Syria: Saudi Arabia’s policy conundrum

Sau­di Ara­bia is faced with the suc­ces­sion of its age­ing lead­er­ship fol­low­ing the death of Crown Prince Nayef at a time that the 89-year old King Abdul­lah is coun­ter­ing efforts by con­ser­v­a­tive cler­ics to employ the Syr­i­an cri­sis as a vehi­cle to thwart his min­i­mal reforms and cir­cum­vent post‑9/11 restric­tions on char­i­ta­ble donat­ing, designed to pre­vent funds from flow­ing to jihadists.

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FOLLOWING THE death of Sau­di Arabia’s Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, bare­ly a year after he was appoint­ed heir to the throne, there is lit­tle doubt that the like­ly nom­i­na­tion of his broth­er, 76-year old Defense Min­is­ter Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz as the kingdom’s crown prince will prove to be smooth. Nev­er­the­less, the death of Prince Nayef, who served as inte­ri­or min­is­ter for more than three decades, could prompt the sons of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdul Aziz al Saud, to open the door to one of their sons mov­ing into the line of suc­ces­sion to the throne. 

The suc­ces­sion issue in the oil rich king­dom that is home to Islam’s two most holy cities, Mec­ca and Medina,takes on added impor­tance at a time that Sau­di lead­ers are seek­ing to ring fence their coun­try against the region’s anti-auto­crat­ic protests and clam­our for greater free­dom. That is prov­ing increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult despite polit­i­cal and mil­i­tary crack­downs and gen­er­ous gov­ern­ment handouts. 

Syr­ia for one pos­es a conun­drum for a pol­i­cy that sup­ports pop­u­lar and armed oppo­si­tion to Syr­i­an pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad in part by fuel­ing sec­tar­i­an strife in a coun­try tee­ter­ing on the brink of civ­il war while at the same time try­ing to insu­late the king­dom from the region-wide chal­lenge to auto­crat­ic rule. 

Estab­lish­ment cler­ics preach­ing from Fri­day prayer pul­pits as well as on social media denounce the Syr­i­an regime as well as the Alaw­ites, the heretic Shi­ite sect from which Assad hails, and sup­port the Sau­di and Qatari sup­ply of arms through Turkey to armed ele­ments of the Syr­i­an oppo­si­tion. The cler­ics, like the gov­ern­ment, make no effort to square their sup­port for regime change in Syr­ia and their ear­li­er assis­tance in eas­ing Yemeni pres­i­dent Ali Abdul­lah Saleh out of office with their crush­ing of a pop­u­lar upris­ing in neigh­bour­ing Bahrain and the crack­down on protests in Sau­di Arabia’s pre­dom­i­nant­ly Shi­ite East­ern province, home to much of the kingdom’s oil wealth. 

Wield­ing a stick and a car­rot

King Abdul­lah has sought to halt the wave of protests at Sau­di Arabia’s fron­tiers by wield­ing both a stick and a car­rot. The Sau­di mil­i­tary as well as inte­ri­or min­istry forces under Prince Nayef’s lead­er­ship respond­ed firm­ly to Shi­ite protests and have cracked down on blog­gers and activists. At the same time, King Abdul­lah has sought to pre­empt dis­sent by allo­cat­ing more than US $100 bil­lion for enhanced ser­vices, hand­outs and the cre­ation of jobs, pri­mar­i­ly in the mil­i­tary and secu­ri­ty forces, and cau­tious­ly mov­ing ahead with snail pace reforms. 

In a move designed to ensure gov­ern­ment con­trol of pol­i­cy towards Syr­ia, lim­it the fall­out of the Syr­i­an cri­sis and tight­en gov­ern­ment con­trol of the cler­gy, King Abdul­lah recent­ly cracked down on inde­pen­dent sup­port for Assad’s oppo­nents by con­ser­v­a­tive cler­ics. Salafi cler­ics, who were oppor­tunis­ti­cal­ly sup­port­ed by Prince Nayef, and advo­cate a soci­ety that emu­lates the very ear­ly days of Islam, were ordered late last month to halt col­lect­ing dona­tions in sup­port of the Syr­i­an oppo­si­tion. That col­lec­tion threat­ened to cir­cum­vent cen­tral gov­ern­ment con­trol of all char­i­ta­ble dona­tions to for­eign caus­es intro­duced post 9/11. Once Sau­di Ara­bia real­ized that its char­i­ties had been infil­trat­ed by jihadists, includ­ing mem­bers of Al Qae­da, it ordered a halt to pre­vent monies from flow­ing to mil­i­tant Islamists who are bol­ster­ing the ranks of Syria’s armed opposition. 

