One of the world’s last remaining bastions of absolute monarchy, the oil-rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia pursues throughout the broader Middle East and beyond an activist foreign policy that is largely nonideological, realist, and defensive in intent, but negative in its implications for democracy. In the aftermath of the 2011 Arab uprisings, Saudi Arabia has intervened in a number of transitioning states with the aim of countering the challenges posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Salafi jihadism as embodied by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. While the intent of such interference may not be explicitly antidemocratic, many of the recipients of Saudi support have been authoritarian and antiliberal.1 The ultimate effect has been damaging to the spread of democratization and political pluralism.

Frederic Wehrey
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his research focuses on governance, conflict, and security in Libya, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf.
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When 90-year-old King Abdullah died in January 2015, the royal regime’s Allegiance Council, an appointed panel of 28 princes tasked with ensuring a smooth succession, swiftly named 79-year-old Crown Prince Salman as the new king. The Council then designated his 69-year-old half-brother Muqrin as his successor, with 55-year-old Muhammad bin Nayef as the next in line after Muqrin. The speedy process was a display of unity and political efficiency that must have seemed all the more crucial to Saudi Arabia’s rulers as they noted how rebels with ties to Iran had just overrun the capital of neighboring Yemen, forced out its president, and pushed that already turbulent country closer to full-blown state collapse.

Increasingly, Saudi Arabia’s reach is global, with robust trade links to the powerhouse economies of Northeast Asia, burgeoning security and defense ties to South Asia, and longstanding bonds with Muslim communities across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Although Saudi Arabia is not a revolutionary power bent on exporting its brand of authoritarian governance, its foreign policy is counterdemocratic in effect. Within the region, Saudi money and influence have been used to block the ascendance of groups that the royal family deems a threat to its security at home. The Saudi regional strategy is rooted in the monarchy’s view of the 2011 uprisings not as the Arab Spring but as the Arab Troubles—upheavals that brought sectarian strife, Iranian expansionism, newfound prominence for the Muslim Brothers, and fresh strains of jihadism such as the one that drives the Islamic State.

A key target of Saudi interference has been the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the Brothers once found shelter in Saudi Arabia after Egypt cracked down on them during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s presidency (1956–70), the relationship soon soured as the Brotherhood’s ideology mixed with the Kingdom’s quietist form of Salafism, imbuing it with a political activism that was threatening to the ruling family. This commingling spawned the rise of the so-called Sahwa (Awakened) clerics, many of whom came to dominate the theological faculties of Saudi universities. During the 1990s, these popular figures mounted an unprecedented political critique of the royal family, and more hard-line clerics inspired the growth of al-Qaeda. A desire to prevent a repeat of this scenario has factored heavily into Saudi Arabia’s post-2011 policies toward the Brotherhood.

The authoritarian partners whom Saudi Arabia supports against the Brotherhood, Iran, and jihadism range from fellow Gulf monarchs to neo-Nasserist military rulers in Egypt to Salafi religious figures who stress political quietism. The array of official and semi-official tools used in these efforts includes the sponsorship of transnational Arab media outlets, quietist Salafi charities, personal diplomatic forays by Saudi princes, and even overt military intervention. Looming largest, however, is the massive financial aid that oil-rich Saudi Arabia is able to spread around. Between early 2011 and April 2014, Saudi Arabia pledged roughly US$22.7 billion in regional aid; it ended up distributing $10.9 billion, much of which went to Egypt.2

Outside the Middle East—in Bangladesh, Indonesia, and parts of the former Yugoslavia, for instance—Saudi Arabia has been willing to tacitly support elections when they favor diplomatic allies.3 But closer to home, the cordon sanitaire against participatory politics is kept as impermeable as possible.

Saudi authorities may sometimes back democratic institutions in the region or even at home, but only within clear limits and as a pressure-release tactic to coopt elites or counter rivals such as Iran or the Muslim Brothers.4 Hence Riyadh favored the spread of consultative councils in the Gulf in the 1990s; instituted domestic municipal-council elections in the 2000s; and aided certain candidates in the Yemeni, Bahraini, and Iraqi parliamentary elections. But any serious steps toward democratization nearby, in the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), will show where the Saudis draw their red line. As recent history shows, the Saudis fear that longstanding kinship, sectarian, and cultural ties among these states make them highly susceptible to political contagion. The risk that an outbreak of constitutionalism or civil society mobilization in one Gulf country could spread to the others is too much for Riyadh to tolerate.

