THE KING IS DEAD-LONG LIVE THE KING – SAUDI ARABIA: A LEGACY OF FOREIGN POLICY BLUNDERS

Canberra, 11 February 2015

Much is being written about the ‘peaceful’ transition of power and the rapid administrative overhaul that has been undertaken by King Salman in the fortnight or so that he has been in power in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi newspapers are trumpeting the changes as heralding a new era within the kingdom. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Saudi Arabia is geographically surrounded by disorder ever since the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011—Syria in the west; Iraq in the north; Bahrain in the east; and Yemen in the south. The threat perception of the kingdom is therefore magnified, considering the regional and the increasingly chaotic domestic factors. At the death of King Abdullah, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud (79) his half-brother who had been the Crown Prince for the past two and a half years, assumed the throne seamlessly. At the same time the then Deputy Crown Prince appointed by King Abdullah, Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud (69), was elevated to the position of Crown Prince. Prince Muqrin is yet another half-brother of both King Abdullah and King Salman. Unlike other traditional monarchies, the Saudi monarchy has practised succession from brother to brother, rather than as an entrenched patriarchy. So this succession was not in any way extraordinary.

A smooth succession in Saudi Arabia is important because of the kingdom’s criticality to regional stability and also its position as the major global energy supplier. It holds centre stage in Middle-Eastern politics and in the international religious debate centred on Islam. At least for now, stability of Saudi Arabia is an essential criterion for global stability. Now that at least temporary stability has been achieved, the new administration will have to address growing challenges to the well-being of the kingdom. At the outset, King Salman reiterated his commitment to the continuance of policies forged by the previous king, which had a calming influence on the region, especially the Gulf nations, Egypt, and in an indirect manner Turkey. However, he was also quick to replace the old guard, especially the influential and powerful adviser to King Abdullah, Khaled al-Tuwaijri— who is now being blamed for the flawed foreign policy decisions of the old regime—by his own son, Mohammad bin Salman Al-Saud (34), who was appointed the Minister of Defence (Defense) and also the head of the Royal Court, replacing al-Tuwaijri as the king’s adviser. At the same time, for the first time a grandson of Abdulaziz, Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud (55), was appointed the Deputy Crown Prince.

The Importance of these Appointments

Abdulaziz Al-Saud, the founder of the dynasty had many wives and therefore, most of his sons are only half-brothers to each other. In such a scenario, matrilineal identity assumes greater importance in terms of loyalty and closeness between brothers. An alliance of seven full brothers, called the Sudairi Seven born to Abdulaziz and Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi, considered to have been his favourite wife, form a powerful clique within the Royal family. (The Sudairi Seven are Fahd, Sultan, Abdulrahman, Nayef, Turki, Salman, and Ahmed.) Their influence spans the entire officialdom from top to bottom and is pervasively visible across the entire kingdom. The appointment of Muhammad bin Nayef has to be seen within this perspective—since he will invariably be the king after next (or the next king if Crown Prince Muqrin predeceases King Salman) he will perpetuate the rule of the Sudairi Seven’s rule and lineage. Needless to say this will marginalise hundreds of princes some of whom are themselves sons of kings. There can be no assurance that dissent within the Royal family will not spill out into the public arena when the first grandson of the founder assumes office, sometime in the near future.

However, these two appointments from within the Sudairi Seven fold was necessary for consolidating power in the immediate post-succession period. These moves are based on the concept of ‘asabiya’ an unwritten code of tribal solidarity, especially in testing times. Perhaps this code will be the glue that holds the kingdom together in the days to come, which are bound to be turbulent in a number of ways.

