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96 Frederic Wehrey Saudi Arabia’s Anxious Autocrats Chapter Six One of the world’s last remaining bastions of absolute monarchy, the oil-rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia pursues throughout the broader Middle East and beyond an activist foreign policy that is largely nonideological , realist, and defensive in intent, but negative in its implications for democracy. In the aftermath of the 2011 Arab uprisings, Saudi Arabia has intervened in a number of transitioning states with the aim of countering the challenges posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Salafi jihadism as embodied by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. While the intent of such interference may not be explicitly antidemocratic , many of the recipients of Saudi support have been authoritarian and antiliberal.1 The ultimate effect has been damaging to the spread of democratization and political pluralism. When 90-year-old King Abdullah died in January 2015, the royal regime’s Allegiance Council, an appointed panel of 28 princes tasked with ensuring a smooth succession, swiftly named 79-year-old Crown Prince Salman as the new king. The Council then designated his 69-year-old half-brother Muqrin as his successor, with 55-year-old Muhammad bin Nayef as the next in line after Muqrin. However, in an unprecedented move, King Salman divested Crown Price Muqrin by royal edict and replaced him with Muhammad bin Nayef. Then Salman selected his own son, 30-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, to be deputy crown prince. These speedy changes to the royal succession took place in a volatile regional environment where rebels with loose ties to Iran had just overrun the capital of neighboring Yemen, forced out its president, and pushed that already turbulent country closer to full-blown state collapse. Saudi Arabia’s Anxious Autocrats 97 Increasingly, Saudi Arabia’s reach is global, with robust trade links to the powerhouse economies of Northeast Asia; burgeoning security and defense ties to South Asia; and longstanding bonds with Muslim communities across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Although Saudi Arabia is not a revolutionary power bent on exporting its brand of authoritarian governance, its foreign policy is counterdemocratic in effect. Within the region, Saudi money and influence have been used to block the ascendance of groups that the royal family deems a threat to its security at home. The Saudi regional strategy is rooted in the monarchy’s view of the 2011 uprisings not as the Arab Spring but as the Arab Troubles—upheavals that brought sectarian strife, Iranian expansionism, newfound prominence for the Muslim Brothers, and fresh strains of jihadism such as the one that drives the Islamic State. Under King Abdullah, key targets of Saudi interference included the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the Brothers once found shelter in Saudi Arabia after Egypt cracked down on them during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s presidency (1956–70), the relationship soon soured as the Brotherhood’s ideology mixed with the Kingdom’s quietist form of Salafism , imbuing it with a political activism that was threatening to the ruling family. This commingling spawned the rise of the so-called Sahwa (Awakened ) clerics, many of whom came to dominate the theological faculties of Saudi universities. During the 1990s, these popular figures mounted an unprecedented political critique of the royal family, and more hard-line clerics inspired the growth of al-Qaeda. A desire to prevent a repeat of this scenario factored heavily into King Abdullah’s post-2011 policies toward the Brotherhood. The authoritarian partners whom Saudi Arabia supports against the Brotherhood, Iran, and jihadism range from fellow Gulf monarchs to neo-Nasserist military rulers in Egypt to Salafi religious figures who stress political quietism. The array of official and semi-official tools used in these efforts includes the sponsorship of transnational Arab media outlets and quietist Salafi charities; personal diplomatic forays by Saudi princes; and even overt military interventions. Looming largest, however, is the massive financial aid that oil-rich Saudi Arabia is able to spread around. Between early 2011 and April 2014, Saudi Arabia pledged roughly US$22.7 billion in regional aid; it ended up distributing $10.9 billion, much of which went to Egypt.2 98 Authoritarianism Goes Global Outside the Middle East—in Bangladesh, Indonesia, and parts of the former Yugoslavia, for instance—Saudi Arabia has been willing to tacitly support elections when they favor diplomatic allies.3 But closer to home, the cordon sanitaire against participatory politics is kept as impermeable as possible. Saudi...


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