Saudi Arabia’s increasingly assertive foreign policy belies a deep domestic insecurity regarding the future of an oil-based dynastic state (with all the succession worries that this implies) that rules a “youth-bulge” society (most Saudis are under 30) situated within one of the world’s must restive regions. A future convergence of these challenges could make segments of the Saudi populace open to mobilization—particularly ideological mobilization incited from abroad. The House of Saud has long worried that the sharpest threats to its rule come not from “hard-power” foes, but instead take the form of “soft-power” ideological challenges, whether secular (Arab-nationalist Nasserism and Ba’athism) or religious (Shia revolutionary agitation after the Iranian Revolution, Muslim Brotherhood activism, and the Sunni jihadism embodied by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State).5

The tumult that has been roiling the Arab world since 2011 represents only the latest dangerous ideological “wave.” It has unleashed new forms of democratic agitation, handed new opportunities to the Brotherhood, and fueled new and highly violent strains of jihadism such as the Islamic State. The recent burst of Saudi activism in the region is meant to insulate the Kingdom from these threats—but the net effect has been profoundly harmful for democratization and is ultimately not sustainable.

Domestic Suppression

For decades, Saudi Arabia has been one of the world’s most politically closed states. Democracy remains anathema to the country’s Salafi Islamic establishment, and the monarchy itself has only recently loosened restrictions. Responding to a wave of petitions from clerics and liberals alike, King Fahd in 1992 promulgated the “Basic Law of Governance.” This quasi-constitutional document (which says early on that Saudi Arabia accepts only “Almighty God’s Book, The Holy Qur’an, and the Sunna [Traditions] of the Prophet” as its constitution) sets up a 60-person Consultative Council or Majlis al-Shura. In practice, this royally appointed body includes mostly technocrats, albeit drawn from across the different regions and provinces of the country. The Majlis has a statutory right to question cabinet members and to review social and economic policies before the government promulgates them.

The rest of the 1990s and the decade after saw the creation of a number of incipiently democratic institutions, including civil society groups such as engineers’ unions. After 9/11 and a spate of high-profile terrorist attacks in 2003, the monarchy not only took vigorous police measures but also founded the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue in order to (as the Dialogue’s website says) “combat extremism.” In 2005 came the first municipal-council elections. Adopted at the urging of the United States, this cautious experiment with the idea of seeking the consent of the governed led activists to hail this period as a “golden era” when Saudi citizens, for the first time ever, could begin openly hashing out “issues.”

By 2006, as U.S. priorities shifted, tensions with Iran rose, and the fighting in Iraq took on an especially ugly sectarian cast, optimism was fading. The participatory structures proved to be cosmetic and lacking in any real authority. Organizations that claimed to be dedicated to civil society and human rights turned out to be closely tied to the royal family. Activists across the sectarian spectrum decried the National Dialogue as a mere “debating society.” The elected municipal councils had no capacity to oversee budgets; real power rested with royally appointed governors. And the regime put a cap on the amount and type of dissent that it would tolerate, particularly on the question of a constitution.

As the Arab Spring protests roiled the region in early 2011, the Saudi regime responded with arrests, clerical exhortations against challenging the ruler, and massive subsidies meant to defuse unrest. There were protests, but most took place in the heavily Shia locale of Eastern Province. This gave the regime an opening—ably used—to frame matters in sectarian terms that dampened the prospect of cross-regional cooperation and buttressed the case for monarchical rule. Introducing democracy, the regime and its supporters argued, would open a Pandora’s box of sectarian, tribal, and regionalist furies. The internecine conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen have reinforced this narrative.6

Recent years have seen intense debates within Saudi Arabia about how to move the country forward economically without overstepping political and religious boundaries. The educational and judicial systems have been crucial battlegrounds. Reformist members of the royal family have been campaigning to purge Saudi universities of Brotherhood-affiliated clerics and officials, and to diminish the influence of hard-line judges.

In tandem, there have been increased efforts to rein in clerics—both those who are critical of King Abdullah’s reforms as too permissive, and others who feel that the reforms need to go further. As a result, Saudi prisons are filled with a broad spectrum of political prisoners, including conservative Salafis from Buraydah and Qasim, Shia from the east, and liberals from Hijaz. In 2013, there were protests almost every day outside prisons in the conservative heartland province of Qasim—unprecedented developments in a region long known as a bulwark of support for the monarchy.

The proliferation of social media poses new challenges to state control of political discourse. Twitter is hard to police. In many cases, the authorities prefer to forgo efforts at restriction and respond by marshaling “Twitter armies” of their own to push the regime’s message. “Many cases” are not all cases, however: Social-media statements seen as “insulting Islam” have been punished by law.

