Saudi Arabia worries about stability, security and Iran

Jason Burke reports:

It was a very discreet meeting deep in the English countryside. The main speaker was Prince Turki al-Faisal, one of Saudi Arabia’s best-known and best-connected royals. The audience was composed of senior American and British military officials. The location was RAF Molesworth, one of three bases used by American forces in the UK since the second world war. Now a Nato intelligence centre focused on the Mediterranean and the Middle East, the sprawling compound amid green fields was an ideal venue for the sensitive topics that Turki, former head of Saudi Arabian intelligence, wanted to raise.

After an anecdote about how Franklin D Roosevelt was told by a naked Winston Churchill that nothing between them or their countries should be hidden, Turki warmed to his theme: “A Saudi national security doctrine for the next decade.”

For the next half an hour, the veteran diplomat, a former ambassador to Washington and tipped to be the next foreign minister in Riyadh, entertained his audience to a sweeping survey of his country’s concerns in a region seized by momentous changes. Like Churchill, Turki said, the kingdom “had nothing to hide”.

Even if they wanted to, the leaders of the desert kingdom would have difficulty concealing their concern at the stunning developments across the Arab world. Few – excepting the vast revenues pouring in from oil selling at around $100 a barrel for much of the year – have brought much relief to Riyadh.

Chief among the challenges, from the perspective of the Saudi royal rulers, are the difficulties of preserving stability in the region when local autocracies that have lasted for decades are falling one after another; of preserving security when the resultant chaos provides opportunities to all kinds of groups deemed enemies; of maintaining good relations with the west; and, perhaps most importantly of all, of ensuring that Iran, the bigger but poorer historic regional and religious rival just across the Gulf from Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, does not emerge as the winner as the upheavals of the Arab spring continue into the summer.

In the second part of his report, Burke writes:

The Bridges bookshop and cafe, on Arafat Street in an upmarket residential area of the southern Saudi port city of Jeddah, is quiet this weekend afternoon. Three young women sit on the floor working on a 13,000-piece jigsaw. Among the well-thumbed books for browsing on the artfully slanted shelves, next to works on Islamic calligraphy and architecture, are biographies of Mahatma Gandhi, Che Guevara and Nelson Mandela.

Yet Asma, Amna and Dina, all 23, are no revolutionaries. As educated, English-speaking, iPod and iPad-carrying young Arabs, they are very much in the same demographic as those who organised the mass demonstrationprotests that ended the rule of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt this year, but the three women are separated from their counterparts in Cairo by more than the Red Sea.

Images of the Arab spring streaming into Saudi Arabia on the ubiquitous satellite TV channels may have meant that “people are realising the importance of being politically aware”, Amna, a human resources management student, says. But, in the kingdom, “we don’t actually do anything”.

Such feelings explain, at least in part, why, while the rest of the Arab world is in ferment, Saudis, of whom 70% are under 30 and 35% are under 16, have remained largely quiet. Despite overseas attention focused on a few incidents of protest, scores of interviews over two weeks in deeply conservative areas, the capital, Riyadh, and relatively liberal Jeddah have revealed a country in which a growing desire for reform is a very long way from anything approaching mass dissent.

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