Saudi Arabia's role in the Broader Middle East
Manuela Paraipan: Saudi Arabia adopted several counterterrorism measures to de-radicalize Jihadists.
What can you tell me about these measures? Do they seem to be working?
Dr. Christian Koch: The Kingdom has understood from the outset that there can be no military solution to the problem of terrorism. Therefore, it adopted a multi-pronged approach. It has strengthened its counterterrorism capabilities and invested a lot of effort to improve its human intelligence sources.
This combined with some tactical mistakes of al-Qaeda groups inside Saudi Arabia, for example, attacking housing compounds where Muslims and Saudis were killed has allowed the Saudi authorities to regain the initiative. Since 2004, when news of attacks were a regular occurrence, the direct threat posed to the Saudi ruling family has subsided. The security forces have been able to preempt almost all attempts to continue the wave of violence.
The Kingdom has also adopted other methods aimed at both, bringing back individuals from their extremist activities, as well as preventing Saudi youth from being tempted to consider an extremist route. With regard to the former, widespread amnesty and rehabilitation programs have been established through which individuals can seek clemency.
Manuela Paraipan: What are the strengths of the rehabilitation program?
Dr. Christian Koch: The rehabilitation program has provided a wide social net whereby individuals are given access to jobs and money, to take care of their immediate family as one means to entice them to abandon their ways. It also includes wide-ranging debates with Islamic scholars about the true meaning of Islam and holy war.
The dialogue program set up by the government has sought to engage the society, as a whole, in discussions that up until recently have been considered sensitive. That includes the Sunni-Shia relations, the role of women in society, unemployment and youth related matters.
The idea here is to have a more open debate and to discredit arguments used by extremist circles that seek to further inflame existing tensions, rather than work to find solutions to societal problems. In the end, the measures adopted by Saudi Arabia have shown a considerable amount of success, although, they have not eliminate the threat of terrorism completely.
Manuela Paraipan: There is a global dependency on oil. Does the wealth facilitate social development and a more ambitious foreign policy of the Kingdom?
Dr. Christian Koch: There can be no question that the oil wealth of Saudi Arabia has facilitated a wide-ranging program of social and economic development.
In fact, in all of the Gulf oil-producing countries, the past decades have seen a tremendous process of change being initiated that would have been impossible to sustain, had it not been for the rentier income provided by oil. In addition, such income has allowed a country like Saudi Arabia to better weather current crisis. Due to past years high oil prices, the Kingdom has built large financial reserves that now can sustain its internal investment and spending programs. All of this also supports a foreign policy machinery that makes it possible for the Kingdom to act as a key player in both regional and international matters.
Manuela Paraipan: What about domestic political openess?
Dr. Christian Koch: On the political side, the picture is more differentiated. The fact that oil income basically goes directly to the government, i.e. meaning the ruling families, such rentier wealth supports authoritarian tendencies and allows the al-Saud to pay off key elements in society in order to gain additional support for their rule.
It is the classic 'no taxation without representation' phrase turned upside down to say 'no representation without taxation'. This model of a social contract whereby key sectors of society forgo their political rights, in exchange, for access to wealth has largely held up over the past four decades.
At the same time, it cannot be assumed that this model will last indefinitely. The pressures on the government, to provide meaningful employment for its large youth population, to provide sufficient educational opportunities and to extend benefits to the population, increased. All these are no longer seen as a privilege but rather as a duty of the ruling family for its subjects. Thus, the terms of the social contract are changing and people are no longer satisfied simply by government providing wealth. The demand for access to the political system is on the rise and this is something that all governments in the region, including Saudi Arabia, will have to respond to.
Manuela Paraipan: What role for Saudi Arabia as part of the GCC states?
Dr. Christian Koch: The GCC states as whole have begun to play a more active role in the politics and foreign relations of the region. It is likely they will become more pro-active in 2010. There are several factors to consider.
First, the decision of the United States to launch the invasion of Iraq despite concern from the GCC states opened a debate among policy officials on the utility of a continued exclusive reliance on America, as the prime security guarantor for Gulf security. While the core relationship is not being questioned, there is nevertheless a realization that U.S. interests do not necessarily match those of the GCC states, and therefore it become important to define one's own national interests more clearly, while at the same diversifying the international relationships one keeps and develops. The direct result is a look towards developing ties with Asian countries such as India and China, a more concerted look at Europe, and organizations like NATO and even establishing broader relations with countries in Africa and Latin America. All of this means a greater internationalization of Gulf security.
Second, the GCC states today represents an island of stability in a sea of instability, with the security challenges ranging from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan - Pakistan, to Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and the Arab-Israeli conflict. In order to better influence the course of events, there is a rising commitment to get involved and play a more central role in conflict management. This has become clear with Saudi Arabia and its increased commitment to mediate in Palestinian issues, between Iraqi sectarian groups and in Sudan.
Third, there is also awareness, that in order to have one's interests recognized and become part of the debate, one has to get involved and push forward what those interests might be. Not only do the Gulf ruling families feel safe in their positions, without a significant political opposition, thereby allowing them to concentrate their energies on the foreign and security field, but in light of the global financial downturn, it has also become apparent that the world has begun to see the region's economic power as an important element to bring about a recovery.
And while the GCC states are ready to come after their commitments and fulfill that role, it is not a blank check. There is a rising expectation that with increased financial assistance, the political interests of the Arab Gulf states have to also be respected and taken into consideration.
Dr. Christian Koch is Director of International Studies at the Gulf Research Center.
Manuela Paraipan is WSN Editor Broader Middle East.