The most notorious case has been that of 31-year-old blogger Raif Badawi and his Free Saudi Liberals website. Convicted of “insulting Islam,” Badawi was sentenced to a fine, a ten-year jail term, and a thousand lashes, the first fifty of which were administered in Jeddah on 9 January 2015, with fifty ordered to follow at weekly intervals for nineteen more weeks. Amid a worldwide outcry against this brutal punishment, Saudi authorities as of this writing in March 2015 have inflicted no more lashes, citing a doctor’s opinion that Badawi has not healed sufficiently from the first whipping. Both Badawi and his lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair, remain imprisoned. Reports in early March said that Saudi judicial authorities were pondering the renewal of apostasy charges against Badawi; under Saudi law, apostasy from Islam is an offense punishable by beheading.7

On top of its longstanding laws against apostasy and blasphemy, Saudi Arabia has recently put into force a draconian antiterror code. Shelved back in 2011 after human-rights activists leaked details about them, these new regulations became law by royal decree in late December 2013. The new laws, along with a related Interior Ministry statement, define terrorism loosely enough to encompass any form of critical speech deviating from Saudi political and cultural norms. Another Interior Ministry document adds that “terrorism” includes “calling [others] to atheist thought . . . or doubting the unvarying principles of the Islamic religion.”8

The domestic political motives behind the antiterror code are far-reaching. Making no reference to violence beyond “harm to facilities,” the code—which is aimed at unruly Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood types as well as “atheists”—focuses almost solely on matters of expression and “public order.” Under the antiterror code, authorities have already charged young men for nothing more than “seditious tweets” that put Saudi living standards or the royal family in a negative light.9 In a country whose rulers brook no political opposition, even apolitical social activism can easily meet the law’s criteria for “threatening the national unity” of the country or “insulting the state’s reputation or stature.”10 In many respects, the antiterror code was the domestic expression of a broader post-2011 countermovement by the Saudis that had its strongest impact in Egypt.

If Syria is the main front in the Saudis’ geopolitical struggle against Iran, then Egypt is the main front in the political and ideological struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood. Thanks to its great weight in Arab affairs, Egypt has always been of central importance to Saudi decision makers. Hosni Mubarak’s fall in early 2011 hit the Saudi royals like an earthquake—in one stroke, they lost an authoritarian bulwark against both Iran and the Brotherhood. Even more ominously, as King Abdullah noted, they watched the United States discard a longtime ally.

In order to stem the rise of the Brotherhood in Egypt, the Saudis have given financial aid to the government of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to sympathetic media, and to those Egyptian Salafis who have become the military’s tacit allies against the Brotherhood. As early as 2011, when Egypt was under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Saudi Arabia pledged $4 billion in badly needed economic support (Egypt, with a population of 84 million, has difficulty feeding itself). The initial goal was to block any drift toward Iran. The Saudis purportedly channeled money to the Salafist al-Nour party during Egypt’s 2011–12 parliamentary elections.

When Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi won a runoff to become president of Egypt in June 2012, Riyadh shut off its aid. Rumors flew that Prince Bandar bin Sultan (who would soon become Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief) and the Gulf states were working quietly to embolden military opposition to the Muslim Brothers, even as Washington was urging General Sisi to reach a peaceful compromise with Morsi. Saudi support resumed once the military ousted Morsi in July 2013. Together with the other GCC governments, the Saudis have given Egypt $23 billion in aid (in the form of petroleum products and central-bank deposits) since Morsi was ousted—a sum that dwarfs the combined $2.8 billion pledged by Washington and the EU.11 In interviews, U.S. Defense Department officials have told me that this influx—together with a shift toward arms purchases from Russia—has significantly eroded U.S. ability to push the military regime toward political reforms. Saudi commentators, meanwhile, have defended the move as helping to stabilize Egypt and to restore its capacity to oppose Iranian influence in Syria and Iraq.12

It is important to note, however, that Saudi Arabia’s policies in Egypt did cause blowback at home. Clerics from the Sahwa branch of Saudi Salafism—the variant that draws inspiration from Muslim Brotherhood ideology—were not shy about taking to the lively Saudi social-media scene in order to criticize Morsi’s ouster. A few clerics even called for external aid to Morsi’s supporters. Other prominent Salafists, including Mohsen al-Awaji, Saad al-Buraik, and Naseer al-Omar, used Morsi’s ouster to point out the Saudi government’s failings, though some tempered their comments by implying that Morsi’s mismanagement and tilt toward Iran were to blame for his downfall. Thirty-four prominent Sahwa clerics wrote Egypt’s al-Nour party to charge it with backing secular forces and “obstructing shari‘a” during the constitution-writing process.13

By August 2013, Saudi authorities had jailed two Sahwa clerics, placed another under house arrest, and banned a Riyadh preacher from public speaking—all because they expressed support for the deposed president or voiced opposition to General Sisi. Ironically, this crackdown prompted the very politicization of Saudi clerical discourse that the monarchy had been so eager to avoid when the Brotherhood held power in Cairo.

