If you’ve lived in the Persian Gulf for a while, seeing one of its countries throw a shit-fit on an international stage won’t surprise you all that much. You get used to that kind of ridiculous chaos; you see one dumb, doomed project connected to a badly-planned roundabout removal scheme merging into a seemingly nonsensical and ill-explained transition. Let’s take a step back and take a good, hard look at the nature of Gulf political society – and why Saudi Arabia’s whinging makes more sense than it at first appears.
Centralized power systems have created states that respond only to individual whims – and little else
Each state in the Gulf is focused on either a single person or a single family. The one exception is the United Arab Emirates, but for all intents and purposes UAE international policy is dominated and controlled by Abu Dhabi (and by extension, the Al-Nayhan family).
In each state, power is distributed downwards through a system called wasta – a tribal relic of personal influence that made a lot of sense in the semi-apocalyptic pre-modern era of the region. Wasta is based on kinship, tribe, friendship, and family, but rarely on having a proper skill set or decent training in anything remotely resembling good governance. Various states have attempted schemes to undermine wasta‘s power, as it’s deeply corroding on modern systems, but few, minus Dubai, have gotten anywhere.
Since wasta‘s power comes from its central ruler, single personalities are the only ones who can get things done. There is no way to move up the ranks with wasta except to cozy up further with the rulers. A hard ceiling prevents anyone from going beyond that. No matter how smart you are, or how well liked, you cannot be president of the United Arab Emirates unless your tribal name is Al-Nayhan.
Thus ideas are introduced, changed, and discarded a great deal faster and with far less reason than in less centralized or democratic systems
Dubai’s Al-Maktoums once had a fantastic idea for investment – give investors a 99 year residency visa with each housing purchase. This was essentially a pathway to citizenship, and it pissed off Abu Dhabi something fierce. In a less centralized system, this issue would have required competing stakeholders to negotiate some kind of equitable solution that assuaged Abu Dhabi’s conservatives while addressing Dubai’s sore need to create incentives for foreign investors. But since the UAE continues to run entirely on wasta, the idea was shot down with nary a public debate or recourse.
And so when Saudi Arabia threw its fit in front of the General Assembly, we witnessed an overly centralized system reliant on a single ruler expressing his whim
Such a move would crucify democratic politicians. Even dictatorial ones might prefer to avoid such a spectacle, since doing such a thing only draws attention to how powerless your nation really is. But Saudi Arabia is ruled by an unaccountable family of increasingly spoiled men. And they’re starting to realize someone might come soon to take away their toys.
Saudi Arabia as a government is about to get a whole lot less rational than this
Because of this over-centralization, Saudi Arabia’s foreign and military policies will be subject to whims rather than analysis, as the say-so of the king, or his close, closed circle of advisors, will be enough to produce ridiculous about-faces.
Moreover, there’s fear in the air. Saudi Arabia is rightly worried the United States intends on pulling away from its cherished alliance. Saudi Arabia as a nation-state is geopolitically insecure. Even with the rapid pace of development since the 1970s, Saudi Arabia still cannot compete with powers based in Iran, Iraq, or Turkey. All three of those countries have natural advantages that will, in a long enough competition, overwhelm Saudi.
States that are insecure are always dangerous. But states dominated by small cliques where fear takes hold are truly disasters waiting to happen. Within such systems are the high likelihood that someone will make a bad decision based on emotion rather than reason – that such a decision will be acted upon swiftly and unchallenged – and that leaders will stand by that bad decision to retain the appearance of leadership and strength rather than accountability and responsibility.
Outmatched, outgunned, and increasingly alone will make anyone liable to party foul
Saudi Arabia is desperately seeking reassurance from its key geopolitical alliance. The U.S. alliance saved Saudi Arabia from Saddam’s legions in 1991. It’s kept Iran at bay since 1979. During the Cold War, the U.S. kept Arab communists busy to the north rather than letting them seep into the kingdom. Even now, there’s plenty of cooperation on al-Qaeda, which turned on Saudi Arabia rather brutally in the 2000s.
But the game is changing. Americans at large want disengagement from the Middle East. Few Americans have much sympathy for the kingdom or its security problems (and lingering resentment from 1973’s embargo still continues). Up until now, oil, Iran, and terrorism have kept the U.S. tied to Saudi Arabia. But now interest is waning – and Saudi Arabia knows it.
All the royals want is some love
In the 1990s, the Saudis probably could have counted on a blind eye from the U.S. had they been forced to wipe out some rising. But such things are no longer assured. America crossed a redline by expressing concern over Bahrain. The Arab Spring rolls on; anyone who thinks the change unleashed has run out of steam are sorely mistaken. Eventually, an uprising of some kind will happen in the kingdom. If allowed to grow, it could reach a critical mass and shatter Saudi’s increasingly shaky social contract. In that maelstrom, the royal family’s literal survival is at stake.
To be assured all bases are covered, Saudi Arabia must know it won’t face a Syria-style international barrage of criticism. The U.S. is key to blocking that (and the U.S. has done a helluva job protecting Israel, who is routinely subject to such things). Up until this point, Saudi Arabia had the oil weapon. But not for much longer.
Getting crazy in the Gulf is about to be the new normal
Nobody quite expected the wall to come crashing down quite this fast. But the Gulf states have overspent far too much the past decade in hopes of building sustainable economies. Alas, that doesn’t look likely to work. Instead, they’re about to enter a period of semi-austerity with rising demands, flattening oil prices, and less and less stable societies.
This is also the first of many shots for Saudi Arabia to try to save itself. It needs a great power patron to support it on the UN Security Council and would prefer that to be the United States. But American politicians, when they really think about it, don’t much like the relationship and have always felt it forced upon them by America’s need for cheap oil. Saudi Arabia is, after all, deeply undemocratic and frequently in the news for having terrible laws and practices that horrify Westerners.
No clean break will happen under Obama, but after him…
I’ve said before I thought that the 2020s would be a critical time for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf in general. But now things are moving at a pace that can’t be predicted. It’s going to be sooner rather than later – we needn’t wait the 80 or so years for the oil to run out before lasting change begins.
The U.S. will increasingly move away from the situation. The Middle East in general has turned into a morass that American power can neither fix nor needs to in order to remain world hegemon. China won’t rush in because, to do so, will invite the same mess that America just left. It’s possible the Middle East at large becomes the new Congo – a nasty pot of war and death that nobody will want to touch. Iraq, after all, has already been abandoned by the great powers.
Either way, after Obama leaves in 2016, the next president will have less incentive than ever to get elected on a platform of pleasing Saudi Arabia. Saudi’s had a good run with its American relationship, and it’s not run out of steam just yet. But the close days of hand holding and big smiles are over.
- Kerry in Saudi Arabia for Talks on Syria, Iran (voanews.com)