The Gulf crisis that pit Saudi-led coalition against Qatar has indicated the eroding basis of regional security and stability. In general, the crisis was construed as a component of escalating Saudi-Iranian confrontation. It also highlighted the resurgent great power rivalry in the Middle East, which brought the global dynamics of Russia-led anti-Westernism into play. The retrenched American security assurances has not only emboldened the anti-Western front but also created a political void. The ensuing geostrategic conflicts further undermined the crumbling pillars of regional order.
Yet beyond structural factors, the Gulf crisis was intrinsically a local crisis and a product of Gulf politics. The conflicting agendas of domestic and regional stability, the lessening role of political leadership over Islam related popular demands, the contradictions of post–2011 Gulf security, and competing ideological alternatives undid the quest for Gulf unity and the Saudi claims for Arab leadership. We argue that absent a Gulf consensus on the basis of regional order, the recurrence of crises is inevitable and the ability of Gulf countries to steer clear of regional conflicts is more likely to be a pipe-dream.
Challenges in Gulf and Saudi Politics
The Gulf states are under pressure from below, sideways and above. The growing uncertainties about single-resource economies alongside the “youth bulge” and the depressing need for job creation have put much strain on the Gulf Arab monarchies. The GCC nations might have weathered the Arab uprisings thanks to their massive forex accounts and military activism. Yet, as has been indicated by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) recent moves, the choice between change or crisis appears imminent.
In addition to economic reforms, the Saudi leadership prioritized the need for Islamic reform even if through initial changes. While the former has to confront the social contract of clientelism, the latter implies broader repercussions for the role of Islam in politics and social life. With the emergence of multiple contenders from political Islamists to radical jihadists, the ideological leadership claims of Saudi Arabia as pro-Western Salafists appear more and more irrelevant in the Islamic countries. Yet still Saudi Arabia has a unique role in Gulf politics, whereby the challenges of failure or resistance to change particularly in the Saudi case run the risk of unraveling the broader Gulf political order.
The House of Saud’s response to this call for change has been inconsistent and mostly reactive. Facing innate vulnerabilities on both ideological and political fronts, Saudi Arabia has prioritized domestic and, to a lesser degree, regional stability at any cost. Domestic transition via royal succession was a major step to ensure keeping the Saudi house in order. Even if King Salman’s rule started with a wobbling attitude towards royal succession, the indisputable empowerment of MBS later on invalidated any doubts about where the ship was heading. On MBS’s watch, the Saudi leadership has espoused an iron-fist policy against political alternatives at home hand-in-hand with a flag-bearer role for leading the call for change in the region. The contradictions that rise thereof and the questions about the sincerity and feasibility of leading change notwithstanding, MBS has been given a certain leeway to implement his policy of economic reform and religious moderation. In any case, the top-down reform process would prove consequential for the viability of the Saudi state.
On a broader note, the Saudi Kingdom is a status quo power that aims to perpetuate the post–colonial order in the Middle East, which has assigned the al-Saud dynasty economic, security and spiritual leverage. Building on these advantages, the Saudi foreign policy rests on American security umbrella, petrodollars, and the royal family’s role as the custodian of Holy Cities of Islam. Hence, the regime pursues a pro-Western line as a means to preserve the political map of the region and conduct foreign-policy activism against revisionist contenders.
The Arab Spring was essentially a blow to these conventional pillars of Saudi foreign policy. First, the ability to sustain the American security shield has become dubious with Obama’s reticent commitment to the Middle Eastern order. Beyond financial bottlenecks emerging with lower oil prices, the fall of fellow strongmen not only signaled the end of an era but also the inevitability of change particularly with more and more doubtful U.S. backing. This entailed putting their own house in order, which was construed by the Saudi leadership as the need to defy political and ideological alternatives for survival. Such an existential reading of events brought about unwavering Saudi confrontation against the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran.
The Saudi response to the Arab Spring was thus three-pronged. In its early phase, the Arab Spring was above all a domestic security problem for Saudi Arabia. The 2011–2012 Shiite riots in the Eastern Province have shown the need to contain spillover from neighboring sheikhdoms, vindicating military action by the Saudis to repress the demonstrations in Bahrain. The Saudis espoused a Monroe-doctrine type “non-intervention” in Gulf affairs and defied the threat of revolutionary Shiite insurgency.