By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst
and Kamran Bokhari
VP of Middle Eastern and South Asian Affairs
The Saudi royals live with an all-consuming fear — that of an American understanding with Iran. The Saudis know that the American estrangement from Iran is unnatural and cannot go on forever. It has already lasted a third of a century, almost a decade longer than America's estrangement from Communist China. The Saudis also know that the logic of the present standoff over Iran's nuclear ambitions must lead — through war or peace — to some sort of American-Iranian dialogue about the two countries' core interests in the Middle East.
The United States had excellent relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran up to 1978, but that was during the Cold War, when both countries were implicitly aligned with the Western camp against the Soviets. It was also during the rule of Iran's shah, an absolute ruler who was seen as predictable and responsible — much more so than the competing power centers, both clerical and not, that constitute Iran's current regime.
Contemporary Iran is fervently Shiite and thus hostile to Saudi Arabia's austere Sunni Wahhabi religious establishment in a way that the shah's secular regime was not. For example, the shah did not encourage rebellious Shia in neighboring Bahrain and in eastern Saudi Arabia itself, as the Iranian leaders are now doing.
But there is something deeper about Saudi insecurities. The Saudis see a strong and vibrant Shiite power bloc in Iran and Iraq — to be accorded recognition of sorts by the United States, at some point — looming across the gulf just as other factors, both internal and external, potentially threaten Saudi power.
The Saudis are extremely uncomfortable with the post-9/11 world. Previously, they could export their internal problems, in the form of radical Wahhabis, allowing them to establish anti-American madrassas and movements throughout the House of Islam, from Morocco to Indonesia, but not within the kingdom itself. However, for the past decade the Saudis have had the Americans bearing down on them to monitor and arrest these radical elements, creating enemies that the regime never had in the past.
Then there is Yemen. Instability in Yemen has always been a problem for Saudi Arabia. Though Yemen has only a quarter of Saudi Arabia's land area, its population is almost as large, so that the all-important demographic core of the Arabian Peninsula is in its mountainous southwest corner. The spillover of Yemeni tribal insurrection and weapons and drug smuggling into Saudi Arabia's Asir, Najran and Jizan provinces — whose tribal cultures are almost identical with that of Yemen — is not new. Moreover, Najran and Jizan have large Ismaili populations while on the Yemeni side of the border there are many al-Houthis, all offshoots of mainstream Shi'ism. The Saudis know that because of the Arab Spring and the attendant undermining of longtime Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, the level of chaos inside Yemen has risen substantially and will not subside, with al Qaeda trying to establish footholds in the region. Yemen could easily disintegrate into its constituent parts, making it harder for the Saudis to govern their own southwest.
Yemen demonstrates a larger and more profound problem for the Saudis: the very artificiality of their own state in a peninsula where Yemen is just one region among several. Saudi Arabia is specifically Najd, the parched and deeply conservative upland in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, home to the al Sauds, who have always had difficulty holding the maritime peripheries. To wit, Hijaz, along the Red Sea in western Saudi Arabia, has always been in a state of tension with Najd in the center. For while the holy cities of Mecca and Medina connote Muslim religiosity in the Western mind, the truth is somewhat the opposite: It is the very pilgrimage of Muslims from all over the Islamic world that lends a certain cosmopolitanism to these holy cities, and thus to the surrounding Hijaz. Hijaz, Yemen, Oman and the Gulf Arab sheikhdoms all manifest the Greater Indian Ocean world from which Najd is isolated. Thus, unlike Iran, which holds the entire Iranian plateau, Saudi Arabia does not govern the whole Arabian Peninsula, and even within its own kingdom, the Saudi power structure is in a state of tension.
The Saudis fear chaos, in other words.
The Saudis also know that their own governing elite is deteriorating. Saudi Arabia is a state that, as its name attests, is based on loyalty not to a terrain or an idea but to a family. Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, who built the Najdi-centered state by conquering Hijaz in 1925, along with his son Faisal bin Abdulaziz (the third monarch), dominated the first generation of Saudi rulers. The second generation was dominated by the so-called Sudeiri Seven — the seven sons of Ibn Saud's favorite wife, Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudeiri — who oversaw political life, often as kings, and lent coherence to the family and thus to the ruling power structure. But that group is disappearing. The current crown prince, Naif, the third oldest Sudeiri, is 80. In the third generation, 19 grandsons will compete with 16 surviving sons of Ibn Saud on the Allegiance Council, appointed in 2006 to formalize the succession process. And there are many more grandsons outside the council. This is too large a group not to engage in complex factionalism, which will weaken the state, even as such infighting makes it harder to deal with pressing challenges.
Then there is the United States, which Saudi Arabia has been forced to rely on but which, especially in recent years, owing to the debacle of Iraq, it has never really trusted. And why should the Saudis trust America? The Saudis are not blind to the shale gas revolution in North America, which, along with the availability of tar sands oil from Canada, might significantly reduce American dependence on Middle Eastern energy over the next decade and beyond. The less oil imported from the Persian Gulf, the less of a national interest the United States will have in buttressing Saudi Arabia and the Saudi near-abroad. True, the United States will still want Gulf oil protected for the benefit of the global system, but that is a far more insignificant need compared to America's own requirement for energy, which will henceforth be met increasingly in the Western Hemisphere.
Finally, there is the unsettling knowledge that despite the anti-American radicalism of the Iranian regime over the decades, even a partial policy shift in Tehran would expose how much closer Americans and Iranians are to each other culturally than are Americans and Saudis. Iran rests on an ancient and urbanized civilization, begetting a richness in literature, cinema and the arts. Even with the mullahs in power, Iranian women drive cars and motorcycles and wear makeup. Armenian and other churches are in evidence in Tehran. This is all a far cry from the suffocating conservative atmosphere of Riyadh.
The Saudis know that only the present moment witnesses an American tilt toward the Sunni world. An understanding with Iran would lead the United States to coolly and conveniently play both sides of the Sunni-Shiite split against the other, which would naturally fit into an American balance of power strategy. A divided House of Islam truly serves American and Israeli interests perfectly. The decades ahead do not look kind to Saudi Arabia, a country with a diminishing underground water table, a significant demographic youth bulge and unemployment among young men as high as 40 percent.
The Saudis' nightmare is that they are alone, with a potential energy-rich America in less need of them, even as the Arabian Peninsula politically begins to disintegrate. Meanwhile, Shiite Iran — heir to an ancient superpower, rather than the artificial contraption of one family — over time normalizes its ties with the West. That you can peer into the future does not always mean you can alter it. That is the Saudi dilemma.