To the west of Egypt, across North Africa, the Saudis have offered a similar mix of financial aid to authoritarian, anti-Brotherhood actors—often neo-Nasserist officers—and Salafi quietists. Much of this pre-dates the Arab uprisings. For example, senior Saudi clerics visited Libya in the twilight years of Muammar Qadhafi’s regime at his invitation in order to support his efforts at deradicalizing former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.14 Like the Saudi original that was its model, Qadhafi’s program taught nonparticipation in politics and obedience to the ruler. Although Salafists are hardly the whole story in today’s post-Qadhafi Libya, this politically quietist current of Salafism (known as Madkhaliyya after its Saudi clerical progenitor, Rabi’ bin Hadi al-Madkhali) remains influential.

After Qadhafi’s downfall, Saudi Arabia worked quietly through the Emirates and Sisi’s government to support anti-Islamist factional forces under retired Libyan general Khalifa Haftar. Since May 2014, the septugenarian Haftar has become a major player in Libya’s multisided civil war. He has been running an armed campaign—dubbed Operation Dignity— that teams eastern tribes, federalists, military officers, and some liberals in a push to drive Islamist militias out of Benghazi. Warplanes and special forces from the UAE, using bases in Egypt, have carried out strikes inside Libya to support Haftar. A broader, unstated goal is to shut political Islamists and especially the Muslim Brothers out of Libyan politics.

As regards Tunisia, Saudi Arabia has given asylum to deposed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, while banning from its soil Rachid Ghannouchi, whose Brotherhood-affiliated Ennahda party is the target of Saudi opposition. In recent years, the UAE has stepped to the forefront with its efforts to counter Ennahda’s rise by backing its secular rival, the Nidaa Tunis party, which contains many remnants of Ben Ali’s old ruling group.

Quarantine in the Gulf and Iraq

Closer to home, in the Gulf region, Saudi policy has been working hard to limit democratic participation, which Riyadh fears as a path to Shia mobilization and Muslim Brotherhood empowerment. Massive cash payouts to local Sunnis and Salafis and even military intervention have been applied. Looking to the longer term, Riyadh has been spearheading GCC integration initiatives that focus on the internal security of member states. The intent is to make each state’s domestic stability the concern of all, as well as to ease the task of policing dissent.

Saudi Arabia’s strategy has been on clearest display in the neighboring island kingdom of Bahrain. Linked to the Saudi coast by the 25-kilometer King Fahd Causeway, Bahrain has been tightly involved with the mainland at least since Sunni tribes from the Arabian Peninsula helped the Khalifa family (a Sunni clan) to conquer the island back in the 1780s. Sitting atop declining oil reserves, Bahrain depends on Saudi subsidies. The Saudi royals watch events on the island warily, believing that if Bahrain’s majority Shia ever mobilize politically, their coreligionists in the Kingdom’s oil-rich Eastern Province will swiftly follow suit. And this is to say nothing about the energizing impact that an outburst of Bahraini constitutionalism and democratization could have on Saudi Sunni reformists.

Although Saudi media and officials often worry aloud that opening Bahrain to wider political participation could make the island “fall” to Iran, this fear may not be the main driver of Saudi policy. In an admission that surprised me with its frankness, a senior Saudi diplomat told me in 2006 that Saudi Arabia could live with Bahrain having a Shia premier. He went on to say that continued dependence on Saudi subsidies plus differences between Bahraini Shia and Iran’s ruling clerics would keep the island out of Tehran’s orbit. Hyperbole about the Iranian threat is useful, however, both as a distraction from the Khalifa family’s governance failings and corruption, and as a way of maintaining the support of the United States, which bases its Fifth Fleet on the island. (Bahraini Shia leaders back the U.S. naval base too, seeing it as an aid in keeping both the Iranians and the Saudis at a distance.)

Riyadh has counseled the Khalifa monarchy to adopt limited reforms as a pressure-release tactic. Thus Bahrain has held elections (most recently in November 2014) for a parliament that has virtually no legislative or oversight capacity; has hosted talks modeled on the Saudi National Dialogue; and has eased sectarian discrimination in areas such as housing and public-sector hiring. In encouraging participation but seeing that it stays limited, the Saudis have played a double game. To counter the Shia, Riyadh has given money to deeply sectarian (and mostly pro-Khalifa) Sunni elements such as the al-Asala Islamic Society, the National Unity Gathering, and the Sahwat al-Fatih movement.

