Next in Line
With the fall of Tripoli imminent and another Arab state pressing forth into the anxious experiment of self-rule, it is important to turn our focus again to one of the states that represents the fulcrum upon which events in the region turn. As has been discussed and developed on this site, much of our understanding of the dynamics of the Middle East emerge from a structural paradigm which posits Saudi Arabia and Iran as bipolar powers in conflict for regional hegemony – what I have called in the past the “Arab Cold War” (The Iranians aren’t Arabs, but this is being played out in the Arab world, and to an extent, South Asia).
The House Al Saud built
The Saudi royal family, styled the “House of Al-Saud,” uses what is called agnatic seniority to determine ascendancy to the thrown of the kingdom. This means that the throne is passed to the oldest brother of the current king. This differs of course from what most in the west are familiar with, the system found in most European monarchies whereby the crown is passed from father to eldest child(typically, though not necessarily, a son), the technical term being agnatic primogeniture. Thus, Abdullah is currently the eldest son of the original king, Abdul-Aziz. Of his other sons, Sultan would be next in line, however, he will likely step aside due to health reasons. This leaves the probably heir to the Saudi throne as Crown Prince Nayef, former Minister of the Interior and current Second Deputy Prime Minister. Nayef is considered to be among the most conservative members of Al-Saud. As Reuters reported in 2010, most diplomats say Nayef is unlikely to pursue meaningful social reform. In fact, the crown prince was once quoted as saying that the Kingdom has “no need for elections or women in government.” Others argue that reform is inevitable and that continued foreign investment depends on Nayef being able to portray some sense of social and political progress in the Kingdom.
The future of the House of Al Saud may depend on it. With a huge majority of Saudis under the age of thirty watching Tunisia/Egypt/Libya/Syria on Al Jazeera with the rest of us, Nayef will have to chart a careful course if Al Saud expects to remain the dominant institution in the country. And if the notion of a monarchy maintaining control of its populace in midst of democratic revolutions sounds a bit medieval, well, that’s because it is. The Saudi Monarchy, as well as those of other Gulf Emirates, is a throwback to some political-evolutionary past, an atavistic transitional form in the flesh. The regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya represent a much more recent form - that of the post-colonial dictatorship – and indeed that has been proven to have outlived its usefulness. The Saudis, the Gulf Emirs and Nayef understand this full well. That’s why they participate in counterrevolution through its primary institutional instrument, the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The Council of Kings
The GCC consists of six states, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. All of these states can be described as Absolute Monarchies, excepting the UAE which is a federal monarchy. Jordan requested membership, and Morocco has been invited. The GCC operates on many levels, fostering economic, social and political cooperation through the creation of consensus based objectives for advancing interests of the monarchies in the gulf. One of the critical pieces of the GCC is the Peninsula Shield Force. This is effectively the military wing of the GCC and is intended to respond to military aggression against GCC states. It was deployed in both Gulf Wars, both times against Iraq. However, the most recent deployment of the Peninsula shield is perhaps the most crucial, and disturbing. In March of this year, the Peninsula Shield moved across the causeway that connects Saudi Arabia to Bahrain and, at the request of the Bahraini government, attempted to quell popular demonstrations for reform on the island. This set a precedent of the GCC using its military wing to oppose an internal threat against a GCC regime. This is important, because it shows us that not only is Saudi Arabia not moving towards reform within its own borders, but it is acting with increasing urgency and risk-taking with regards its GCC compatriots. One senses that the Saudi Monarchy views its co-royalists as dominoes in a game of survival against both democratic minded revolutionaries and Iranian-backed Shi’a insurgents. For Nayef and the other leaders of the GCC, history is at the doorstep, and only active counterrevolution can turn back the tide.
This all, of course, has major implications for the United States, with our particularly special relationship to the Kingdom. What side of history will our leaders stand on when the yearning for democracy grips the streets of Riyadh? It is difficult to speculate at this point how far America will go to support the Saudi monarchy, but we must assume at the very least that if the US abandons Nayef and his coterie, it will only be on the guarantee that a deal exists between the US and the presumptive future leaders of the Saudi Arabia. There is too much at stake in the earth beneath the sands of the desert.