My comments, made in an email to the two Times reporters/commentators, follow:
Dear Paul and Neela,
Thanks much for your well-written lead news analysis, "U.S., Saudis in Mideast tug of war," in today's (June 19, 2011) Los Angeles Times. The increasing tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia are a significant development that deserves considerable attention. I have some observations to make on what you wrote about.
I was struck by your reference to the "autocratic traditions that have kept the House of Saud secure for centuries." I think you grossly overstate the case and I believe most readers have no idea of the history of the "House of Saud." Yes, the House of Saud dates back centuries but I think your statement suggests that this tribe has had continuous and secure control over the territories it controls today for centuries and this is decidedly not the case.
Interestingly enough, part of the frost between Saudi Arabia and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan derives from the historical fact that King Abdullah II of Jordan's great great grandfather, Sherif Hussein of Mecca, expected to rule over much of today's Saudi Arabia following World War I, based on his having sided with the British against the Ottomons, but ultimately lost control to the Saudis driven by their Islamic Wahabi fundamentalism. Hussein was able to set up two of his sons as rulers in Iraq and TransJordan, both under British control as mandates following WWI. While Saudis and the Hashemites (a term referring to claims to having descended directly from the Prophet Mohammed) are Sunnis, there are certainly significant differences between their religious practices.
The United States must be mindful of the positions it takes toward the so-called Arab Spring and its manifestations in various Arab states and recognize that both supporting the status quo and supporting the new uprisings are fraught with uncertainty and risk. Pushing the Saudis toward greater openness in their society will certainly not win Obama any appreciation from the House of Saud and he has tried to avoid doing so at least in public. But even that kingdom is likely to experience growing internal stress, especially if the ruling family gives no ground. Note even the mild protest the other day by women for the right to drive automobiles. These pressures will grow and eventually explode if not addressed sooner. Hence, for the Saudis to seek to persuade Abdullah II of Jordan to stay the course might be what the Saudis see as in their interest but I don't think staying the course is in the interests of either Abdullah or the United States.
Recent developments in Morocco, another kingdom ruled, I believe, by a Hashemite, King Mohammed VI, not only show the continued growth of internal tensions there but also, hopefully, a wiser monarch who recognizes that giving some ground is the best way to retain legitimacy in this modern age. To be sure, Morocco is far more developed and urbanized than Saudi Arabia or Jordan and has had an active leftist opposition since before its formal independence from France in the 1950's, in part affected by the civil war next door in Algeria. Still, the United States should be careful about accommodating the Saudis too much as their model of governing will simply not last, particularly in other monarchies in the region. But the West's need for oil is real.
Both the Saudis and Jordan were clearly concerned with America's role in bringing the Shi'ites to power in Iraq. But, interestingly, we're seeing again today some of the consequences of our having accepted if not supported authoritarian regimes led by minority groups in Arab countries for decades. Hussein in Iraq was one example. While the Sunnis constitute a considerable minority there, they were a minority, dominating and repressing the Shia and the Kurds. In Syria, the dominant minority is even a smaller segment of a diverse society, and we are now witnessing what in part appears to be a struggle by Sunnis and others to replace Alawite repression.
To be sure, there are no easy answers. There are no guarantees that the "Arab Spring" will result in the emergence of democratic regimes. It isn't even clear where Iraq is headed in that regard. I lived in Tunisia in the 1960's doing graduate work and I sincerely hope that Tunisia will emerge as a more open, pluralist society with democratic structures than has been the case. I think it has the best chance. The jury is out on Egypt and, as I said, Iraq. And more "democratic" regimes in those latter countries may actually lead to more friction, not only with Israel but within the region as a whole, than has been the case in recent decades.
Thanks again for your analysis. Keep them coming!