international analysis and commentary

The Saudi monarchy and the regional contest for influence: what is changing and what is not


Early this spring, the Saudi monarchy made two big moves: the removal of Bandar Bin Sultan as Chief of Intelligence; and the deployment of 130,000 troops, along with CSS-2 ballistic missiles, in a large-scale military drill. These two facts signal a shift in the monarchy’s leadership resulting from many years of discomfort within the Saudi regime due to the ongoing social and political changes sweeping parts of the Middle East. This situation became more clear and urgent in the aftermath of the Arab revolts of 2011.

King Abdullah Ibn Abdilaziz took the throne officially in 2005 after having operated as a de facto King since the mid-1990s due to King Fahd’s failing health. It was a difficult moment for the monarchy as King Fahd had just approved the Basic Law and inaugurated the Consultative Council in order to address popular discontent caused by economic stagnation and increasing unemployment.

Since then, King Abdullah, like his predecessor, has maneuvered through minimum reforms aimed at facing popular discontent with the monarchy. He called the first-ever municipal elections in the country (in 2005 and again in 2011) and also appointed the first woman as a Deputy Minister. He has promised women’s suffrage by 2015, when new elections are expected, citing that women would be eligible for election at both the municipal level and in the Shura Council. The Shura Council is the Saudi consultative assembly which has no autonomous legislative power but can propose bills. Since 2013, for the first time, women occupy 30 seats in the assembly, as they were granted at least one fifth of the seats available. The Shura Council is formally based on Islamic law.

And, as most of his peers in other oil rentier states in the Arab world have done, King Abdullah has promised an economic package to lure in youth: $93 billion for new homes and the creation of 60,000 jobs in the security sector. Saudi Arabia’s unemployment rate for 2013 was 10.5%. The country’s GDP growth for the same period was 3.6% but inflation was at 3.7%. Almost 20% of its population is made of foreign nationals and the government is struggling to provide qualified jobs for its citizens. With this in mind, King Abdullah has undertaken economic reforms to promote privatization and foreign investment – especially in the services industry.

Rivalry within the royal family is also far from resolved. This has traditionally been a constant factor in Saudi Arabia’s long history of government corruption and bribery scandals, as power resides firmly in the hands of about 7,000 men – all of whom are descendants of Ibn Saud, the founder of the country.

In this context, the kingdom fears both internal and external enemies. Even if political parties are not permitted, within its borders it has long-fought Shiite movements, especially in the eastern region, which is also rich in oil. Officially a Wahabi Islamic country, Saudi Arabia loathes Al-Qaeda movements and all its proxies even though it is largely believed that precisely Saudi Arabian citizens, frustrated with the monarchy and its misconduct, gave birth to radical Islamist movements across the country and then in the rest of the Arab world. The Muslim Brotherhood –  a movement born in Egypt, the other country that has at times competed with Saudi Arabia for regional leadership – is much less of a friend, too.

Originally, Saudi ambitions of regional supremacy were to be achieved by the strategic alliance with the United States – the Saudis provided oil to the US, the US gave the Saudis protection in return. But things are quickly changing. Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, once a key figure within the government as Chief of the Saudi intelligence, failed to provide King Abdullah with the American support he considered vital to his authority as the unchallenged ruler.

In addition, Prince Bandar fostered regime change in Egypt which was the last of the King’s desiderata. He misinterpreted American readiness to intervene militarily in Syria and supported armed groups to overthrow Assad’s regime which were then revealed to be affiliated to Al-Qaeda. Now the kingdom is also concerned about possible jihadists coming back from Syria to overthrow the Saudi monarchy.

Therefore, Bandar Bin Sultan’s removal could not be considered a surprise. However, he also represented the Saudi allegiance to the US and his removal thus signaled for the first time a rift between the two countries that is now all too evident.

Under the same lens we can analyze the military exercise which took place briefly after Bandar’s removal in April in the eastern province of Hafr al Batin, at King Khaled Military City, on the occasion of King’s Abdullah’s 9th coronation anniversary. For the first time the monarchy displayed its nuclear missiles, the product of an arms deal negotiated in the 1980s by Prince Bandar, who had promised the US that the Saudis did not have nuclear warheads. So the military parade was intended to impress both Saudi friends and foes.

The Pakistani Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces was in attendance and this was a deliberate message related to Iran’s nuclear capability: if Teheran is going to have its own arsenal, Riyadh is going to have its own too, thanks to its good relations with Pakistan. Saudi Arabia is increasingly concerned about being cornered between two strong Shiite countries like Iran and Iraq.

In addition, the failure of the most recent effort by the Obama administration to restart the Israeli-Palestinian talks is viewed by Saudi Arabia as the ultimate sign that the United States is no longer seriously engaged in solving the problems of the region.

In any case, Saudi fears must be taken into serious account. The kingdom, even with its internal problems, is a powerful country with fewer reliable allies in the region – and a historically strong appetite for predominance. In Riyadh, concerns for the regional balance of power are growing just as a dangerous polarization of the Sunni-Shiite confrontation is hardening. And this is not good news.