King Abdullah’s Legacy—A Tarnished Foreign Policy

King Abdullah started his official rule in 2005, although he had been the de-facto ruler since 1995 when his half-brother King Fahd was incapacitated, with conciliatory gestures towards women and the Shia minority. By reaching out to these two completely disenfranchised groups, Abdullah initiated an ‘inclusive’ forward movement for the kingdom. He created the first co-educational University in the kingdom and gradually brought Saudi Arabia into the WTO, initiatives seen both domestically and internationally as the first steps of a progressive monarch. However, the events of 11 September 2001 put these initiatives into the shadow since the king had to use his considerable diplomatic influence to safeguard the kingdom from becoming a hotbed of terrorism. Almost at the same time, arch rivals Iran had started to rise as an alternative power centre in the region. The direct threats to Saudi Arabia overshadowed the king’s well-intentioned domestic reform agenda.

King Abdullah was less than impressed by the US for the hands-off approach that it displayed during the initial development of the Arab Spring, and the subsequent support for the anti-Mubarak protesters in Egypt. He decided to follow a more independent foreign policy for the kingdom and also voiced the beginning of a distrust of US intentions in the region. However, the kingdom’s foray into regional, and in an indirect manner, international politics as an independent entity was not the success that Abdullah expected it to be. A detailed look at the foundations of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy and the on-going initiatives clearly indicate the failures and the morass that the nation has moved into of its own volition.

Foreign Policy Blunders

From the 1970s, when the impoverished kingdom stepped out as an oil-rich nation bent on becoming the sinecure of the world, Saudi Arabia has followed a foreign policy of pursuing global Islamic solidarity in order to ensure its own political and economic stability. Its overflowing richness permitted it to take the lead in this endeavour, primarily through buying off opposition. However, even after more than 40 years, Saudi Arabia and its ruling dynasty has not been able to win people’s hearts and minds, either domestically, regionally or internationally. Even after ruling the kingdom for 19 years, King Abdullah was not able to achieve any consensus with the other regional nations regarding the way forward to ensure common stability and security.

Saudi Arabia, aspiring to and claiming the leadership of the region, took only hesitant and small steps to ensure stability as the region erupted in turmoil and chaos in early 2011. Thereafter the Saudi foreign policy initiatives make up a long list of self-serving actions that could be loosely clubbed together as ‘blunders’ and, which collectively diminish the already tarnished image of the kingdom.

Egypt

The worst case was the role that Saudi Arabia played in Egypt, especially in the coup against Muhammad Morsi who was leading a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government. Saudi Arabia supported the military administrator (dictator) turned ‘elected’ President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in ousting the Morsi government and continues to prop him up with enormous financial donations. During this upheaval the Saudi monarchy willingly accepted the death of thousands of Egyptian pro-democracy protesters in order to ensure that the democratic movement did not spread to the kingdom. The acceptance of these deaths was appalling, and the fact remains that Saudi Arabia sacrificed Egypt’s fledgling democracy at the altar of the monarchy’s self-interest. From this point of view, the al-Sisi government cannot be allowed to fail under any circumstances and therefore Saudi Arabia provides unconditional support to the regime. In the long-term, this support itself could become a self-defeating double edged sword.

Bahrain

The next Saudi foreign policy initiative was the vicious suppression of pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain in February 2011. The movement that had taken hold in Bahrain was part of the then-spreading Arab Spring, and Saudi Arabia felt that it could not allow it to burgeon into anything of consequence. Even though the Saudi intervention was, at least outwardly, at the request of the ruler of Bahrain, it cannot be viewed as anything other than an opportunistic invasion of the country by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. With direct Saudi assistance Bahrain continues to suppress, forcefully, pro-freedom demonstrators—but the world has moved on and there is not even any mention of the on-going repression in any world forum. While the intervention may have achieved its desired objective of perpetuating, at least for the time being, the rule of a Sunni ruler over a majority Shia population, it did not win any friends for Saudi Arabia and its autocratic king.

Syria

From the beginning Saudi Arabia supported the hard line Salafi factions against President Assad, purely because he belongs to an obscure Shia sect and is supported by Iran. The Saudis also thought it necessary to play a hands-on role in the rebellion in Syria to counter the moves by Turkey and Qatar, both of whom were interested in assuming a more direct role to ensure the entrenchment of their influence after the Assad regime was removed by the rebels. Saudi Arabia’s ambition to be the leader of the Sunni world would not let the King take a more conciliatory role even with his so-called Sunni allies. This in-fighting between their external supporters confused the anti-Assad forces and gave birth to a group that has now morphed into the Islamic State (IS). Of course it must not be forgotten that the embryo of the IS was hatched during the US-led operations in Iraq.

