The Bin Laden Trap: One Down, One to Go

Commentary No. 322, Feb. 1, 2012

In October, 2001, just after 9/11, I wrote the following:

“The regimes in [Pakistan and Saudi Arabia] are based on a coalition of support from pro-Western modernizing elites and an extremely conservative, popularly-based Islamic establishment. The regimes have maintained their stability because they have been able to juggle this combination. And they have been able to do so because of the ambivalence of their policies and their public pronouncements.

“The United States is now saying, away with ambiguities. The U.S. may prevail, no doubt. But in the process, the regimes in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan may find that their popular base is irremediably eroded….

“Consider that this may have been bin Laden’s plan. His own suicide mission may have been to lead the United States into this trap.”

I believe that Bin Laden has now achieved what he intended in Pakistan. The end of ambiguities has meant that Pakistan is no longer operating geopolitically in the interests of the United States. Quite to the contrary! It has taken its distances, and is pursuing policies in Afghanistan and elsewhere that the United States strongly opposes. One down, one to go.

What is happening in Saudi Arabia? There is no question that Saudi Arabia is recently acting somewhat more independently of the United States than it had been for the past seventy years or so. But it has still not broken definitively with the United States, as Pakistan has now done. Will it do so in the very near future? I think it may.

Consider the multiple internal dilemmas of the regime. The wealth of the top 10% or so of the Saudis has led to sharply increased demands on the state to “modernize” – most visibly in questions concerning women (the right to employment, the right to drive). But the demand for more rights for women is but the tip of the iceberg in a wider call to lessen the constraints of Wahhabi orthodoxy. As the king moves in a steady, but gingerly, fashion to meet these demands, he antagonizes the religious establishment ever more. They are getting quite restless.

In addition, the “modernizing” elite have still other complaints. The Saudi government is essentially a gerontocracy, run by people in their 70s and 80s. In the curious system of succession, the Saudi regime is somewhat like the old Soviet regime in the USSR. There is something akin to a real vote on succession, but it is a vote among a mere dozen or so people. The likelihood that real power can pass to persons in their 50s and 60s is extremely thin, if not impossible. Note however that the group of these “youngsters,” even just within the royal family, has grown considerably in numbers, and they are impatient. Could this lead to a serious split among the very top elite? Quite possibly.

The Saudi regime operates a sort of welfare state for the rest of its citizenry. However, the gap in income and wealth is growing there, just as everywhere in the world. And small increases in redistribution from time to time may merely whet the appetite for further demands rather than calming the lower strata. The middle and lower strata may even (surprise, surprise!) echo the calls of the Arab spring for “democracy.”

And then there’s the Shi’a minority. It is said to be only 10% or so of the population, but it’s probably larger, and more important it is strategically located in the southeast of the country where the largest oil reserves are located. Why should these Shi’a be the only Shi’a in Sunni-dominated countries in the Middle East not to pursue the claims of identity?

The Saudi regime has been trying to play a major role in the geopolitics of the region. They are unhappy about Iran’s policies and aspirations. They are unhappy about Assad’s intransigence in Syria. But they have been, when all is said and done, quite moderate in their approach to these issues in practice. They fear the consequences of dramatic moves. And they find U.S. policy too much governed by its internal needs, and its endless commitment to Israel.

On Israel, too, the Saudis have been very “reasonable.” They do not think their reasonableness has been much rewarded – either by Israel or the United States. They may be ready now to help Hamas in much more overt ways. They perceive nothing “reasonable” in the policies of the Israeli government, nor any prospects that these policies may change soon.

All of this does not add up to a politically stable regime. It certainly does not add up to one that can maintain the “ambiguities” that has permitted it to be an unflinching ally of the United States in the region.

One down, and one to go?