Salman al-Awda, a promi­nent cler­ic whose rela­tion­ship with the gov­ern­ment runs hot and cold, coun­tered on Twit­ter that those who wished to inde­pen­dent­ly fund the Syr­i­an oppo­si­tion would con­tin­ue to find ways to do so. The gov­ern­ment went a step fur­ther in ear­ly June with a rul­ing by the Coun­cil of Senior Ule­ma (reli­gious schol­ars) that banned the call­ing for jihad in Syr­ia out­side of offi­cial­ly con­trolled chan­nels. In doing so the gov­ern­ment sought to pre­vent Syr­ia from becom­ing a vehi­cle in the hand of oppo­nents of King Abdul­lah for crit­i­cism of gov­ern­ment pol­i­cy and advo­ca­cy of far more rad­i­cal change. 

King Abdullah’s crack­down con­sti­tut­ed the sec­ond blow in a month to those cler­ics who oppose reforms such as a relax­ation of rules gov­ern­ing the pub­lic mix­ing of the sex­es. Ear­li­er they were unable to stop King Abdul­lah from lift­ing a ban on young men vis­it­ing shop­ping malls. In a heav­i­ly gen­der-seg­re­gat­ed soci­ety this allows Sau­di youths to furtive­ly glance at the oppo­site sex and sur­rep­ti­tious­ly flash or exchange their mobile num­bers or social media identities. 

Some weeks before crack­ing down on rad­i­cal sup­port for Syr­ia, King Abdul­lah fired a pop­u­lar cler­ic and scion of a com­mer­cial empire, Sheikh Abdel Mohsen Obeikan, who served as an advi­sor to the roy­al court, for oppos­ing the expan­sion of employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties for women in edu­ca­tion, med­i­cine and retail sales and bad­ly need­ed judi­cial reform. How­ev­er the cler­ics have suc­cess­ful­ly blocked Sau­di women for the first time from com­pet­ing as offi­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tives of their coun­try in an inter­na­tion­al sports tour­na­ment, at the Lon­don Olympics. 

A clam­our for real change

Women activists are test­ing the lim­its of the king’s reform will­ing­ness with a cam­paign to lift Prince Nayef’s pro­hi­bi­tion of women dri­ving. Some 600 Saud­is peti­tioned King Abdul­lah last week to allow women to dri­ve in the only coun­try in the world where they are banned from doing so. Women dri­ving has so far been a bridge too far for the king. Scores of women who defied the ban in the past year have been arrest­ed and forced to sign pledges that they would not dri­ve again. 

King Abdul­lah appears to have for now large­ly insu­lat­ed his king­dom from the kind of mass anti-gov­ern­ment protests oth­er Arab nations are expe­ri­enc­ing. The bru­tal­i­ty of the strug­gle in Syr­ia serves as a cau­tion­ary tale for many. The calls for change in Sau­di Ara­bia are nonethe­less mush­room­ing, boost­ed not only by the resilience of the Syr­i­ans but also the emer­gence of Islamists as vic­tors in elec­tions in Tunisia and Egypt. 

Reform­ers are like­ly to see the death of Prince Nayef as open­ing the door to a suc­ces­sor like Prince Salman who may be more inclined to lead the king­dom, albeit cau­tious­ly, fur­ther down the road of reform. The ques­tion nonethe­less is whether gov­ern­ment largesse, crack­downs and min­i­mal, piece­meal reforms will con­tin­ue to be suf­fi­cient to stymie the grow­ing clam­our for real change. 

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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