From a humanitarian perspective the Syrian Civil War has created over nine million refugees, the largest the world has yet seen belonging to one single country. The IS is currently being held in check only by the air strikes being carried out by the US-led coalition. While Saudi Arabia is a part of this coalition, it has restricted its operations to Iraqi territory and is still trying to bracket the removal of President Assad with the fight against the IS. Their overarching consideration is to diminish Iranian influence and to place a Saudi-friendly government in Syria. Considering that Saudi Arabia is facing its greatest direct threat in the form of a vicious organisation that proclaims their belief in the same ideals that Saudi Arabia has supported for decades, this attitude beggars belief. Truly, in this case, the vagrant cow has wandered home.

Iraq

In the decade since Saddam Hussein was overthrown by the US invasion in 2003, Iraq’s strategic outlook has not changed much. It is still suffering from internal sectarian violence and with the IS threat emerging in a forceful manner in the second half of 2014, the chances of an all-out Civil War erupting has become very high. Here again the sectarian bias of the Saudi monarchy was, and continues to be, highly visible. After the ouster of the Saddam regime, Nouri al-Maliki who became Prime Minister, had promised to form an inclusive government. However, he turned out to be even more biased and sectarian than the Saudis. Much to the chagrin of King Abdullah, the Sunnis in Iraq were sidelined and the Saudi king felt compelled to create and nurture an insurgency in order to undermine the political process and broader stability of Iraq. This was the kernel from which the ISIS and subsequently the IS grew. Conciliation and dialogue has not formed the language of Saudi diplomacy. Their policy towards Iraq from 1990 has been negative and one that can truly be described as being crafted without looking beyond immediate gains. Instead of creating—through applying their considerable influence within Iraq and with their US allies—a consensus government, the Saudi diplomatic establishment was pursuing their overriding objective of subverting the growing Iranian influence. Short sightedness made immediate gains look strategic achievements and the ruling elite seems to have been dazzled by their own ‘brilliance’. Iraq now is in the throes of an existentialist threat and if it is overrun by the IS, everyone knows the next target.

Saudi Arabia had severed diplomatic relations with Iraq in 1990 when Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait. Only now under the direct threat of the IS have they belatedly initiated dialogue with the Iraqi government. By the same reasoning it would have been logical to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iraq in 2003 after Saddam Hussein was overthrown and attempts made to improve bilateral relations. Such a statesmanlike action would perhaps have paid a dividend in terms of direct influence on the fledgling democratic government. It is also conceivable that such an action would have achieved the very same end that the Saudis seek—curtailing the influence of Iran in the region. Perhaps such a nuanced understanding of strategic diplomacy was beyond the conceptual capability of Saudi foreign policy experts. The use of terrorist groups as strategic tools of national foreign policy, as was attempted, was never going to work in the long term.

What is palpable in Saudi actions in Iraq, and very broadly in the region, is the inherent fear of a change in the regional balance of power in favour of Iran. Whether these actions are detrimental to other Arab States or could boomerang indirectly on Saudi Arabia itself seems to be a factor that is not considered in the creation of foreign policy.

