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Saudi Arabia’s Iraq Dilemma

Saudi Arabia broke ranks with the Arab world’s opposition to military action against Iraq when Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal announced that the kingdom would allow the use of its military bases if the UN sanctions an attack on Iraq. The official Saudi press explains the new stance as reflecting the government’s desire to abide by Security Council resolutions. But it also underscores the Saudi regime’s growing feelings of internal fragility and external vulnerability.

Domestic pressure on the Saudi royal family, the al-Sauds, arises from widespread opposition to any war against Iraq, as well as to America’s military presence. Dissent comes not only from the street, but also from the Wahhabi religious establishment, the al-Sauds’ longstanding ally and source of their legitimacy. External pressure arises specifically from the US, Saudi Arabia’s primary strategic protector.

The al-Sauds have no easy option. They fear that cooperation with the Americans may not guarantee long-term stability, and worry that concessions on so fundamental an “Arab” cause as Iraq will further undermine their domestic legitimacy. 

How much erosion of legitimacy occurs will depend not only on whether war with Iraq takes place, but on what happens during the build-up and preparations for war: the media and propaganda struggles, and the political alliances that are forged. Should an attack on Iraq take place, the Saudi regime does not want to be marginalized as America embarks on its policy of “regime change”; it also does not want to be America’s next target. So, among a bad set of options, the least bad appears to be cooperation with the US.