In Syria the West is effectively fighting a proxy war alongside the Gulf States – particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar – against the Assad regime and its allies Iran and Russia. But is it wise to team up with one dictatorship to topple another one? And do those autocratic monarchies want the same outcomes as the West in Syria?
Western powers have adopted a mixed approach to the Arab Spring protests. While they supported many protest movements, particularly in Libya and Syria (both countries with a long history of sour relations with the West), the oil-rich states of the Gulf were largely exempt from public criticism. There are tangible reasons for this: the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (gcc) are key trading partners, guarantors of relatively cheap oil, and key military allies that buy more arms from the West than almost anyone else. But they are also repressive autocracies with a radically different view of what a future Syria and Middle East should look like – apart, that is, from weakening Iran, the Assad regime and Lebanese Hezbollah.
Qatar wants to raise its popularity among the Arab masses and internationally to make it untouchable, particularly where larger neighbours Iran and Saudi Arabia are concerned. The smaller Gulf States have long resented the hegemonic ambitions of Saudi Arabia in the gcc with the exception of the Bahraini monarchy, which called upon Saudi and Emirati troops to help quash a popular uprising in March 2011.
But Saudi Arabia itself faces huge domestic challenges. Reigning monarch King Abdullah is around 90 years old and severely ill, as is Crown Prince Salman; the 77-year-old was appointed in June after the death of his predecessor, interior minister Prince Nayef. All these senior royals are sons of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz (widely known as Ibn Saud), who ruled the kingdom until his death in 1953. An unwritten rule in the family says that the throne should pass to another of his sons. But there are not many left and the appointment of Crown Prince Salman has merely put off the decision on which branch of the next generation of royals will inherit the throne; a decision that will alienate other branches and cause conflict. Saudi Arabia has also faced calls for domestic political reform even though there have been no mass protests in key urban centres such as Riyadh or Jeddah.
Shia Muslims, who make up around 10 per cent of the population and complain of discrimination, staged the largest protest movement in the country’s modern history in oil-rich Eastern Province in 2011 and 2012. But even more worrying for the royal family is an unprecedented wave of criticism, particularly on social media where issues such as demands for a constitutional monarchy and the release of political prisoners are no longer off limits. Many of the voices belong to Sunni Islamist activists, some of whom have historical links to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Saudi Arabia’s engagement in Syria is intended to stave off these domestic challenges. The Syrian revolution is an outlet for the anger that has built up among the Saudi youth in the face of high unemployment and no prospect of having a say in their country’s political affairs. But the Saudi monarchy is also worried that if too many private Saudi donations are channelled to Jihadi groups in Syria and too many young Saudis go to fight there it could backfire – as it did between 2003 and 2006 when parts of al-Qaeda turned against the monarchy.
Saudi Arabia is equally afraid of a democratic, economically viable state that respects Islamic law because it could be a rival model to its mix of monarchical autocracy and economic growth fuelled by oil revenues and Wahhabi Islam. Civil war in Syria or an unstable government post-Assad is therefore acceptable to the monarchy as it shows the Saudi population that demands for the rule of law and more democracy will lead to chaos. It also allows Saudi Arabia to continue to influence events on the ground.
It is naive to assume that the Gulf States will react to any future protest movements any differently to other authoritarian states. While the death toll of previous Gulf protests are much smaller than in Syria they show that Gulf regimes are also willing to go all the way to fend off domestic challenges to their power. Fifteen protesters and several policemen have been killed in the Saudi Eastern Province while the death toll of the on-going uprising in Bahrain is in the dozens; several Omani protesters were killed in the spring of 2011. Western cooperation with the Saudis in the 1980s led to the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan but also to the rise of the Taliban. The opening of a seemingly legitimate front for global Jihadis in Syria may have similar consequences for the world – and Saudi Arabia.