Syria: Saudi Arabia’s policy conundrum

RSIS presents the following commentary Syria: Saudi Arabia’s policy conundrum by 
James M. Dorsey. It is also available online at this link. (To print it, click on this link.). 
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No. 101/2012 dated 18 June 2012

Syria: Saudi Arabia’s policy conundrum

By James M. Dorsey   


Saudi Arabia is faced with the succession of its ageing leadership following the death
of Crown Prince Nayef at a time that the 89-year old King Abdullah is countering
efforts by conservative clerics to employ the Syrian crisis as a vehicle to thwart his
minimal reforms and circumvent post-9/11 restrictions on charitable donating,
designed to prevent funds from flowing to jihadists.


FOLLOWING THE death of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, barely
a year after he was appointed heir to the throne, there is little doubt that the likely
nomination of his brother, 76-year old Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz
as the kingdom’s crown prince will prove to be smooth. Nevertheless, the death of
Prince Nayef, who served as interior minister for more than three decades, could prompt
the sons of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdul Aziz al Saud, to open the door to one of
their sons moving into the line of succession to the throne.

The succession issue in the oil rich kingdom that is home to Islam’s two most holy cities,
Mecca and Medina,takes on added importance at a time that Saudi leaders are seeking 
to ring fence their country against the region’s anti-autocratic protests and clamour for greater 
freedom. That is proving increasingly difficult despite political and military crackdowns 
and generous government handouts.

Syria for one poses a conundrum for a policy that supports popular and armed opposition 
to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in part by fueling sectarian strife in a country teetering 
on the brink of civil war while at the same time trying to insulate the kingdom from the 
region-wide challenge to autocratic rule.

Establishment clerics preaching from Friday prayer pulpits as well as on social media denounce
the Syrian regime as well as the Alawites, the heretic Shiite sect from which Assad hails, and
support the Saudi and Qatari supply of arms through Turkey to armed elements of the Syrian
opposition. The clerics, like the government, make no effort to square their support for regime 
change in Syria and their earlier assistance in easing Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh out of 
office with their crushing of a popular uprising in neighbouring Bahrain and the crackdown on 
protests in Saudi Arabia’s predominantly Shiite Eastern province, home to much of the
kingdom’s oil wealth.

Wielding a stick and a carrot

King Abdullah has sought to halt the wave of protests at Saudi Arabia’s frontiers by wielding
both a stick and a carrot. The Saudi military as well as interior ministry forces under Prince
Nayef’s leadership responded firmly to Shiite protests and have cracked down on bloggers
and activists. At the same time, King Abdullah has sought to preempt dissent by allocating
more than US $100 billion for enhanced services, handouts and the creation of jobs, primarily
in the military and security forces, and cautiously moving ahead with snail pace reforms. 

In a move designed to ensure government control of policy towards Syria, limit the fallout of
 the Syrian crisis and tighten government control of the clergy, King Abdullah recently cracked
down on independent support for   Assad’s opponents by conservative clerics. Salafi clerics,
who were opportunistically supported by Prince Nayef, and advocate a society that emulates
the very early days of Islam, were ordered late last month to halt   collecting donations in
support of the Syrian opposition. That collection threatened to circumvent central government 
control of all charitable donations to foreign causes introduced post 9/11. Once Saudi Arabia 
realized that its charities had been infiltrated by jihadists, including members of Al Qaeda, it
ordered a halt to prevent monies from flowing to militant Islamists who are bolstering the
ranks of Syria’s armed opposition. 

Salman al-Awda, a prominent cleric whose relationship with the government runs hot and
cold, countered on Twitter that those who wished to independently fund the Syrian
opposition would continue to find ways to do so. The government went a step further in
early June with a ruling by the Council of Senior Ulema (religious scholars) that banned the
calling for jihad in Syria outside of officially controlled channels. In doing so the government
sought to prevent Syria from becoming a vehicle in the hand of opponents of King Abdullah
for criticism of government policy and advocacy of far more radical change.

King Abdullah’s crackdown constituted the second blow in a month to those clerics who 
oppose reforms such as a relaxation of rules governing the public mixing of the sexes. Earlier 
they were unable to stop King Abdullah from lifting a ban on young men visiting shopping malls.
In a heavily gender-segregated society this allows Saudi youths to furtively glance at the 
opposite sex and surreptitiously flash or exchange their mobile numbers or social media 

Some weeks before cracking down on radical support for Syria, King Abdullah fired a 
popular cleric and scion of a commercial empire, Sheikh Abdel Mohsen Obeikan, who 
served as an advisor to the royal court, for opposing the expansion of employment 
opportunities for women in education, medicine and retail sales and badly needed judicial 
reform. However the clerics have successfully blocked Saudi women for the first time from 
competing as official representatives of their country in an international sports tournament, 
at the London Olympics.

A clamour for real change

Women activists are testing the limits of the king’s reform willingness with a campaign to lift
Prince Nayef’s prohibition of women driving. Some 600 Saudis petitioned King Abdullah last
week to allow women to drive in the only country in the world where they are banned from
doing so. Women driving has so far been a bridge too far for the king. Scores of women who
defied the ban in the past year have been arrested and forced to sign pledges that they would
not drive again. 

King Abdullah appears to have for now largely insulated his kingdom from the kind of mass
anti-government protests other Arab nations are experiencing. The brutality of the struggle
in Syria serves as a cautionary tale for many. The calls for change in Saudi Arabia are
nonetheless mushrooming, boosted not only by the resilience of the Syrians but also the
emergence of Islamists as victors in elections in Tunisia and Egypt.

Reformers are likely to see the death of Prince Nayef as opening the door to a successor like
Prince Salman who may be more inclined to lead the kingdom, albeit cautiously, further
down the road of reform. The question nonetheless is whether government largesse,
crackdowns and minimal, piecemeal reforms will continue to be sufficient to stymie the
growing clamour for real change.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International 
Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He has been a journalist 
covering the Middle East for over 30 years.

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