Saudi leaders have found events in Bahrain disturbing enough to merit the use not merely of “soft” but of “hard” power. In March 2011, as Arab Spring unrest on the island was cresting, Saudi troops in armored vehicles rolled across the causeway under the banner of the GCC Peninsula Shield Force. Backed by Emirati forces and token contingents from Kuwait and Qatar, the Saudi soldiers took over guarding key points while Bahraini security forces violently suppressed protesters. As of this writing in early 2015, an estimated 5,000 Saudi and Emirati troops remain on the island. They are not in direct contact with the public, but fill support roles (such as guarding strategic sites) in order to free their Bahraini counterparts to bring force to bear more quickly should another crisis arise.

Although met with skepticism by most GCC governments and protests by Bahraini Shias, the idea of a closer juncture (to be called the Gulf Union) between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain has roused an eager response from conservatives within the Khalifa family. On the sidelines of a May 2013 GCC meeting in Riyadh, the merger idea received a surprisingly formal endorsement from Saudi and Bahraini officials. The need for mutual defense was cited, but political motives were more likely at work—the ruling family of Saudi Arabia wanted to shore up the ruling family of Bahrain, the place in the Gulf region that seems most vulnerable to political ferment. Bahraini Sunni groups that had formed to back the Khalifa monarchy in 2011 marched in favor of the union with Riyadh, as Shia activists noted with irony how often they had been charged with wanting to give up Bahrain’s sovereignty to a foreign power (Iran).

Riyadh’s efforts to knit the GCC regimes more tightly together have also included a fund set up in March 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring protests, that promised Oman and Bahrain $10 billion apiece over a decade. More recently, Riyadh has been using the regional route to pressure Qatar, which Saudi authorities say has links to terrorism and sponsors the Muslim Brotherhood.15

Saudi Arabia long ago concluded that Iraq, its largest neighbor to the north, has fallen firmly into Iran’s orbit, with U.S. naivety hastening the process. Saudis speak of Iraq’s 2004 parliamentary elections as having unleashed centrifugal forces that sent sectarian shock waves across the region and gave Tehran its decisive opening. The power of this narrative in driving Saudi Arabia’s policies at home should not be underestimated: Stray down the path to the ballot box as Iraq did, the Saudis insist, and you fling open the gates of fitna (strife).

Seeking to do what it could to protect its interests in Iraq, Saudi Arabia cultivated ties to powerful tribes such as the Shammar, as well as to Salafist groups, Islamists from the Iraqi Islamic Party, and former Ba’athist officers. In the 2010 elections, Riyadh backed the Iraqiyya list led by Ayad Allawi, a Shia from the Shammar. But then Tehran stepped in and maneuvered its favorite, Nuri al-Maliki, into the premiership even though Iraqiyya had won more votes. After that, Saudi Arabia virtually quarantined Iraq, building a border fence that was only opened (albeit cautiously) after the rise of the Islamic State and Maliki’s September 2014 replacement by Haider al-Abadi, another Shia politician but one who enjoys Saudi as well as Iranian backing.

On its southern border, in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has long worked to sow weakness and division, using billions in cash to build patronage networks among the powerful Ahmar tribal confederation, the Islah party, and southern secessionists.16 The recent takeover of Sana‘a by the Huthis, the Zaydi Shia movement with links to Iran that effectively ousted President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, spurred Riyadh to suspend all economic aid.17 In another regional irony, Riyadh had been backing Yemen’s Salafists, but it was their rise that had mobilized the Huthis as a Zaydi-revivalist countermovement.18 The Saudis had tried to put down the Huthi rebellion with cross-border troop incursions, artillery barrages, and airstrikes, but to no avail. Today, Saudi policy is focused on recovering what influence is to be had—perhaps via secessionists in the south—as Yemen disintegrates. Riyadh has rebuffed overtures by the Huthis to form a new national-unity government that includes officials from the former regime, denouncing the Huthi seizure of power as a “coup.”19

Countering Iran in the Levant

In Lebanon, Saudi policy is deeply confessional and supportive of patronage politics, but not explicitly counterdemocratic. The goal is to check Iranian and Syrian influence. For many Saudis, the protection of Lebanon’s Sunnis is a matter of profound symbolic resonance, tied to the House of Saud’s legitimacy.20 Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri’s 2005 assassination, almost certainly at the hands of Syria, marked a turning point. When its ally was murdered, Riyadh went into high gear with cash payouts for the Lebanese army and sympathetic Sunni religious actors. Saad Hariri, Rafiq Hariri’s son, has been the crucial intermediary, providing $52 million (much of it from the Saudis) to the Sunnis of northern Lebanon in a bid to curb the influence of Hezbollah and its sponsor, Iran.

After the 2006 Lebanon War, Saudi Arabia thought that it had worked out a stable power-sharing arrangement with Iran, but the brief interlude of intersectarian calm ended when Hezbollah forces rolled into West Beirut in May 2008. This humiliating blow, followed by the May 2011 naming of a pro-Syrian politician as prime minister, signaled Hezbollah’s grip on the Lebanese government. The Saudis are not done trying, however: Recent reports suggest that Saad Hariri is distributing even more Saudi funding—a staggering $3 billion—to Lebanon’s military and security agencies in an effort to pry them out of Tehran’s orbit.21

Jordan is increasingly appearing in Saudi eyes as a frontline state in the struggle to preserve monarchy, contain the Syrian strife, check Iran’s influence, rein in the Muslim Brotherhood, and fight the Islamic State. Riyadh led the GCC’s stepped-up aid to Amman, pledging $1.37 billion of a total $5 billion in assistance. This money has indirectly had a counterdemocratic effect. The funds from abroad have reduced the pressure on Jordan’s King Abdullah II to achieve promised political reforms and have instead allowed him to opt for reforms that are merely cosmetic, especially as regards improving the electoral law and converting the premiership from a royally appointed post into an elected office.

If Gulf money has played a role in keeping economic concerns from turning into demands for political change, how long can the tactic work? With oil prices falling, some curtailment of Saudi aid to Jordan is likely, if not in 2015 then after. In the meantime, however, Jordan has moved Riyadh’s way. Abdullah’s regime has enacted restrictive censorship and antiterror measures that resemble their Saudi and UAE counterparts in using an elastic definition of “terrorism.” The Muslim Brotherhood has not yet been criminalized, but in late 2014 Jordanian authorities arrested a number of Brotherhood figures, including one who had been speaking critically of the UAE.

At the heart of Saudi Arabia’s push to reorder regional geopolitics and manage the aftershocks of the Arab Spring stands Syria. Here, the Saudi-Iranian strategic rivalry is especially apparent. Riyadh remains wary of great-power diplomatic initiatives regarding Syria, seeing them as at best dangerously naïve, and at worst as tokens of a deliberate conspiracy (led by Washington) to sacrifice the anti-Assad opposition on the altar of a nuclear deal with Tehran. Believing that local (and especially Arab) states must take the lead, the Saudis have worked through a variety of regional intermediaries to reduce infighting among allies, influence the leadership balance in the Syrian opposition, marginalize factions linked to al-Qaeda, and improve the quality of the opposition’s battlefield performance through training and the shipment of advanced weaponry. Riyadh has set up a joint-operations room in Istanbul with Qatar and Turkey, channeled funds through intermediaries in Lebanon’s Future Movement, coordinated military training with Jordan, brokered arms shipments from Croatia, and reportedly solicited Pakistan’s assistance with training.22

The GCC’s involvement in Syria bears well-known hallmarks of Gulf diplomacy: A few princes and their trusted advisors personally manage key matters, while quasi-official actors such as clerics, charities, and tribal leaders may act on behalf of their respective governments, exert pressure on those governments, or pursue their own initiatives outside government control.23 As one might expect, policies made under such conditions can be unpredictable and mutually contradictory. The jostling of princes eager to one-up each other can contribute to such erratic moves as Riyadh’s impetuous October 2013 decision to become the first country ever to reject one of the ten two-year seats on the fifteen-seat UN Security Council. The troubling role that clerical freelancers can play has been sharply underlined by the funding that Kuwaiti Salafists have given to al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria and Lebanon (known as Jabhat al-Nusra).24

The House of Saud has become worried enough by this kind of thing to begin clamping down on Saudi clerics who agitate with reference to Syria. The idea is to ensure that any Saudi aid sent to Syria goes through official channels, thus forestalling the clerics behind the freelance aid (who also tend to be critics of the monarchy’s cautious reforms at home) from undermining the ruling family’s legitimacy and Saudi Arabia’s security. On 29 May 2013, King Abdullah reportedly summoned to Riyadh a number of prominent Salafi clerics who had formed the Ulema Committee to Support Syria, banning them on the spot from seeking donations for that country. A few days later, this committee’s leaders announced on Facebook that the authorities had canceled its fundraising drive.25 Several individual clerics who had been raising money for “the brothers in Syria” issued similar notices.26

An Unsustainable Strategy

Underpinning all the activism by Saudi authorities is a profound sense of foreboding and malaise at home. To be sure, the House of Saud has often weathered turbulence, repeatedly confounding a cottage industry devoted to predicting the monarchy’s doom. But over the next five to ten years, the Kingdom is likely to face a confluence of challenges that will be unprecedented in scope—and will very likely result in a recalibration of its role on the regional stage.