Yemen

Yemen has been the traditional battlefield between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia had carried out a number of stabilisation activities in Yemen over a period of time. In the past few years, all these have unravelled, commencing with the Saudi-facilitated easing out of President Saleh. The current situation wherein the Houthis—a tribe owing allegiance to, and openly supported by, Iran—have taken control of the capital and ousted the Saudi-US backed replacement ‘president’ is the outcome of decades of flawed Saudi Arabian policy towards Yemen. Yemen now has become a weak and fragmented State with a restive and poor tribal population that share a long and porous border with Saudi Arabia. The threat of insurgency into the kingdom is real and imminent; and at least for now Saudi Arabia does not have even the slightest clue regarding the next step to be initiated in Yemen to contain the challenge.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan has been at war for nearly three decades—against different opponents—and Saudi Arabia has been involved in some way or the other for the majority of it. The involvement started with the financial and materiel backing to the mujahedeen against the Soviet occupation, and then as moral, religious and financial support for the Taliban while they ruled Afghanistan for a short period of time. Saudi Arabia had an inordinately high level of influence on both the Taliban and their immediate puppeteers in Pakistan. However, after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and the installation of the Karzai regime in Kabul, the Saudi foreign policy pundits opted not to use their considerable influence on Pakistan and the Taliban to force them to enter conciliatory peace talks with the Government. If the influence was used in a nuanced manner, the story of Afghanistan would have been different today. Conciliation is a concept far removed from Saudi thinking, as long as the consequences are borne by ‘other’ far away nations.

Even in Palestine Saudi Arabia has followed a policy of keeping the PLO and Hamas divided rather than using their influence and financial clout to effect reconciliation that would in turn bring in stability. In Libya, the Saudis backed the jihadi rebels who ousted Muammar Gaddafi and created the on-going civil war, completely destroying a once-prosperous country. That Libya was also ruled by an autocratic dictator, perhaps more liberal and certainly more secular than the Saudi monarchy, is a moot point lost in the foreign policy quagmire of Saudi Arabia.

The Fundamentals of Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy

A nation’s foreign policy is a mirror of the self-perceived identity, social attitudes, and sovereign aspirations of a people. Saudi Arabia’s is no exception.

The overarching identity of Saudi Arabia is its steadfast adherence to the Wahabi sect of Islam. Otherwise it is a family enterprise of the Al-Sauds, which holds together disparate regions and groups through a combination of theology and direct welfare hand-outs. The foundations of the Al-Saud rule are: pandering to intolerant clerics; a clannish centralisation of power; and continuing welfare hand-outs to the population in a mistaken and short-sighted attempt to paper over simmering dissent. From this edifice emerges a foreign policy that aims to perpetuate a sectarian and divisive version of Islam. From this it is easy to see the reason why Saudi Arabia has played a foundational role in enabling Salafist violence across the region and further afield for decades.

The run-of-the-mill Saudi citizen dislikes chaos and disorder, a trait perhaps stemming from generations of being tied to the comfort of a patriarchal family set-up that in turn is affiliated to the leadership of a tribal sheikh that goes ultimately all the way to the king. For generations the people have been ‘guided’ and told what to do, making one believe that they are averse to take responsibility for themselves, for the welfare of the country, or the security of the State. The common expectation is that the government will provide the wherewithal for them to meet all their needs. Individual initiative and ambition are nowhere to be seen in these conditions.

The aspirations of the people, dormant as they might be, is one aspect that the ruling family has not considered seriously since Abdulaziz Al- Saud created the kingdom in late 1932. Therefore, the primary foundation of Saudi foreign policy has always been, and continues to remain, regime or dynastic survival of the house of Saud, in other words, the sustainment of the monarchy at all costs. The other two pillars of Saudi foreign policy has been—one, to ensure that political Islam that advocates democracy is kept away from the kingdom and opposed in other countries; and two, to contain the spread of Iranian influence in the region. To this has recently been added the fundamental need to contain, defeat and eradicate the IS only because it claims to be the ‘true’ representatives of Salafist jihadism.

Traditionally Saudi foreign policy has been based on a soft approach—essentially using the economic might of the kingdom to exploit the influence bought through large financial incentives. This was how the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was subverted, how Sunni militias were created in Iraq, and how a host of other activities in support of achieving their objectives have been conducted. Since regime survival is at the baseline of all foreign policy initiatives, the monarchy tends to equate domestic risks with external threats. Therefore, foreign policy becomes yet another tool to ensure that no threat to the dynasty becomes uncontrollable. The dealings with Egypt and the vehement support to the vicious suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood has to be viewed in this light. Democratic political Islam is anathema to the house of Saud.

