyptians, and the Saudis in the last 50 years alone.

Confused about the Middle East? So Is the United States

Since the Arab Spring, many Middle Eastern countries have fallen into political chaos like dominoes. This week’s explosion of conflict in Yemen is just the most recent example. Though many of these conflicts are based on local grievances, they are being exacerbated by the involvement of the region’s larger states, and by the United States.

America’s leaders denounce intervention by unfriendly states like Iran. Yet the United States ignores or even enables such actions by U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia. In doing so, America is simply contributing to the mess in the Middle East. Washington should back off and refuse to get more deeply involved in further Middle Eastern conflicts.

Yemen’s conflict is nothing new; the Houthi rebels have been active in Yemen for more than a decade, and captured the capital in January, forcing President Hadi to flee south. This week, as the rebels finally reached the southern city of Aden, Hadi fled, and apparently appealed to Saudi Arabia for help in combatting the Iranian-backed insurgency.

Yesterday evening, that help arrived in the form of a massive Saudi air campaign and a reported 150,000 troops. The Saudi efforts are supported by a number of other GCC and Arab states, as well as U.S. logistical and intelligence support.

But like everything in the Middle East today, this conflict isn’t as clear cut as it seems. The Houthis are indeed aligned with Iran, and probably receive monetary support. But they also represent a sizeable fraction of the Yemeni population, and many of their policies – such as opposition to U.S. drone strikes in Yemen – are widely popular. Even more confusing, the Houthis are also adamantly opposed to Al Qaeda, and have spent substantial time and resources fighting AQAP fighters inside Yemen.

This conflict fits with a broader pattern of post-Arab Spring clashes in the Middle East, conflicts which are complex and local in nature, but which are treated as simply proxy wars or sectarian conflicts. The fear that Iran might make gains in Syria, in Iraq, in Libya and elsewhere drives Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to respond militarily, increasing tensions and conflict.

The U.S. response to this complex reality has been to reflexively back traditional U.S. allies. But in doing so, American policy has become confused, contradictory and overleveraged. We’re working towards similar goals as Iran inside Iraq, opposing them in Syria and Yemen, all while trying to reach a nuclear deal before the March 31st deadline. How this mess of policy contradictions is supposed to produce viable results is anybody’s guess.

Yemen has a long history of instability, and any military solution to the crisis will likely fail to produce a long-term solution; it will just paper over the problem. It’s not even clear whether the reinstallation of the Hadi government would be best for U.S. interests: though a Houthi government is unlikely to allow U.S. drone strikes against al Qaeda, they might prove more effective at fighting the group than the government has.

America should stop reflexively backing traditional U.S. allies in the region, and refrain from deeper involvement in these conflicts. Instead, we should think more clearly about when (and whether) the United States should be involved in Middle Eastern conflicts, and about how such actions fit our overall strategic goals. Because one thing is certain: further U.S. intervention in the Middle East would be an exceedingly bad choice.