Saudi Arabia and the Arab “Frontline” States

The United States needs to rethink its attitudes and polices towards Saudi Arabia and the Arab “frontline” states. The “Arab spring” has not become some sudden window to democratic reform. It has instead unleashed a broad pattern of regional instability in an area already deeply destabilized by extremism and terrorism, growing religious struggles between Sunni and other sects as well as between Sunni extremists and moderates, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its removal as a military counterbalance to Iran, a growing Iranian set of threats at every level, and massive demographic pressures on weak structures of governance and economic development.

The day may come some years in the future where the resulting convulsions in states like Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen produce the conditions for effective reform: political parties capable of producing effective leaders and governance, politics based on compromise rather than a history of conspiracy and winner’s take all, elections that produce national rather than ethnic and sectarian tensions, and a rule of law rather than winner takes all and repression. Today, however, upheavals mean political instability and violence, massive new economic problems, power struggles, repression and refugees. The issue is not democracy and the more ideal human rights, it is the most basic set of human rights: security and the ability to lead a safe and secure life.

This does not mean giving up on patient evolutionary efforts to encourage reform in the more stable Arab states, but it does mean understanding the motives driving Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, and the regimes in key friendly countries like Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco. They are not sitting on the edge of some idealized political awakening. They are “frontline” states whose regimes and peoples are threatened by a set of forces that already has impoverished or halted economic development in most of the states affect by the so-called “Arab spring,” displaced 25% of Syria’s population or made it refugees, empowered Iran, and created a crisis of civilization within Islam.

Saudi Arabia’s reaction is not, as some analysts have called it, a matter of “pique.” Like the other GCC states – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE – it faces growing asymmetric threats from Iran – not simply an Iranian nuclear break out. This includes Iranian efforts to destabilize Shi’ite populations, a growing Iranian set of forces tailored to threat targets and shipping in the Gulf, Iranian efforts to become the dominant influence in Iraq, Iranian ties to the Hezbollah, and Iranian links to Assad in Syria. Saudi Arabia and Oman face direct threats from instability in Yemen and Saudi Arabia has already had to fight a low-level boarder war against Houthi insurgents in Yemen – insurgents with at least some ties to Iran.

Iran is building up a massive mix of Revolutionary Guards forces with missiles and rockets that can reach across the Gulf, it is seeking precision guided versions that can be a more real world threat than the extreme of nuclear weapons, and it has strong motives to arm these forces with nuclear weapons to intimidate and influence the Arab states. Iranian hardliners may talk “Israel,” but Israel has nuclear weapons of its own and much of their talk is a cover for seeking to dominate the Gulf.

Saudi Arabia and all its neighbors face steadily growing threats from a mass of Iranian mine warfare, short and increasing long-range anti-ship missiles, submarines and submersibles, marine and IRGC forces that can selectively threaten their offshore installations, key coastal facilities like oil and gas export terminals and desalination plants, and shipping. Iran may never do more than use these forces to tacitly threaten the Strait of Hormuz, as well as potential targets inside and outside the Gulf, but they are growing every year and they are far more tangible realities - and ones that confront every Arab Gulf state with “frontline” realities every day - than the possibility of Iranian nuclear weapons.

Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE all face at least low level threats from Iranian efforts to influence their Shi’ite populations, coupled to the much broader forces dividing Sunni and Shi’ite. The Muslim Brotherhood may have many moderate elements, but it also has extremists that interact with other Sunni extremists and pose a political threat in the UAE, as well as a lesser threat in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Saudi Arabia and its neighbors are not able to use distance to isolate themselves from the threat of extremism and terrorism. Saudi Arabia has driven much of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula out of Saudi Arabia, but the end result is that it now is a major force in Yemen and still able to operate and infiltrate the Kingdom. There are good reasons why Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE focus on such threats, and why they are concerned about the divisions in Qatar where even some members of the royal family have supported Sunni Islamist extremist causes in Syria and other nations.

