Why Saudi Arabia is so quiet about Iran’s protests

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Eexpression of support for Iranian protesters have poured in from all over the world – from leaders like the president Joe Bidenthe former first lady Michelle ObamaFrench President Emmanuel Macronand Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern– as the protests, well into their second month, continue defiantly and have even won intensity. But aside from some media coverage, the nations closest to Iran, its Gulf neighbors, have been conspicuously silent. Most striking of all is the lack of any official response from Saudi Arabia – which one would expect to cheer during the popular uprising against a regime Riyadh considers its archenemy.

The Saudi silence stems from lessons the kingdom absorbed during the events that turned the Persian monarchy into an Islamic republic: Wait until the outcome is clear, and then wait some more. The protests that overthrew the shah in 1979 lasted more than a year. Although today’s protests have become the biggest challenge to the Islamic Republic since then, no quick conclusion seems likely; hence the Saudi policy of waiting. At the time, the Saudis also misjudged the outcome after their ally, the Shah, was ousted, believing they could work with his successor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – only to find he was an opponent. Regardless of the outcome this time, Saudi Arabia appears confident in reserving judgment while strengthening its own position.

The House of Saud may consider that position already better secured by the recent reforms introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In important respects, the kingdom has leapfrogged into the 21st century: women can drive, the hijab is no longer enforced, and the religious police have largely disappeared. Saudi Arabian gen-zers of both sexes can mingle in public, dance at raves, go to cinemas and cheer in football stadiums. The contrast with Iran is stark. There, Gen Zers are rising up against an oppressive, ideologically driven regime that continues to enforce an outdated Islamic way of life, robbing them of fun and pleasure while failing to provide them with jobs and opportunities.

So if the Saudis under scrutiny say little, that silence may be underpinned by quiet satisfaction. Right now, their track record in dealing with such social pressures looks much better.

The events of Today represent an astonishing reversal of the situation in the 1960s when the Shah reportedly sent King Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud a series of letters urging him to modernize and “make schools co-ed. Let women wear miniskirts. Have discos. Be modern. Otherwise I can’t guarantee you’ll stay on your throne.” The king wrote back and told the shah he was wrong: “You are not the shah of France. You are not in the Élysée. You are in Iran. Your population is 90 percent Muslim.”

Such a frank and cordial exchange between the two countries’ rulers is hard to credit now, but before 1979 Saudi Arabia and Iran were regional partners—twin pillars of America’s Cold War Middle East efforts to contain the Soviet Union. The two monarchies – one Sunni, the other Shiite – were even allied in an intelligence partnership known as Safari Clubwho ran covert operations and instigated coups around Africa to roll back Soviet influence.

Given this relationship, the Saudis initially viewed the protests that engulfed Iran after 1977 as an internal matter and refrained from commenting. But as the movement to oust the shah grew, both Riyadh and Washington worried that a pro-Soviet regime dominated by leftists and nationalists would take over.

In early 1979, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud openly expressed support for the Shah as Iran’s legitimate ruler. But by mid-January the shah was gone, and within two weeks Khomeini flew back to Tehran in triumph. The secular revolutionaries believed they could take advantage of the Ayatollah’s religious support and control him. They were wrong. Khomeini effectively hijacked the revolution and turned Iran into an Islamic republic.

Saudi Arabia moved quickly to accept the result, relieved to see a man who spoke the language of religion rise to the top instead of leftist revolutionaries. Saudi Arabia congratulated Iran’s new prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, and praised the Iranian revolution for its solidarity with “the Arab struggle against the Zionist enemy.” In April, Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the kingdom’s future ruler, spoke of his relief that the new Iran “makes Islam, not heavy weaponry, the organizer of cooperation” between their two countries.

Before long, however, the Saudis faced a rebellion from their own zealots. In November 1979, religious extremists laid down siege to the Holy Mosque in Mecca for two weeks. The deeply conservative kingdom had just begun to relax some of its strictures with the recent introduction of television and cinemas. These controversial advances now came to an abrupt end. Fearing that it might meet the same fate as the Shah, the House of Saud staked its future on Sunni Puritanism, further strengthening the clerical establishment and pouring money into the religious police.

