Saudis facing similar problems to collapsing Soviet Union


Saudi Arabia has ordered the segregation of men and women in local council meetings, in a setback to women’s rights in the ultraconservative kingdom, The Wall Street Journal reports. The move comes a days after a Saudi court overturned the death sentence of a Palestinian poet convicted of apostasy. Ashraf Fayadh [left] was instead sentenced to eight years in prison and 800 lashes, his lawyer said.

While human rights activists have criticized the West for its silence on Saudi rights abuses, analysts suggest the regime’s behavior is a sign of its nervousness, if not fragility.

Saudi Arabia is behaving like a cornered boxer, a frightened power lashing out at perceived enemies in ways it never did before, argues Stephen Kinzer, a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. The prudent restraint that was long its trademark evaporated in 2015. In a year when much changed in the Middle East, this may prove to have been the biggest change of all, he writes for The Boston Globe:

Fear drives Saudi Arabia’s new militancy. Part of its challenge is domestic. The extremist terror epitomized by the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS has its roots in Saudi Arabia. That terror, inevitably, has begun erupting inside the kingdom itself. Yet because the regime relies for its legitimacy on the blessing of militant clerics, any crackdown can be only half-hearted.

Even more alarming to the Saudis is what they see in their neighborhood. The state system that shaped the Middle East for generations is collapsing. Iran, which the Saudi regime sees as its main enemy, is emerging from decades of isolation. 

With oil prices collapsing, Saudi Arabia is facing similar problems that the Soviet Union faced decades ago, says Council on Foreign Relations analyst Stephen Sestanovich, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. Saudi policymakers’ economic reform strategies also echo those of Mikhail Gorbachev, he writes:

It’s hard to read about how Saudi Arabia’s rulers are handling the collapse of oil prices without recalling the end of the Soviet Union. Every petro-state has to ponder this precedent, but for the Saudis the parallels must be unnerving. Consider: Their economy is inefficient and undiversified, based on irrational pricing and vast subsidies. There’s no modern taxation system; money just sloshes around, Soviet-style, on the basis of insider connections. There are no mechanisms of meaningful political representation, and after years of senescent leadership a new generation is clamoring to take over. Growing ethnic divisions and the military’s huge share of the economy round out the picture. To all this, add a sharp drop in export earnings, and it’s no surprise that people worry about systemic failure. 

Middle East′s Cold War

The breach in diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a dangerous watershed in an already unstable, war-torn region. The rupture has its roots in a strategic rivalry that stretches across the Middle East, says Bernard Haykel, a Middle East expert at Princeton University:

The tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran go back many decades, but they became especially acute after Iran′s Islamic Revolution in 1979. The revolution′s leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, did not hide his contempt for the Saudi royal family; he quickly positioned Iran as a champion of ″the oppressed″ against ″the forces of arrogance″ – the United States and its local allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

But while the rivalry has sectarian and ideological components, it is, above all, a pragmatic dispute over regional interests. Because Iran views the political order in the Arab world as serving its enemies′ interests, it has continuously sought to upend it, promoting terrorist groups and deploying proxies in order to establish and expand its influence in the region.

But it is a mistake to blame violent Islamism on Saudi propagation of its religious ideology, which is commonly known as Salafism or Wahhabism, notes Haykel, the author of “Revival and Reform in Islam” and the editor of “Saudi Arabia in Transition:”

The reasons for jihadism cannot be captured by single-cause explanations, such as “it is all Saudi Arabia’s fault.” Were it so, the solution would be easy and quick. Because it is not, the answer to jihadism must involve a set of policies — military, economic, ideological and cultural — that includes Riyadh as an ally in the fight against a scourge that has resulted in the death and suffering of many more Muslims than Westerners.

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