Two thousand eleven is 1432 in the Hijri calendar that measures the life of Islamic civilization. However one numbers it, this year will be long remembered. It has begun with uprisings in Tunis and Cairo, a popular revolt and civil war in Libya, and the disturbance of domestic tranquility by demands for reform in many other parts of the Arab world. After long acquiescence in a regional order fixed by European colonialism and sustained by American dominance, the Arabs are standing up for themselves.
The governed in this region have discovered that they can, if necessary, take back their consent to be governed and thereby compel regime change. A reawakening of the Arabs, by the Arabs, is occurring in country after country across the wide expanse of West Asia and North Africa. The age of foreign protectorates in the region has passed. With its demise come major uncertainties about the future.
The short-term effects of these uncertainties will include higher and more volatile oil and gas prices, slower recovery from the Great Recession in America and to a lesser extent in Europe and Japan, and an accelerated shift of global wealth to rising powers in East and South Asia as well as to energy producers in West Asia. Citibank has just projected that, in 2050, Saudi Arabia will have the sixth highest GDP per capita in the world. Recent events make that outcome more rather than less probable. That aside, the long-term effects of current events are less easy to forecast. They seem likely to include:
- Liberalized and more assertively nationalistic politics in Arab countries, coupled with greater self-reliance and autonomy in their management of regional affairs;
- A major reduction in the ability of outsiders—notably, the United States—to shape trends and events in West Asia and North Africa;
- The further isolation of Israel;
- The revival of Cairo, Baghdad, and Damascus as leading actors in the affairs of the Arab East—rejoining Riyadh in that role;
- A concomitant setback for recent Iranian gains in prestige and influence in a revivified Arab world;
- Opportunities for Turkey to strengthen its newly prominent regional leadership;
- Accelerated development of Arab ties to East and South Asia (and possibly to Russia) to offset and balance past dependence on the United States, Britain, and France;
- The displacement of the jihadi threat to Arab societies as milder forms of Islamism assume a larger role in governance; and,
- If new models of consultative governance arise in the Arab world, the spread of these models to non-Arab parts of the Muslim world.
In short, the peoples of this region—long in a state of foreign-supported political torpor—must now expect interesting times. So, then, must the rest of the world. The Middle East is, after all, where Africa, Asia, and Europe intersect, where Judaism and Christianity began, where Islam is centered, and where the world’s energy resources are concentrated. It is also where an abiding absence of peaceful remedies for injustice inspires local unrest and stimulates terrorists with global reach to attack the West. A single tremor in such a place can trigger a political-economic tsunami.
While much of this applies to the former colonies of Europe in West Asia and North Africa, it does not apply to Saudi Arabia. It matters greatly in this context that Saudi Arabia is the only society on the planet never to have experienced coercive intrusion by Western militaries, missionaries, or merchants. The kingdom has never compromised its independence. When the West finally came here, it came not as a conqueror, spiritual tutor, or mercantile exploiter, but as hired help. Saudis therefore display none of the angst, almost none of the self-doubt, and—apart from a few people who went to college in Beirut and Cairo—very little of the chip on the shoulder that other Arabs have about their largely humiliating encounter with the West. Saudis seem in many ways to see the world as composed of two classes of people: themselves and potential employees. They do not lack confidence in their values, faith in their political traditions, or respect for their ruler and his family.
It matters, in short, that Saudi Arabia is a society in which modernity and the institutions that support it have been imported by Saudis themselves, not imposed by outsiders. This is a country with a system of government derived from purely native models, with a compact of governance that mirrors that of its constituent tribes, and with borders that it, not colonial bureaucrats in London or Paris, established for itself. In this uniquely Arabian polity, the task of the ruler has been to discover, shape, and proclaim a consensus that is consistent with the dictates of faith, not to impose foreign-inspired policies upon an unconsulted people.
In Saudi Arabia, moreover, those who make decisions have never been able to avoid close interaction with those whom their decisions affect. Rulers and ruled meet in frequent open sessions—majlises—at which both personal and policy matters can be and are discussed. Within this context, Saudis have sought to ensure that economic progress reinforces rather than erodes the values imparted by religious faith and tradition. The Saudi compact of governance dictates that a primary duty of government is to ensure that the less fortunate benefit from the prosperity of society as a whole. Accordingly, Saudi Arabia has invested its public funds mainly in infrastructure and the construction of a welfare state for its people, not in foreign capital markets. There are numerous policy differences among the inhabitants of this kingdom but there is no crisis of legitimacy.
Saudi Arabia is not, of course, immune to popular discontent. Rightly or wrongly, for example, there is widespread resentment of the employment of foreigners rather than Saudis in key jobs throughout the economy. Despite much progress in recent years, the kingdom’s Shiite minority remains politically and economically disadvantaged. But the history of Saudi Arabia is one of top-down reform. The people look to the king to guide and regulate change. Some Saudis criticize King Abdullah for promoting too little change, too slowly. Others accuse him of trying to change too much, too fast. But everyone acknowledges the king as a reformer who is skillfully engaged in opening up the kingdom to the outside world while balancing competing political pressures at home.
The king is popular among his people, if not with those abroad who disparage Islam and the Arabs out of ignorance or for their own purposes. At home, the authority of the Saudi monarchy is accepted by almost all but a dwindling band of discredited extremists. Al-Qaeda’s charge that the kingdom tolerates and cooperates with the non-Muslim world rather than treating it with hostility has little resonance here and even less appeal abroad.