And little did the Saudis know what Khomeini had in store. Soon the Ayatollah was exporting the Islamic revolution around the region, using religion as a weapon and challenging the House of Saud’s position as leader of the Muslim world. If the Saudis had read Khomeini’s early writings, they would have had an inkling of his disdain for them. To counter Iran’s efforts to expand its influence, the Saudis promoted the kingdom’s brand of ultra-orthodox Sunni Islam from Egypt to Pakistan.

As the Iranian revolution transformed the region, the shock of suddenly facing an implacable enemy instilled in the Saudis a visceral fear of popular uprisings—either in their own kingdom or in any neighboring country. This fear was still uppermost in their minds in 2011, when they saw millions of protesters thronging the streets to topple another American-backed leader, this time in the Arab world—Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak—during the Arab uprisings.

Ttoday, Saudi Arabia and its neighbors would welcome a change in leadership in Iran, but uncertainty about the outcome drives Saudi Arabia’s caution. The protests are unlikely to lead to a wholesale overthrow of the ayatollahs in the short to medium term. So will the regime try to quell internal pressure by giving in to some of the demands, reining in the religious police, focusing more on Iran’s domestic politics and economy and less on regional hegemony? Or will the current leadership crack down on the protesters, prompting the regime to step up internal repression and support for proxy militias in the region?

In light of the pressure at home, the Islamic Republic may well unleash some of its allies to launch diversionary attacks against regional adversaries. Already in September, Iran the attack Kurdish areas in northern Iraq with ballistic missiles. In October, Saudi Arabia shared intelligence with the United States warned of an imminent attack on the kingdom – Riyadh is concerned that its currently fraught relationship with the US could make it more vulnerable to an attack. (The October report did not include specific details, but the US raised the alert level for its forces in the region.)

The official Saudi silence on the protests belies a somewhat more active stance: the royal court is believed to be funding Iran International, a London-based Persian TV channel set up in 2017 as an opposition station and now beaming images of the protests back into Iran. Although satellite dishes are illegal, an estimated 70 per cent Iranian households own one, and Iran International has become an important source of information in the country and for the diaspora.

The Islamic Republic has repeatedly called on Saudi Arabia to shut down the station. “This is our last warning because you are interfering in our internal affairs through this media,” the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hossein Salami, said last month. “You are involved in this matter and know that you are vulnerable.” The warning was repeated of the Supreme Leader’s military adviser, Major General Yahya Safavi, and Iranian authorities arrested a woman accused of links to the station.

The channel also reports on news from the region and from inside Saudi Arabia, where the lives of young Saudis have been so transformed in recent years. In early March 2020, the Kingdom organized a “Persian Night” music in the famous desert town of Al Ula, which invites such great Iranian figures as the singer Andy to perform, even though they have been banned from performing in their own country. The event was broadcast on Iran International television and was symbolic of the House of Saud’s ability to read the times and social trends – in contrast to the limitations of Iran’s rulers, both the Shah and the Ayatollahs. The Saudis like to draw such comparisons to show how Iran is lagging behind.

But inside the kingdom, the new social and cultural reforms and the rapid pace of their implementation are not to everyone’s taste in the conservative monarchy – therefore the new freedoms also have strict limits. Under bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has become more authoritarian. Aside from the high-profile killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the kingdom has cracked down on anyone remotely critical of the changes. These include such minimal apparent threats as a young Saudi mother of two studying in Leeds who was jailed while visiting home for retweeting Saudi dissidents and spreading “false” Informationand a US-Saudi dual citizen who was convicted to 16 years in prison after posting critical tweets.

Looking at events in Iran, the Saudi crown prince can congratulate himself for allaying the social discontent that had been building in the kingdom for years. But he will likely continue to do so quietly—despite Iran International’s coverage—because the ultimate lesson of 1979 is that geopolitical fallout from the coming changes in Iran will ripple across the region. And any interregnum will be messy.

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