Like Kuwait and Jordan, Saudi Arabia faces a direct threat in terms of Iranian influence in Iraq, but also another threat of terrorism and extremism from Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and its merger with similar elements in Syria to form ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq – which is linked to the equally extreme Jabhat al-Nusra and other hardline movements in Syria.  At the same time, Iran is pushing Shi’ite volunteers into Syria and strengthening ties to Hezbollah that can easily become future infiltrators and sources of terrorism in Arab Shi’ite populations.

Every moderate Arab state – particularly a Saudi Arabia whose political legitimacy depends heavily on its status as the custodian of “the two Mosques” and Islam’s holiest shrines – faces the threat posed by even non-violent religious extremists who are polarizing Sunni Islam, create major pressure to eliminate decades of progress and evolutionary reform, undermine all of the moderate schools of justice and law that dominate modern Islam, and drag each country centuries back into the past when they desperately need to focus on development for the future.

Here, Saudi Arabia and every Arab “frontline” state faces an existential threat from the need to improve the living standards of its population and reduce massive underemployment problems that affect at least 25% of their job age youth. To put this reality into perspective, most Arab states still have per capita incomes in the lowest third of the world, are part of a MENA region whose population the Census Bureau estimates is more than six times what it was in 1950, have populations where 40% or more are 25 years of age or younger and which will rise by another 40-50% by 2050. Security in terms of anti-terrorism and the rule of law is only part of the story.

Economic security and stable, effective governance are not only critical human rights, but the key to progress in every other aspect of human rights and dignity. Revolutions and political upheavals that end economic security and effective governance are not some prelude to creative destruction. They are usually the prelude to a decade of continuing upheavals, poor or failed governance, and economic stasis or declining per capita income and productive investment and employment.

Seen from this same perspective, it should be also clear why Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE back the military in Egypt with $12 billion in aid. They are not focused on a pro forma exercise in democracy but on the stability of a state where an extremist regime could quickly become far more of threat than was the case at the time of Nasser. This also explains their support for Jordan – which is their key strategic buffer to the West, and more broadly for Morocco as another key source of regional stability –a role an Algerian regime which has survived by violent repression as bad as Assad in Syria cannot play.

It also explains why Saudi Arabia and other Arab states continue to push for an Israel-Palestinian peace. Part of this is real concern for the Palestinians, but it is at least equally a matter of pushing for their own security. The peace issue has given Iran key leverage and ties to the Hezbollah in Lebanon. It has allowed Iran to cast itself as the defender of Arab rights when its real strategic focus is on the Gulf. It makes ties to the United States an issue that every Islamist extremist movement can exploit along with the failure of Arab regimes to support another pointless Arab-Israeli conflict.

Once again, this does not mean we should not press for moderation, for reform, and for country-by-country progress.  It does not mean we should ignore the excessive use of force in the name of security. It does mean we should accept the reality that our Arab allies – like Israel – have every reason to fear U.S. negotiations with Iran until they are certain their security will not be compromised. It does mean that we should understand their motives in Egypt and question ours if we confuse the need to encourage the Egyptian military to move towards a more viable form of democracy with the illusion that there is any viable alternative that we can credibly pursue.

It does mean we should understand and respect the reasons Saudi Arabia and every other friendly regional state – again including Israel – questions our recent actions and our current politics and commitments. While anyone who talks to U.S. State Department and USCENTCOM experts, and examines our security cooperation with the Arab states, can see real progress in many areas of our security cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the Arab states, far too much of our rhetoric and far too many of our policies in dealing with Syria, Iran, Egypt and other states – as well as a continuing abstract focus on democracy regardless of local realities – has created all too many reasons for Saudi and other Arabs to fear and distrust. 

Americans need to think back to 9/11. And, put themselves in the place of the Arab frontline states. What would we do, how would we see the world and U.S. policies, if we were them?

For details analyses of the Iranian threat and U.S. cooperation with Arab states see:

  • US and Iranian Strategic Competition in the Gulf States and Yemen - Examines the competition between the US, and Iran and how it affects Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE, Oman and Qatar.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s). © 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.






Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy