Saudi tensions to draw regional and global focus in 2004

Gulf States Newsletter (GSN) Issue 725 - 9 January 2004    
 
Iraqi politics will continue to preoccupy Western politicians and the Gulf media, but unfolding ideological and personal conflicts in Saudi Arabia could well provide the defining issue of 2004.
        
While Iraq’s transition to a US-sponsored sovereign rule will preoccupy the media and the American political class in President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign year, it is developments in Saudi Arabia that will define the direction of regional politics in 2004, led by the tension between the emerging pluralist strain of Saudi politics and its more traditional conservative factions.

The capture of Saddam Hussein did little to resolve speculation as to whether the Sunni element or remnants of the old Baathist leadership would be a more permanent factor in Iraqi politics. The likelihood in any case is that killings will continue, while the economy slowly picks up and a new Iraqi politics unfolds (GSN 724/6).

But while Iraq remains a global news story, and next door in Iran another chapter in the reformist/conservative struggle unfolds (see GSN View), the political developments now taking place in Saudi Arabia could have even more impact on the region in 2004. The central issue will be the ideological clash between the more pragmatic and pluralist version of politics now being promoted by Crown Prince Abdallah Bin Abdelaziz (CPA), and that of his rivals for power in conservative monarchist and Wahhabi religious factions. The Kingdom has arguably not entered such a critical year since the end of the 1990-91 Gulf conflict, and perhaps even since the Grand Mosque siege of 1979.

A fuller recognition in 2003 of what the 11 September 2001 attacks on the USA meant for the Kingdom saw CPA working to reshape the social compact that keeps the Al-Sauds in power by offering unprecedented domestic political reforms (GSN 720/6), and his most senior envoys – Prince Turki Al-Faisal in London and an increasingly embattled Prince Bandar Bin Sultan in Washington – arguing for greater understanding from old allies.

The fact that 15 of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals was not paid great heed in the Kingdom in the Osama Bin Laden-obsessed 2001-02 period. But in 2003 the public emergence of a serious Jihadist underground meant they came to be viewed as a full frontal threat to Al-Saud rule (GSN 721/1).

This threat continues, with the UK government issuing another security advisory warning that terrorists are in the final stages of preparing operations in the Kingdom. When on 30 December, a senior Saudi security officer narrowly escaped a bomb blast in his car, it was the third such attack reported that month.

With terrorist elements so publicly active, the Kingdom is undeniably in conflict. However, getting details of this remains problematic: Saudi affairs remain shrouded in claim and counterclaim. Thus British reports that authorities had seized two light aircraft prior to a terrorist attack at Riyadh airport were denied by the Saudis and by airlines.

Global impact

The ongoing security crisis and the post 9/11 politics of suspicion matter a lot to the global economic and political scene. Iraq’s oil exports are set to reach a sustainable 2m b/d soon, with much more upside thereafter (more). But Saudi Arabia remains the world’s swing exporter, with soothing noises from oil minister Ali Al-Naimi helping to calm nerves in the world’s biggest importer, the US, where $30/bbl oil is not appreciated. New West African and Caspian producers have been seen as an alternative by some Beltway think tanks, but the reality is that Saudi Arabia will remain the critical oil exporter for years to come.

The Al-Sauds will use this position to their advantage to consolidate support from key allies such as the UK – which is still lifting huge amounts of oil through the Al-Yamamah offset programme – and the USA. “Friends” of the Kingdom will talk up the positives of Saudi Arabia’s stop-start economic reforms, and the potential for spending on new projects, with coffers boosted by high oil revenues.

On the security side, Saudi boosters see the shoot-outs and arrests that marked 2003 as a positive move to crush the Jihadist movement. Now that key players such as Interior Minister Prince Nayef Bin Abdelaziz are focused on eliminating the ultra-radical opposition, stability will return, their argument goes.

But Western allies remain uneasy. Ambassadors and other expatriates are showing deep concern about their security; many non-essential staff and dependents have already been sent home; British Airways flights have been cancelled. Nayef’s security services are, by and large, not trusted by those who they protect in Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter or Jeddah’s commercial districts, or by the growing number of Western investigators working with the Saudi authorities against the diffuse movement known as Al-Qaeda.

Members of the UK Metropolitan Police’s Anti-Terrorist branch told GSN their colleagues working in Saudi Arabia were deeply uneasy at their local counterparts’ tendency to “convict through confession”. As with so many corners of the war on terror, obtaining evidence that will stand scrutiny in a Western court remains elusive in Saudi Arabia. Defence lawyers in the Kingdom report that families and tribal representatives of the many hundreds arrested in 2003 are complaining about wrongful arrests and abuses during interrogation – and are themselves becoming radicalised.

Potential and problems

By Saudi standards, Crown Prince Abdallah has made great strides towards reforming the economy and domestic politics during his period at the top since King Fahd’s 1995 stroke. But for many Western analysts, Saudi Arabia is now seen as a problem state – reflected in US planners’ modelling of the potentials for Saudi Arabia to become a “failed state”, discussed in GSN’s Centrepiece article.

This perception will colour its relations in everything from making visa arrangements for Saudi travellers to longstanding business arrangements such as the Al-Yamamah arms deals, which are anyway under pressure. Controversy over UK press reports about alleged payments to Saudi officials (some of them siphoned off by allegedly corrupt British business partners) for Al-Yamamah-related favours, and ambiguities in the position of the Export Credits Guarantee Department and other government departments in this business, are not going to simply disappear in 2004.

Its economy has huge potential, but it is not just on the security front that Saudi Arabia faces deep complications in its international relations in 2004. The Al-Sauds have shown themselves capable of change before, and the pervasive presence of thousands of princes and tribal allies across the political system gives the ruling family an unusual hold on power. In this system there will be reform, but not at a rush.

Speaking after the GCC summit on 22 December, Foreign Affairs Minister and key CPA ally Prince Saud Al-Faisal said reform would happen at a slow and careful place. Whether this is enough to ensure long-term stability remains the great question facing the Gulf in 2004.

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