Tag Archives: Saudi Arabia

Military Cooperation the Arab World

Saudi Arabia and Egypt are leading an initiative to create a joint Arab Defense Force, comprised of approximately 40,000 soldiers, several elite units, and supporting aircraft and surface vessels. The new force, originally discussed ahead of an Arab League Summit in March, would likely be used in place of Nato and Western-led initiatives to counter the Islamic State, to support Saudi-led operations in Yemen, and would provide a counterbalance to growing Iranian influence in the region. The force might also be used to respond to calls from Arab states for support in addressing the growing threat posed by Islamic militants, such as the call issued last week by the Libyan government.

What do you think? Will regional defense forces provide a useful replacement for the deployment of American forces abroad? Does this development highlight a shift in the global role of the United States? Would such a shift be positive or negative? Why?

Freedom of Expression in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi government appeared to give in to international pressure yesterday after it announced it would delay the next round of 50 lashes for Raif Badawi. Badawi is a blogger who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and ten years imprisonment for insulting Islam. His sentence provoked sharp criticism from the global community. Amnesty International has led a campaign to draw attention to the sentence, and a number of states have condemned it. Yesterday, the Saudi government announced it would “delay” the second round of 50 lashes for medical reasons, and the Saudi Supreme Court announced it would “review” the decision.

Badawi’s case raises a number of important questions, both centering on liberal notions of freedom of expression and more broadly on the effectiveness of public pressure on state behavior. What do you think? Should liberal notions of freedom of expression constrain governmental behavior? Do claims that the decision here is intended to protect religious freedom mitigate concerns over freedom of expression? Why? And do you think that international pressure, such as that brought by Amnesty International, can be effective in changing the behavior of the Saudi government in the longer term? Do states care about international public opinion? Why?

Demanding the Right to Drive in Saudi Arabia

A woman violates informal Saudi laws prohibiting female driving.

A woman violates informal Saudi laws prohibiting female driving.

Women in Saudi Arabia have been engaged in an ongoing protest demanding the right to drive be granted. While technically not illegal, women in Saudi Arabia have been subject to arrest and prosecution for attempting to drive. While declining to cite what laws were being violated or what punishments might be doled out, the Saudi Arabian Interior Ministry spokesperson, Major General Mansour Al-Turki warned women that “All violations will be dealt with—whether demonstrations or women driving. No just on the 26th [a day scheduled for demonstrations]. At all times” At the same time, conservative Saudi religious leaders warned women that driving could damage their ovaries and create health risks and cause children to be born with “clinical problems.” Saudi Arabia maintains very conservative traditions, particularly in the area of women’s rights. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report ranked Saudi Arabia 130th out of 134 countries in gender equality. Saudi Arabia was the only country to earn a score of zero in the area of political empowerment.  Saudi law requires all women have a male guardian—usually a father, brother, or husband—who has rights over women’s marriage, travel, education, employment, and other decisions. Women in Saudi Arabia comprise just 17 percent of the country’s workforce, one of the lowest female labor market participation rates in the world. However, some progress is being made in securing equal rights for Saudi women. In 2011, King Abdullah issued a declaration granting women the right to vote and run for local elected office beginning in the 2015 election. But in the economic and social spheres, much work remains to be done.

The Politics of Global Diplomacy

Saudi King Abdullah greets President Barack Obama in 2009.

Saudi King Abdullah greets President Barack Obama in 2009.

Less than 24 hours after being elected to the United Nations Security Council, the government of Saudi Arabia surprised the international community (and its own diplomats) by declining the seat. It’s the first time any country has rejected a seat, which are highly coveted because of the increased influence and prestige they afford a state.

Most observers believed that Saudi Arabia’s role on the Security Council could increase pressure on the organization to address the crisis in Syria, the Iranian nuclear program, and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. But in declining the seat, Saudi officials run the risk of undermining the influence of the country more broadly. As one observer put it, “This is very bad for the image of the country. It’s as if someone woke up in the night and made this decision.” It’s clear that the decision could only have been made at the highest levels, likely requiring the direct approval of King Abdullah himself. Winning the seat required more than two years of diplomatic maneuvering and courting of support in the United Nations General Assembly. But in doing so, Saudi Arabia was also forced to move away from its preferred diplomatic style of discrete negotiation.

What do you think? Did Saudi Arabia make a mistake in declining the UN Security Council seat? Or does the move give the Saudi government greater leeway in addressing issues of concern to it? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

Is a Counter-Revolutionary “Concert of Arabia” Rising?

Saudi King Abdullah is pushing to form a coalition of Gulf monarchies that can contain the chaos of the Arab Spring.

Nearly 200 years after the Concert of Europe, is history repeating itself with the rise of a Saudi-led Concert of Arabia?

In 1815, in fearful reaction to the power of France and the democratic yearnings unleashed by the French Revolution, the great powers of Austria, Prussia, Russia, and the United Kingdom formed the Concert of Europe. The Concert was intended to contain France after the defeat of Napoleon, but it was held together by a shared desire (particularly on the part of Russia, Prussia, and Austria) to contain democratic aspirations and maintain monarchic rule.  In fact, these three conservative eastern monarchies formalized their mutual interest in stopping revolution through the Holy Alliance.  In his book Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger argues that it was combination of perceived threat (from France) and shared values (anti-democratic sentiment) that held the alliance together.  One might point to the Cold War-era bloc of Western democracies as another example of an alliance held together both by a shared threat (the Soviet Union) and shared values (anti-Communism). 

