Saudis Not into Syria Just Because They Hate Assad

Saudi rulers are seeking in war a social glue they cannot find elsewhere to hold their subjects together.

Prince Muhammad bin Nayef speaks with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh while Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir looks on, January 27, 2015
Prince Muhammad bin Nayef speaks with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh while Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir looks on, January 27, 2015 (White House/Pete Souza)

As if the war in Syria weren’t worrisome enough, Saudi Arabia is now contemplating open intervention to match the Russians. Beyond the obvious implications of Saudi special forces shooting down Russian jets, with all the madness that would entail, is an essential question: Why? Why would Saudi Arabia, long one of the few quiet, reliably dull countries in the Middle East, embark upon war? What’s happened to the Saudi ruling mentality?

The short answer is that Saudi Arabia is terrified of the future and is lashing out in hopes it will be so feared it will not be disposed of. The longer answer requires a full article.

First, it’s important to understand this is a gigantic strategic shift for Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has never considered deploying its full power like this ever before. For decades, Saudi was a relatively isolated, relatively unknown country. Its value was in its oil and control of Mecca and Medina; the latter was wholly irrelevant until 1979.

This intervention is the biggest geopolitical risk Saudi Arabia has ever undertaken. Since foundation in 1931, Saudi Arabia has supported numerous wars but only fought two of them: in Yemen from 2014 and in Kuwait in 1991. Only the former qualifies as a true Saudi war: the 1991 Gulf War served American interests just as much as Saudi ones. But both wars were on the Saudi border; Syria is cushioned by Iraq and Jordan. For decades, Saudi rulers assumed that such risks were beyond the pale. They had good reason to think that.

For history had taught them they could not hope to stand on their own without powerful help

The Saudis had tried twice before to unify the peninsula under their rule — and were twice thwarted when an outside power, the Ottomans, decided it was not terribly smart to have a unified Arabia right next door. Saudi rulers absorbed the lesson fully: to maintain control of the sparse deserts of Arabia required outsiders that were willing to stay out. The best way to avoid outside interference was to have a powerful ally. On their third go, the Saudis managed a nonaggression pact with the British in the 1920s and 30s: in exchange for butchering key Saudi allies who wanted to attack British-controlled Iraq and the Persian Gulf, Britain agreed to act as a buffer between Saudi Arabia and more powerful states like Iran, Turkey and Egypt.

The United States took on this role after World War II; the quid pro quo was the one we’re all familiar with. In exchange for protecting the kingdom, the US enjoyed preferential treatment in regards to Saudi oil concessions. This deal also involved hefty nation-building support from the United States. The Saudis used much of their income to hire American technicians, architects, arms dealers, military trainers and others to build the backbone of the Saudi state. In effect, the US was trading its knowledge of statecraft for oil.

American president John F. Kennedy welcomes King Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia at the White House in Washington DC, February 13, 1962
American president John F. Kennedy welcomes King Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia at the White House in Washington DC, February 13, 1962 (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/Abbie Rowe)

This is because Saudi rulers understood quite well just how weak the kingdom truly was. While a heavyweight on the peninsula, that wasn’t saying much; most of Arabia minus Yemen was utterly undeveloped prior to the 1960s. The US liked that the Saudis had a deeply anticommunist bent; Wahhabism brooked no competition. Even the Arab oil embargo didn’t derail relations. In fact, the oil embargo revealed to the Saudis just how weak their hand was; while the embargo temporarily harmed the US, it also spurned post-oil innovation in the form of solar and wind power and shrank Saudi’s share of the American market. This was key: Saudi rulers understood that to lose the American market meant to lose influence in America. After the embargo, they never again contemplated any action that might jeopardize their position.

Saudi Arabia’s rulers understood they had to modernize, and fast, to survive the outside world. But that was hardly the end of their challenges.

Because keeping pace with the outside world was one thing; keeping internal forces balanced quite another

The House of Saud had been happy to betray key supporters before if it achieved their ends; the Ikhwan War of the late 1920s and early 1930s had proven it. But that did not mean they could smash all the forces holding back development. To maintain power among their restive, conquered subjects, the Saudi monarchy drew heavily upon tribal and religious forces already present within Arabia. The Saudis bribed the most powerful and loyal of tribes with increasingly lavish portions of the oil spoils; they indulged Wahhabi religious forces to build a social cement that held their kingdom together.

Both forces were necessary, given the circumstances of pre-Saudi Arabia, but both forces were also corrosive on development. Tribalism focused intensely on grabbing as big of a piece of the Saudi pie as possible at the expense of everyone else: this sucked down vast amounts of resources on tribally-fueled consumption. This looked like the increasingly lavish parties, cars and phones Saudis bought up; none of these purchases much advanced the Saudi state.

Wahhabism, meanwhile, built an edifice of past-worship: everything, it seemed, had been better before. Naturally, this made innovation unlikely, reform difficult and future-oriented policies nearly impossible to carry out.

