June 08, 2004

Saudi Arabia: Four Scenarios

What's next for Saudi Arabia (in descending order from worst case to best case)?

A) Is revolution nigh, ie. will members of the House of Saud be forced to flee the Kingdom like the Shah fled Iran?

"For some experienced Middle East analysts, there are significant parallels between the current situation in Saudi Arabia and the final months of the Shah of Iran before his flight into exile, followed by the Islamic revolution which swept the ayatollahs into power (and cost the USA one of its key regional allies). As one foreign policy veteran told JID: "The collapse of authority tends to be the end result of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once there is the perception that the old regime is doomed, it is usually a matter of time before it actually collapses. We saw precisely this sequence of events in Iran in 1979."

B) Or will an Algerian-style Islamist movement continue to take the battle to the Royal Family for years hence?

"The insistent claim of traditionally secretive Saudi authorities that a series of violent incidents across the Kingdom in recent months was the work of criminal gangs is becoming extremely threadbare.

With the assassination of a district police chief in the northern province of al-Jawf, a hotbed of Islamic opposition to the monarchy, on 20 April it seems to be increasingly clear that the violence is politically motivated, in all likelihood by supporters of Osama bin Laden.

Diplomats in Riyadh link the violence to mounting anti-Western hostility in the kingdom, the birthplace of Islam. This has been intensified by the US-led invasion of Iraq and the Arab world's inability to prevent it. Saudi leaders are being forced to admit that they face a growing challenge to their authority, one they have sought desperately to deny since a car bombing in Riyadh in which seven foreigners, five of them US citizens training the National Guard, were killed in 1995. The London-based Saudi opposition group, the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, has reported that Islamic militants have opted for armed confrontation with the monarchy, following "at least nine armed clashes in the last six or seven months" authorised by fatwas (religious decrees) issued by Muslim clerics

C) Will, roughly, the status quo prevail (ie, some uptick in expatriate flight but no mass exodus, key oil production facilities not successfully attacked, occasional fire fights between al-Qaeda affiliates and Saudi security forces)?

"While details of the Saudi security budget are classified, it is estimated to have been around US$5.5bn in 2003, increasing by 50 per cent for 2004. Over the past two years, the Saudi government has also allocated an extra $750m to enhance security at all of its oil facilities. At any one time, there are up to 30,000 guards protecting the Kingdom's oil infrastructure, while high technology surveillance and aircraft patrols are common at the most important facilities. Anti-aircraft installations defend key locations."

D) Or are the Saudi Royals robustly and smartly getting a firm handle on al-Qaeda & Co. and, indeed, quashing them?

"Only one Al-Qaeda cell remains operational in Saudi Arabia, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi intelligence and current ambassador to the UK, told JIR in May.

He said that there had been five active Al-Qaeda cells in Saudi Arabia in recent years but four have now been broken up: "There remains only one cell - even now it is in the process of being dismantled
." [ed. note: De Nile ain't just a river in Egypt...]

Well, who knows, right? (Jane's certainly doesn't have a consistent narrative to share with its defense-wonk readers!)

But smart money, at this point, might put the odds thusly (say over a two year time horizon):

Scenario A: 15%
Scenario B: 25%
Scenario C: 45%
Scenario D: 15%

So I guess I'm still tilting a little optimistic/status quoish (60%); but have a strong 40% espying potential Algeria or Iran 79ish scenarios. [Note: The odds of the negative narratives prevailing likely go up looking further out beyond two years--especially if the Iraq project worsens]

Just to be clear, this post isn't meant to, er, reassure or cause Saudi-watchers to be sanguine. Forty percent is high, way too high.

Readers are invited to write in and tell me I'm being too pessimistic (or, for that matter, optimistic). And, of course, to provide ideas on how to boost the odds of Scenario D (or even C) from prevailing rather than A or B.

UPDATE: One reader, who wishes to remain anonymous, sends in a fifth scenario:

"Regarding your outlook for Saudi Arabia, you mentioned 4 scenarios which could be summarized as follows:

1. House of Saud overthrown in a revolution
2. Algerian-style civil war with Islamists
3. A sporadic but low level of violence that ultimately doesn't threaten the Saudi leadership or oil supplies.
4. Islamic militants crushed in Saudi crackdown.

I think there is another possibility as well: Al Qaeda sympathizers within the royal family gain the upper hand in the ongoing power struggle and make more backroom deals with the Islamists. Spectator columnist Mark Steyn made a similar observation in a recent article:

"Its a mistake to think Saudi Arabia can only be lost when President bin Jihad takes over in a revolution. There are all kinds of intermediate stages at which you can lose the country, and the House of Saud is still nominally in charge. Indeed, you can make the case that weve already crossed most of them."

The violence may die down in the medium term, making it appear that scenario 4 has prevailed, but something more like scenario 1 may in fact have taken place. Of course, more Saudi double-dealing with Al Qaeda would risk angering the U.S., but desperate times could call for desperate measures. One should keep in mind that things may not be as they appear

Posted by Gregory at June 8, 2004 08:53 PM
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