Fast-forward 200 years.  Saudi Arabia is pushing for a union of Middle Eastern monarchies to contain the fervor of the Arab Spring: “Saudi Arabia’s rulers fear that the contagion of popular revolt could reach their country’s borders and stir its own disenfranchised citizens and residents, including dissidents, members of minority groups and foreign workers, analysts said. ‘They don’t want the spirit of our uprising to reach their shores,’ said Sayed Hadi al-Mosawi, a Bahraini opposition politician.”  Saudi Arabia is worried not merely about democracy but about the rise of Iran and the power of its Shiite allies in places like Bahrain and Syria.  You can read more about Saudi Arabia’s “counter-revolution,” going back to last summer, here.

As discussed previously in this blog, this concern for maintaining stability and fear of the chaos the Arab Spring might unleash is a perspective shared by Western “realists.”  Does this put realists on the “wrong side of history,” or is their perspective a prudent one, given the unknowns associated with empowering popular movements (including the Muslim Brotherhood and more radical groups) in the Middle East?

Sunnis, Shiites, and the Arab Spring

Was Osama bin Laden a Sunni or Shiite Muslim? Can you identify the ruling sect in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria?

Today’s Formula 1 race in Bahrain occurred without incident, but many observers had feared violence would mar the festivities.  This is because Bahrain, like several other countries in the region, is experiencing ongoing unrest pitting anti-government protesters against the ruling authorities.  And, as in other Middle Eastern countries, this clash has broken down along sectarian lines, with Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims vying for power.

While some Western commentators speak broadly of the “Arab and Muslim world,” painting with such broad strokes obscures many of the differences that help to make sense of the politics of today’s Middle East.  A few examples:

* In Iraq, the Sunni minority (which was in power under Saddam Hussein) is now facing a resurgent Shiite majority which controls the parliament and much of the executive branch. This struggle involves political competition and violence, although one commentator argues much of the violence is really about jihadism rather than sectarianism.

* Like in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Bahrain’s minority Sunnis enjoy power over the majority Shiites.  Sunnis have now mobilized to protect the regime and crack down on protesting Shiites.

* Saudi Arabia, a leading Sunni power, has intervened in Bahrain, Egypt, and Syria with military, economic, or political tools to help support the rise of Sunni actors and the defeat of Shiite forces.

* Iran, the region’s leading Shiite power, has close ties with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Syria’s ruling Alawite sect.  The Alawites split off from Shia Islam over 1,000 years ago and consider Iran an ally in maintaining power against Syria’s restive Sunni majority.

Despite the importance of the Sunni-Shiite distinction in understanding today’s Middle East, many American policymakers (even some counter-terrorism officials) have displayed their ignorance on this point.  See this Op-Ed piece from Congressional Quarterly national security editor Jeff Stein for examples drawn from Stein’s interviews with U.S. officials.

It’s easy to scoff at these answers, but can you do any better?  Take this quiz on the differences between Sunni and Shiite Islam and see how well you do.

Intelligence, Rationality, and the Iranian Terror Plot

Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir, was the target of an assassination plot allegedly planned by Iran.

This week the Obama adminstration  accused Iran of plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington.  A Washington Post article described the bizarre plot as follows:

“The Justice Department unsealed charges against two Iranians — one of them a U.S. citizen — accusing them of orchestrating an elaborate murder-for-hire plot that targeted Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi envoy to Washington and a key adviser to King Abdullah. The Iranians planned to employ Mexican drug traffickers to kill Jubeir with a bomb as he ate at a restaurant, U.S. officials said.”

The incident has raised tensions between the U.S. and Iran and it isn’t clear where all of this is headed.  But for students of world politics, these events have already illustrated several important policymaking challenges.

1) The importance (and difficulty) of obtaining good intelligence. A number of experts are questioning the administration’s allegations against Iran, saying the plot doesn’t fit what we know about the way Iran or its Quds Force operates. The skeptics include prominent realist Stephen Walt, Middle East specialist Kenneth Katzman, an Iran expert at Johns Hopkins, and other respected analysts.  As we learned from the Iraq WMD case, intelligence failures can have serious consequences, and a number of observers have already noted that the Obama administration’s accusations and increasingly heated rhetoric could strengthen hardliners in the U.S. and paint Obama into a corner.  If the plot ends up not to be Iranian in origin, these claims could damage the credibility of an administration that defined itself in opposition to the allegedly careless and rash Bush administration.

2) The limits of the “rational actor” model (and the powerful temptation to employ it nonetheless).  Political scientist Robert Jervis has highlighted the tendency for policymakers to assume that the behavior of other actors is more coordinated and centrally planned than it actually is.  Iran is not a unitary actor and one explanation for this uncharacteristically clumsy plot is that a rogue element of Iran’s Quds Force was “freelancing” rather than taking orders from Iran’s president or Supreme Leader.  Yet the Obama administration has assumed (as leaders frequently do) that any behavior linked to a certain state–Iran, in this instance–must have been planned and directed from the highest levels.

 3) The complexity of Middle East politics.  One expert notes that the most believable aspect of the entire plot is the Iran would target Saudi Arabia’s officials and regime in some way.  While many in the West view the Muslim world as monolithic, the Sunni-Shi’a divide has led to serious conflict not only within states, such as Iraq and Bahrain, but between countries dominated by different sects of Islam.  Saudi Arabia is a powerful Sunni leader in the region, while Iran’s population is largely Shi’a, and the “cold war” between these countries goes back decades.

What do you think?  Does the evidence linking Iran to this plot seem compelling?  Is the Obama administration succumbing to the unitary actor illusion?  What will be the ramifications if the allegations prove false?  If they prove true?