Which made Saudi Arabia extremely risk averse

Saudi Arabia needed outside powers to protect it and so it tried its best to avoid upsetting the geopolitical applecart; it was more than happy to let the Americans take the heat. It also understood this was an untenable position to be in, though: it still had to build up a state, which it did with its vast oil wealth. It also had to mollify its society through the tribes and the Wahhabi clerics. Unfortunately, doing so slowed down development.

So Saudi Arabia took as few risks as possible. Its elites were, of course, learning on the job: the oil embargo was a key mistake they were lucky to recover from. In addition, in 1979, the Saudis learned the hard way just how important it was to placate their Islamists: pilgrims seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Saudi army was so inept the regime had to call in French commandoes to help them wipe out of the rebellion.

In the aftermath, the royals consolidated power further using the same time-honored strategies of buying off tribes and indulging the Wahhabi.

But this strategy is obviously running out of time

The oil crash matters, but it’s important to remember that oil is so cheap partially because Saudi wills it. It’s true that a big reason Riyadh has gambled on cheap oil is to wipe out America’s frakkers and thereby preserve its all-important US market share. But there are other needs as well.

Saudi Arabia has gone as far as it can with its dual “bribe the tribes and the imams” strategy. The hard infrastructure of the state is in place: highways are built, power plants hum along, soldiers have bullets and tanks, etc. But the soft infrastructure is an absolute mess: traffic cops don’t police the highways, power plants are staffed with fickle foreigners and soldiers don’t hit whatever it is they think they’re shooting at.

The only way to bring Saudi Arabia’s human capital up to snuff is to stress it: only under stress will large groups of people improve themselves. Many nation states go to war because war is about as stressful as one can get: nothing like life and death to force soldiers to suddenly learn professionalism. Recessions, also, are capitalism’s way of improving human capital, by destroying inefficient or wasteful jobs and forcing people to find new, efficient ways to run the economy.

Saudi Arabia sees Iran as a potential pan-Islamic rival that could inspire a revolution: it therefore must push back against Iran wherever it can. But up until around 2011, when the nuclear negotiations got seriously underway, Saudi could assume America would support it as it did so. Now, however, the US cares less than ever who dominates the Middle East so long as they do so within American parameters. This means that, for the first time in decades, the House of Saud is expendable to Washington so long as any successor keeps the oil flowing.

Without guaranteed US protection, Saudi must stand on its own: neither Russia nor China are ready to replace the US. This means the regime must act fast to modernize its state and the fastest methods are also the most dramatic ones.

Saudi Arabia did not have to choose war in Yemen, nor does it have to choose to intervene in Syria, yet they are far too tempting of targets

To send Saudi soldiers off to these wars, even if they are unwinnable, serves domestic purposes: the bloated Saudi officer corps will be blooded and forced to adapt to survive. This will take care of some of the tribal corruption: it’s been common Saudi practice to promote far too many soldiers to officers since Saudi citizens saw the military as a cushy desk job rather than a deadly posting. It will also undermine the Wahhabis, since these are being painted as wars of national interest rather than religion.

An honor guard at the Saudi Arabian Air Force Institute in Jeddah, June 2, 2014
An honor guard at the Saudi Arabian Air Force Institute in Jeddah, June 2, 2014 (DoD/D. Myles Cullen)

Additionally, the regime calculates both wars can be lost and survived: the Houthi Yemeni are not about to invade Saudi Arabia proper, nor can Assad, even if restored to full power, pose a direct threat to the Kingdom.

This is then coupled with a domestic stressor: lower oil prices.

And what will feel like a Saudi recession

Forcing Saudis to cut back on consumption and think instead of saving and investing is revolutionary in Saudi society. Fuel subsidies are dialing back; women are being called to the workplace to ease poverty. In yesteryear, Saudi royals simply flooded the country with cash to deal with domestic problems, but all Saudis learned from that was how to beg. The monarchy needs thinkers, not beggers, and it must make its people hungry enough to utilize some critical thinking as to how to get their needs met. Grumblers will be met with the brute force of numbers: cash that was once plentiful is now burning away. The indolent office workers who used to show up once a week at best will be confronted with hard realities: the flush times that made them possible are gone.

This is doubtless key as to why Saudi, with its still formidable market share, refuses to cut production. The United States cannot be trusted as it once was and Iran’s human capital is far more advanced than Saudi Arabia’s. In any competition, economic, military or political, Iran will come out on top and possibly inspire a revolt against the Saudis themselves. Therefore, Saudi must use what time it still has to jump ahead decades by applying as much pressure as possible to its own population without causing a backlash.

And that’s the hard part

The Saudis must spook their population into change, but they cannot overplay their hand. How much stress their subjects will endure is up for debate: it seems likely there will be violence as these changes are enacted. Shrewd leadership could navigate such times; doubtless, there are shrewd royals lurking in the ranks. But the kingdom’s track record isn’t great: having given ideological breath to the Islamic State is proof that Riyadh does not always calculate with realism in mind. The upcoming weeks will be fascinating to see, for if Saudi embarks upon war in Syria, it means the kingdom is seeking a social glue it cannot find anywhere else to hold its subjects together.

This article originally appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, February 18, 2016.

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