What, exactly, do the Saudis want?

The Saudi royals have found much to complain about in recent weeks with regard to the US. First, they expressed dissatisfaction (putting it mildly) with the Obama administration’s decision not to take any forceful military action against the Syrian regime and in support of the rebels fighting Assad’s forces. Second, there is so-called “Iranian charm offensive” led by the new president, Rouhani, that has appeared to shift the American attitude from confrontation to, at least, a greater consideration of diplomacy. 

 The Saudis are concerned that the United States will fall for Iran’s latest overtures and consider loosening sanctions and forestalling any possible military action — all of which will lead to Iran become a nuclear power and, thus, the regional power. And now, Vali Nasr arguesPresident Obama’s failure to support the Egyptian military takeover in July will only serve to enable Islamists in Egypt and elsewhere to agitate against the Saudi brand of Islam and government. Therefore, according to the Saudis, the Obama administration is acting against those very elements that are likely to “stabilize” (read: maintain the status quo) in the region.

All of this comes on the heels of a report in The New York Times this week about a re-prioritization of United States policy in the Middle East. The article partially validates the Saudis concern that president Obama is, in fact, moving away from Saudi interests in Iran and Syria, but, at the same time, that this new policy also includes brokering a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians (a key Saudi interest if there ever was one). Daniel Drezner offers an interesting analysis of the Obama administration’s latest strategy, courtesy of the new national security adviser, Susan Rice.

How incensed are the Saudis at all these recent moves? Enough that they rejected a seat on the UN Security Council in protest. Unprecedented behavior, on their part, but it still leaves unclear what they want going forward. Let’s consider each issue:

1) Syria. Okay, so the Saudis want to see Assad out, the Alawites driven from power, and a proxy regime for Shi’a Iran eliminated — that much is clear. To accomplish this, they want the West — and the United States in particular — to use military force to make it happen. But have the Saudis given any consideration to what may come next? Without Assad, is the assumption that secular Sunni leadership will fill the void? By all accounts, it is the Sunni Islamist-led insurgency who are the best equipped, most effective, and most highly motivated component of the resistance; any defeat for Assad could easily translate into a victory for the Islamists, a group that is ideologically aligned with Al Qaeda and other elements the Saudis find undesirable. 

2) Iran. Nobody wants to see Iran acquire a nuclear weapon — not the Saudis, not the Americans, the Europeans, or even the Chinese or Russians. There is no doubt that, at the least, this would lead to further destabilization in the region. The P5+1 states (United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany) that are currently negotiating with Iran in Geneva have two viable options going forward: continue tightening sanctions and hope that this will weaken the regime even further, forcing the country into either complete abandonment of its nuclear program or leading to regime change/revolution; alternatively, the great powers can work with the regime and negotiate a solution that allows for a limited level of uranium enrichment that everyone can live with. Either way, the Saudis have cause for concern — if sanctions are increased, the regime could decide it has nothing to lose and just cross the nuclear weapons threshold; if negotiations leave the regime intact, it means the continued survival of an ideological and geo-political enemy and rival. Again, neither option is appealing.

3) Egypt. The Saudis didn’t like Mohammad Morsi and the Brotherhood running things? Fine. But do they really want to throw their support behind a military dictatorship, one that is not too dissimilar from the hated Mubarak regime, and a system of governance that has long been cast as a symbol of Western imperialism and control in the Islamic Middle East? Alternatively, as Nasr argues, they cannot tolerate a Brotherhood-led regime, either. Once again, the Saudis stand to lose either way unless a third group emerges, perhaps a secular democratic movement that is neither too militant nor too Islamist. But even under that rosy scenario, we’re talking about one of the most influential and populous country in the Arab world becoming governed by popular rule; is that a model that the Saudis can live with long term? Unlikely.

It is understandable why the Saudis don’t like how things are going on any of these fronts. Yet, as I’m sure they are well aware, the monarchy benefits from these turbulent and uncertain times. As many others have argued, the instability in the region and the threat from ideological rivals has kept the Saudi people compliant with their existing system of government (a system, need we be reminded, that still does not permit women to legally drive a car, as the recent protests highlighted). Therefore, as bad as things may appear at the moment, no one denies that it can become much worse, regardless of what the Americans or anyone else does vis-a-vis Egypt, Iran, or Syria.