Saudis are very conscious that, as His Royal Highness Prince Turki Al-Faisal recently put it, their country is “the heart of the Muslim World, and the cradle of Arab identity.” Given its pivotal position, it is fortunate that the kingdom’s distinctive character makes it relatively immune to contagion from the instability now sweeping the rest of the Arab world. The uprisings there have sought to replace despots perceived to be under foreign protection with regimes that more authentically reflect the aspirations and opinions of their peoples. Disputes about public policy issues in Saudi Arabia are sometimes serious, but their context does not resemble that in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, or other parts of the Arab world.
Saudi youth, like Arab youth elsewhere, are now networked into a transnational Arab community that knows no borders. But the spreading anarchy in other countries has little if any appeal in this nation of strong families, strong tribal affiliations, and strong individual commitments to the peaceful practice of Islam. That’s just as well for the world, given the dependence of the global economy on the kingdom’s energy and petrochemical exports. To Saudi Arabia’s south, Yemen is now in turmoil. To Saudi Arabia’s north, Jordan, Iraq, and now Syria are all under varying degrees of stress. Saudi Arabia itself is quiet.
The one plausible source of contagion for Saudi Arabia is the civil strife in its much smaller sister kingdom of Bahrain, just 25 kilometers off its coast. There, discontent with longstanding discriminatory treatment has once again erupted into confrontation between disparate elements of the disadvantaged Shiite majority and the privileged Sunni minority. The Saudi Arabian government is understandably concerned that escalating protests in Bahrain could spread across the causeway to its own largely Shiite and oil-rich Eastern Province.
The close association of religious tendencies with class differences in Bahrain is distinctive. It is hard to find analogies to it elsewhere in the Arab world, now that the Shiite majority rules in Iraq. Despite Bahrain’s uniqueness, however, the ouster of its royal family, as some protesters have demanded, could incite instability in the other small city-states that, with Saudi Arabia, make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Beyond this concern, GCC members fear that majority, Shiite rule in Bahrain would draw the island into the Iranian orbit, handing Iran a strategic base of influence in their midst. None of these risks is acceptable to them. Under Saudi leadership, they have now intervened to restore order on the island.
The GCC is aware that, by using force to suppress Shiite unrest in Bahrain, they may have given Iran an opening for subversion there. At various moments in ancient times, Bahrain was controlled by Persia. The temptation is strong for Iran to support its fellow Shiites in a struggle against their Sunni rulers. The U.S. Fifth Fleet headquarters is ashore in Bahrain, and it would be a tempting target in such a campaign. Then, too, the GCC intervention gives Iraq, newly dominated by Shiites with close ties to Iran, an excuse to make common cause with Iran in supporting Shiite insurrection in Bahrain. Outright alliance between Baghdad and Tehran to this end would have far-reaching adverse implications for Gulf security. The strategic stakes in Bahrain are higher than many outside the region appreciate.
Events in Bahrain have also sharpened the differences between Saudi Arabia and the United States. While Washington has in no way obstructed the Saudi intervention there, it publicly counseled the king of Bahrain to answer the protesters’ demands with offers of reform. But in the view of Saudi Arabia and other GCC members, offering concessions to an unruly mob is more likely to feed its frenzy than to pacify it. Riots in the streets that challenge government control of them are not conducive to considered judgments about reform. From the GCC perspective, the restoration of peace in Bahrain is the prerequisite for peaceful change there.
The core demand of Bahrain’s demonstrators is an end to the discrimination that has kept the Shiite standard of living significantly below that of Sunnis on the island. The GCC has just offered substantial economic assistance to help Bahrain close this economic gap. This addresses some symptoms of the problem in Bahrain but will not, in itself, resolve it.
Bahrain is a regional financial center and entrepôt. Confidence in its banks and businesses depends on the maintenance of social harmony and stability on its streets. The religious divide in Bahrain is now a matter of vivid record in the Arab blogosphere and stimulates furious dissension between Sunnis and Shiites across the region. Without reforms to cure the underlying causes of unrest, further outbreaks of instability will remain an ever-present danger.
Julius Nyerere once remarked that “small countries are like indecently dressed women; they tempt the evil-minded.” This is all the more the case when they expose their soft spots to those who might have designs on them. Once order has been restored, therefore, the earliest possible civil dialogue and implementation of reform are very much in the interest of the GCC as a whole, not to mention the world. In their own self-interest, the various classes of Bahrainis must now compose their differences. GCC leaders know that the status quo in that small but strategically important kingdom is no longer sustainable. Once their intervention to restore order has succeeded, they may be expected to work with Bahrain’s government and people to contrive a new basis for socio-economic integration and political harmony there.
Elsewhere in the Arab world, the most surprising element of the spreading revolutions to many has been the extent to which they have avoided religious, class, or foreign policy agendas. To Iran’s and al-Qaeda’s dismay, there has been no significant Islamist or jihadi element to these rebellions. Pan-Arabism too has been notably absent. Many protesters have criticized the leaders they are seeking to overthrow as satraps of America or collaborators with Israel’s anti-Arab pogroms. But, with a few exceptions, they have not directed their fury at the United States or Israel as such.