The most pressing issue is on the economic front. In the face of declining oil prices, it is unclear how long Saudi Arabia’s massive regional spending can be maintained. Dependent on oil for about 90 percent of its revenue, the Saudi government is expected soon to face a budget deficit equal to one percent of GNP—the largest in Saudi history. In the near and middle terms, the ruling family is likely to leave housing and other subsidies untouched, but regional assistance is fair game for cuts. The question is how long the Saudis will rely on reserves in an effort to price shale-oil producers such as the United States out of the market. In the longer term, should the drop in oil prices continue, there will be profound implications for the Kingdom’s many young people. In a society accustomed to paying for welfare spending with oil revenue, they will face the prospect of receiving fewer benefits than did their parents.

Official estimates put the fourth-quarter 2014 unemployment rate at 11.6 percent—5.9 percent for men and 32.5 percent for women (out of those looking for work)—and most of the jobless are in their twenties and thirties.27 The government has tried to tackle unemployment by encouraging a “Saudization” of the work place—increasing the proportion of Saudis in private-sector jobs, many of which are with foreign companies. The Nitaqat (Zones) program has placed sanctions on those companies whose ratio of Saudi-to-foreign workers does not meet a certain threshold. Government sources show a slight improvement, with Saudi employment rising by 13 percent over a 16-month period. But the Saudization program has been criticized for loopholes that allow companies to circumvent the restrictions by creating fake positions for Saudi nationals and firing foreign workers without actually increasing the hiring of Saudis.28

Meanwhile, the smooth transfer of the crown that took place in early 2015 cannot banish worries about the royal succession. Crown Prince Muqrin is the last living son of King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud (1876–1953), Saudi Arabia’s founder. The next king after Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef will thus have to be one of the hundreds of second-generation princes. The competition among them must now start in earnest, and it will almost certainly involve foreign affairs, as various princely contenders vie over who controls which policies, and what those policies will be. A similar scramble could occur at home, too. This might be good for economic and political reform, creating more political space for changes, especially of the sort that appeal to youth. Crown Prince Muqrin has already mentioned the urgency of economic liberalization.

A key unknown is the effect of the parallel rise of Muhammad bin Nayef. As head of the Interior Ministry, Nayef is known to be a stalwart opponent of Islamism and a seasoned veteran of counterterrorism. And although he is well-respected in Washington, his tenure at the Interior Ministry has seen the “securitization” of dissent at home and vigorous interventions abroad to combat jihadism, particularly in Yemen. Yet should he become king, there is the possibility that he might moderate this position. He could decide, for example, that the struggle against jihadi extremism is best served by some loosening up on the Brotherhood. It should be remembered that similar dire predictions were made about Abdullah—that he was a hard-line nationalist and anti-American—prior to his rise to the throne.29

In fact, there are already signs that the Saudis are moderating their views on the Brotherhood. The Saudis have reportedly been pushing the UAE—an even stronger Brotherhood foe—to temper its hard-line views. Much of this stems from a burgeoning Saudi rapprochement with Qatar and Turkey, as well as a possible Saudi effort to contain the Huthi threat in neighboring Yemen by renewing engagement with the Brotherhood-affiliated Islah party in that country. The shifts wrought by succession will be important, but their likely effects upon actual Saudi foreign policies should not be overstated. At its core, the Kingdom remains an authoritarian state with a ruling family wedded to monarchical privilege and backed by a deeply antiliberal and sectarian religious establishment. Under King Salman as under the late King Abdullah, the House of Saud is committed to enforcing a general climate of political quietism at home, albeit with incremental and carefully calibrated steps toward economic reform. While the succession may result in some tactical shifts across the region, over the near and medium terms the general Saudi strategy of mitigating the influence of Islamists in electoral politics, countering Iran, and combatting jihadism is likely to endure.

A more likely driver of foreign-policy shifts may be domestic economic factors rather than leadership changes: Looming strains on the welfare state and bottom-up demographic pressures from the increasingly youthful populace are likely to shift the focus of Saudi energies inward in the years ahead. This may in turn bring some curtailment and realignment of the Kingdom’s policies toward Arab transitional states, policies that have thus far been harmful to the growth of political pluralism and reform.