The events of the Arab Spring and the US reaction to it, especially in Egypt, was an eye opener for King Abdullah. The US unwillingness to support President Mubarak, its long-term ally, was seen as a demonstration of the untrustworthy nature of US friendship and it shook the foundations of Saudi monarchy. In the aftermath of that episode, although another ‘elected’ autocrat is in place in Cairo, alarm bells are still ringing in Riyadh. The deep seated sense of vulnerability of the dynasty came to the fore and the soft approach to foreign policy was swapped for more aggressive diplomatic initiatives backed by the flexing of military muscle and even direct intervention, as in the case with Bahrain. This is almost a complete turnaround from the traditional stance of the kingdom and the rulers who never wanted to get their hands dirty.

There is a rapid reordering of the priorities of the kingdom, all the more visible with the assumption of power by King Salman. It is clear that Saudi Arabia now wants to hedge its bets with regard to a security partner. The attempt to create an authoritative axis by calling for greater unity amongst the six Gulf Cooperation Countries is an attempt to discourage popular pressure for reform stemming from the failed Arab Spring. However, years of duplicity in foreign relations and implementation of self-centred policies are coming back to haunt the house of Saud. Saudi Arabia has frittered away its influence and diplomatic weight and now does not have the independent ability to tip the balance in the region away from Iran. It was always the US that tipped the balance in favour of the Saudis, but the US reluctance to antagonise the Shia faction in the Middle-East and the acceptance of the critical role that Iran will play into the future in the region has unnerved Saudi Arabia. In a replay of its own selfishness, even the so-called friends of Saudi Arabia have started to hedge their bets.

Saudi Arabia is left with no alternative but to shore up its frayed relationship with the US. It is also clear that the kingdom needs to alter its political agenda backed by appropriate tweaking of the foreign policy. The age old policies of support to terrorist groups outside the kingdom, and muddying the waters through stoking sectarian violence to deepen the Sunni-Shia divide will not work anymore. Further, the dichotomy of support to terrorism while maintaining ‘cordial’ relations with Western democracies is also unravelling. The current Saudi foreign policy is a failed enterprise and has become an anachronism. Change is inevitable, if survival is to be assured.

The Islamic State – Changing Winds

The Islamic State that is now the primary threat to almost all nations in the Middle-East is the new variable in the regional and international security equation—and Saudi Arabia is the one that is most affected. Although the desert kingdom must assume at least half the responsibility for its birth, IS has conclusively changed the Saudi attitude to security and is forcing it to alter its foreign policy. First, IS is now a critical threat to the ruling monarchy and both the parties know that the socio-religious structure that exists in Saudi Arabia is fertile ground for the spread of the IS doctrine. The threat is so dire that Saudi Arabia now wants to join hands with Iraq to defeat this existentialist threat. However, there is no predictability regarding the Saudi-Iraq relationship after, and if and when, the IS is defeated, whether it will endure or return to the inherent sectarian divide. The Saudis are realising rather late that if you keep a viper for a pet, sooner or later it will bite the hand that feeds it.

Till the rise of the IS, Saudi support to terrorism in the developing world—both overt and covert—and the proselytization of the fundamentalist strain of Wahabi Islam in these countries were ignored by the Western nations. The particularly vicious actions of the IS and the sporadic but ruthless jihadi actions in the West have made these nations alter their attitude towards all terrorist/extremist groups. It is now appreciated that support for such groups cannot be geographically compartmentalised for convenience. The Saudi government has now being coerced to join the international coalition currently fighting the IS. The Saudi rulers recognise that any display of reluctance to do so will be counterproductive to their regional leadership ambitions. Foreign policy requirements have, for the time being at least, trumped the inherent tendency in the Saudi ruling elite to create religion-tinted mayhem in vulnerable and relatively poor nations around the world as a diversion.

