Saudi Arabia Publications
Saudi Arabia’s New Year’s Day mass executions fits into a well-established pattern of taking exceedingly tough measures whenever its leadership has felt under intense foreign or domestic pressures. Its late hardnosed interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, once warned pro-democracy activists that the ruling House of Saud had come to power by the sword and if necessary was ready to wield it again to stay there.
The Saudi-led Arab coalition fight to defeat Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who took over Yemen early this year has turned into a bloody and costly quagmire. After nine months of fighting, the two sides have reached a military stalemate. Under strong U.S. and international pressure, Saudi Arabia and its Yemeni allies began holding talks on December 15 under U.N. auspices with their Houthi enemies at a secret location in Switzerland to explore a way out of their impasse.
On December 12, for the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia, women are going to the polls nationwide to elect their local representatives and even stand as candidates. It has been a long time coming partly because of strong opposition from the ultra-conservative religious establishment and partly, too, because of a lack of interest among Saudi women to get involved in politics.
Saudi Arabia has found itself some strange bedfellows in its all-out pursuit to crush the Iranian backed Houthis in Yemen, turning to al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood for help even though it has condemned both groups as terrorists inside the kingdom.
The latest shakeup in the ruling House of Saud has assured that Washington’s favorite prince, Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, will now become king as he is anointed heir apparent. But it also likely heralds new tensions in U.S.-Saudi relations as a new breed of “Saudi hawks” comes to power. They are opposed to any U.S. détente with Iran, its chief rival for regional hegemony. They are also gearing up for a military showdown with Tehran’s allies in in the Yemeni civil war, while the Obama administration is pressing for a negotiated political solution there.
Saudi Arabia has reacted to the attempt by Houthi Shi’ite rebels in Yemen to take over the entire country with Iranian backing by forming for the first time a pan-Arab Sunni military alliance against the Houthis. The Arab coalition has begun raining bombs down on Houthi positions across Yemen, and Saudi Arabia has amassed 150,000 troops along the Yemeni border. Now the Saudis and its Arab partners must decide whether and when to put “boots on the ground” in a belated attempt to stop the Houthi takeover.
Saudi Arabia’s longtime powerful ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, has been stripped of all his security and intelligence duties within days of Prince Salman taking over as the kingdom’s new ruler. Bandar had been locked in a bitter struggle with Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef for the past two years over which of them was in charge of Saudi policy toward Syria and specifically whether to support rebel Islamic militants there, a Bandar strategy Mohammed had strongly opposed. Now Mohammed has emerged in charge of both domestic and much of Saudi foreign security to the great relief of the Obama administration.
King Abdullah, who died January 23 after a 10-year-long reign, was truly beloved by his people and the most highly respected leader of the Arab world. He started out as a reformer, propelling women into the all-male world of Saudi politics and sending over 100,000 Saudis abroad for higher education in hopes of speeding up the modernization of his ultra-conservative kingdom. But the Arab Spring brought an abrupt halt to the reform process and triggered a severe crackdown on all human and political rights activists.
After three years of constant discord, relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia have taken a definite turn for the better as they team up to lead a coalition of Arab and Western nations in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. But the two old partners have different goals and immediate concerns that could come to test once again their long-time tangled relationship.
The opening of a dialogue between the United States and Iran has stirred deep-seated fears in Saudi Arabia that the Obama administration may be headed for a “grand bargain” with Tehran at the Saudis’ expense, raising further doubts about Saudi dependence on Washington for its security. The Saudis have already sensed flagging U.S. support in their confrontation with Iran over Iraq and Syria as they wage a bitter battle with the Iranians for Arab and Muslim world leadership.