The author is grateful for the research assistance provided by Ala’ Alrababa’h, a junior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

1 For a discussion of a functional rather than ideological approach to analyzing counterdemocratic powers, see Thomas Carothers and Oren Samet-Marram, “The Global Marketplace of Political Interventionism,” Carnegie Endowment paper (forthcoming 2015). They write: “Autocracies necessarily promote autocracy when they try to shape political outcomes in transitional contexts. A more accurate analytic umbrella concept for understanding their efforts is a more functional and less ideological one . . . A pure ideological interest in spreading autocracy per se is not very often on display.”

2 Martin Dokoupil, “Saudi Could See Budget Deficit Next Year, Risks Draining Reserves—IMF,”, 24 September 2014.

3 See Laurence Whitehead, “Antidemocracy Promotion: Four Strategies in Search of a Framework,” Taiwan Journal of Democracy 10 (December 2014): 1–24.

4 Gerd Nonneman, “Security and Inclusion: Regime Responses to Domestic Challenges in the Gulf,” Whitehall Papers 51 (2000): 107–15.

5 Stephen M. Walt, The Origins of Alliances (New York: Cornell University Press, 1987), 216; and F. Gregory Gause III, “Balancing What? Threat Perception and Alliance Choice in the Gulf,” Security Studies 13 (Winter 2003): 303.

6 See Frederic M. Wehrey, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).

7 Kevin Rawlinson, “Saudi Blogger Raif Badawi Could Be Retried and Beheaded, Say His Family,” Guardian, 1 March 2015.

8 Saudi Arabia, Ministry of Interior Website,

9 “Saudis Charge Three over Allegedly Seditious Tweets: Paper,”, 1 April 2014.

10 Saudi Arabia, Bureau of Experts at the Council of Ministers,

11 Fiona MacDonald and Dana El Baltaji, “Kuwait Egypt Aid Pushes Gulf Pledges to $12 Billion in 24 Hours,”, 10 July 2013.

12 Khalid al-Dakhil, “What Is Riyadh Waiting for from Cairo?” Al-Hayat (Cairo), 20 July 2013.

13 “Saudi Religious Scholars Accuse Egyptian Salafist Al-Nour Party of Obstructing Sharia,”

14 Author’s interviews in Tripoli, Libya, 5 July 2012.

15 Bruce Riedel, “Saudi Arabia Moving Ahead With Gulf Union,” Al-Monitor, 22 December 2013.

16 Stig Stenslie, Not Too Strong, Not Too Weak: Saudi Arabia’s Policy Towards Yemen, Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Center Policy Brief, March 2013.

17 Yara Bayoumy and Mohammed Ghobari, “Exclusive: Saudi Suspends Aid to Yemen After Houthi Takeover—Sources,”, 4 December 2014.

18 Laurent Bonnefoy, “Salafism in Yemen: A ‘Saudisation’?” in Madawi al-Rasheed, ed., Kingdom Without Borders: Saudi Arabia’s Political, Religious and Media Frontiers (London: Hurst, 2008).

19 Rod Nordland and Shuaib Almosawa, “Saudis Unswayed by Houthi Rebels’ Overture in Yemen,” New York Times, 7 February 2015.

20 As’ad AbuKhalil, “Determinants and Characteristics of the Saudi Role in Lebanon: The Post-Civil War Years,” in al-Rasheed, Kingdom Without Borders, 79–97.

21 Hugh Naylor, “Rivals Tehran, Riyadh Pledge Billions to Lebanon’s Army,” Washington Post, 4 November 2014.

22 Frederic Wehrey, “Gulf Calculations in the Syria Conflict,” 9 June 2014,

23 Hassan Hassan, “Tribal Bonds Strengthen the Gulf’s Hand in a New Syria,” The National, 16 February 2012,

24 Ben Hubbard, “Private Donors’ Funds Add Wild Card to War in Syria,” New York Times, 12 November 2013.

25 For a report in Arabic, see “The Scholars Committee to Support Syria Declares the Stoppage of Fundraiser,” 28 May 2012,

26 Frederic Wehrey, “Saudi Arabia Reins in Its Clerics on Syria,” 14 June 2012,

27 See the website of Saudi Arabia’s Central Department of Statistics and Information at

28 Jennifer R. Peck, “Can Hiring Quotas Work? The Effect of the Nitaqat Program on the Saudi Private Sector,” MIT, April 2014, at See also Steffen Hertog, “The Private Sector and Reform in the Gulf Cooperation Council,” London School of Economics,

29 This point was made by F. Gregory Gause III, “Saudi Arabia’s Game of Thrones: King Salman Amasses Power,” Foreign Affairs, 2 February 2015,

This article was originally published by the Journal of Democracy.