The IS has now emerged as a critical factor in the on-going power play in the Middle-East and therefore a deciding input in the foreign policy considerations of all nations. For Saudi Arabia, the rise of Iranian influence commensurate to the increasing power of the IS, is an untenable development. Over the past few months, Iran has emerged as a pivotal player in the anti-IS initiatives, which has changed the course of the US-Iran dialogue. The potential of a US-Iran nuclear agreement hits at the foundation of Saudi foreign policy—the overarching need to undermine Iran.

Whatever else the IS may have achieved, there is no doubt that it has irrevocably and rapidly changed the political balance in the Middle-East. Saudi Arabia is powerless to control or manipulate this change to its advantage, a clear indication of the limit of its influence. Further, the primary objective of the US is to defeat the IS and that of the Saudis to continually deny any avenue for the spread of Iranian influence. The two are not compatible because no coalition can hope to defeat the IS without the cooperation and active participation of Iran. If anyone is aware of the direction this situation is taking, it is the Saudi monarchy. It is within the fissures in Islam that Saudi Arabia has happily played around till now—but the quagmire in Syria and the virulence of the IS have poisoned their playing field.

Challenges for the New King

The foreign policy that King Salman inherits is a legacy of failed initiatives and ill-conceived solutions to extremely complex challenges. The kingdom faces four fundamental challenges to its stability—the Islamic State, the expansion of Iranian influence in the region, a volatile oil policy, and the need for domestic reform. The IS and the implications of the coalition operations against it has been already explained.

At least for the time being, it seems that Saudi Arabia has no counter moves against Iran, especially in Yemen after the Houthi coup. With the oil prices having plummeted in the past few months, the kingdom is facing a fiscal deficit for the first time since 2011. The oil ‘pundits’ are of the opinion that Saudi Arabia may not be able to sustain its economy if the prices continue to tumble and therefore a cut in their production is likely sooner rather than later. King Salman has announced that he will not change the oil policy of his brother the late-King Abdullah, but there is no guarantee that it is a long-term commitment.

The demand for domestic reform is increasing in its vociferousness in Saudi Arabia, and it could not have come at a more importune time. There was no better demonstration of the double standards that the kingdom practises than the sight of its official representative marching hand-in-hand with other world leaders in the streets of Paris in a show of solidarity to protect the freedom of speech after the terrorist attack there, while at the same time flogging a person charged with posting a blog asking for domestic freedom of speech in Saudi Arabia. There is increasing tension in the kingdom with continuing demands for more individual freedoms being demanded.

The solutions to these challenges can only be achieved with a complete reprisal of both foreign and domestic policies. However, King Salman is 79 years old and unconfirmed reports indicate that he has some health issues. Saudi Arabia is now at a critical point in its history and needs dedicated and visionary leadership. The vibrant leadership that is required to steer the nation through these turbulent times is unlikely to emanate from the current leadership. The policies are bound to be more of the same!

Conclusion

The foreign policy that Saudi Arabia has so far assiduously followed has been unravelled in slow motion and is now visible as an irretrievable wreck. The blow-back from counter-productive political manipulations and reckless support for the spread of Wahabi fundamentalist Islam—as long as the violence was kept far away from the kingdom—is now raising the winds in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. The ruling dynasty, at least for the present, seems to have absolutely no clue how to face this challenge.

Instinctively Saudi Arabia is still waging proxy wars to crush democratic political Islam and continuing to use the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide to ensure that the kingdom has regional relevance and the stature to strut the Muslim world as its leader. In effect even today, all Islamist roads lead to Riyadh. It seems to be lost on the Saudi rulers that a strong nation should attempt to make their smaller allies strong for peace and stability to descend on the region. Undermining everyone else will only finally bring the very same chaos to one’s own borders. In their blinkered focus on thwarting the political rise of Iran, the Saudi monarchy is missing the fact that Iran is emerging as an alternative centre of power in the region, a counter-point to Saudi Arabian hegemony. Iran is moving forward as a stable and sensible nation not afraid of democracy.

Saudi Arabia is entering uncharted waters and minefields lie ahead. It will take more than royal handouts and token words to face and overcome domestic and international challenges that at the moment look insurmountable. King Salman and the new administration have their work cut out for them—their failure will sink the ship of the house of Al Saud, rather rapidly.

 

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2015]
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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

2 Responses to “THE KING IS DEAD-LONG LIVE THE KING – SAUDI ARABIA: A LEGACY OF FOREIGN POLICY BLUNDERS”

  1. Once again, a comprehensive analysis that exposes the Saudi predicament. The double standards of the US and the unstinting support it has offered to the kingdom, have also played a significant role in shaping the foreign policy of Saudi Arabia.

  2. A.P. Tharakan Roll No.58, Class of 66 Reply February 11, 2015 at 21:35

    It’s become fashionable for armchair theoreticians to fantasise about pro-democracy and the Arab spring that never was. We Indians will do well to study the politics of the Middle East in comparison to the vibrant, albeit nascent, Indian democratic scenario, and then deliver a verdict on the House of Saud.

    In retrospect, 1947 through to 1974 or the Jawaharlal Nehru –Indira Gandhi years, were the worst years of our own fledgling democracy, when the voice of ‘the common man’ (credits the late RK Lakshman) was never heard. Political popularity is one thing, but these years saw a regressive cult of idol worship when a father-daughter team was elevated to almost divine status and could do nothing wrong. Perhaps the masses did not yet fully understand their own power, drowned as it were in centuries of colonialism preceded by the whims of inherited monarchies. All that changed with Indira Gandhi’s declaration of the Emergency, when an apparently ignorant and illiterate electorate proved convincingly it would not allow anyone, repeat anyone, to trample on their personal freedoms. Indian democracy was coming of age; and it did even better when that mockery called ‘Janata-rule’ in the post emergency period was booted out by the same people who’d grown sick of gross parochialism and sheer incompetence. The 2014 BJP victory has nailed the coffin of dynastic politics, and as I write, the AAP is proof enough the Modi juggernaut can take nothing for granted. Mera Bharath Mahan describes it nicely.

    Now get back to the decadent Saudi Arabian monarchy sitting plumb at the very centre of a still barbaric Middle East during this the Information Age. It is unfair, though, to single out the Saudis for harsh mention. On a scale of democracy rated one to ten, they are truly and firmly there at number one and only because it is not possible to sink any further. Their only consolation and comfort is their very own dubious club membership. Start geographically from Pakistan in the east and squirm your way west. Let in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, that nonsense called the UAE, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Egypt and we are unanimous in our verdict that there are no exceptions to the rule. In a splurge of generosity if we stretch our case to the very limits, we will let post-Ben Ali’s Tunisia to escape the noose, though the Lebanon is trapped as a most eligible member.

    Pull out and clean your dusty microscope and scan this area for any value system that we in India find endearing. Look for gender equality, human rights, religious freedom, rule of law, democracy, and an independent judiciary and what you will find in its stead is either an elitist monarchy or a brutal dictatorship.

    The even worse and sorry state of affairs and the pity of it all is the terrible fear they neither understand nor deserve our values. Consider Egypt. Liberals watched and applauded while they thought one solitary ray of light had at last penetrated the dark world of Hosni Mubarak. Egypt threw him out and very deservedly at that. And, post their “revolution” they laughed and sang their way to the polling booths and ‘democratically’ elected a monster called the Muslim Brotherhood which would have dragged the once enlightened country of the Pharaohs and the pyramids back to the seventh century. The sham election or the counter revolution of al Sisi now comes like a breath of fresh air.

    So the people get what they deserve. Tragically Sadam Hussain in Iraq now looks like the good guy in town. As does Asad in Syria, the theocracy in Iran, Gaddafi in Libya, the kings of Saudi Arabia with their many wives and hundreds of children, the emirs of the UAE………….. and the IS to add to the tragedy brings our sorry story to an end. Pardon the repetition and let us all together shout Mera Bharath Mahan.

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