Saudi Arabia Trends Hard Line

saudi arabia
A prince of repression moves into pole position. Muhammad Hamed/Reuters

The late Saudi King Abdullah often sought to project a reformist image, but, just as with Iran across the Persian Gulf, the rhetoric of reformism was for external consumption only. The reforms he once discussed—letting women drive, for example—never materialized.

While many in the United States and Europe condemn the Bahraini government for its repression of its Shiite population, the West remains largely silent on parallel Saudi action in the Eastern Province. The only difference between the two, of course, was that Bahraini forces use tear gas and rubber bullets, whereas their Saudi counterparts prefer live ammunition.

While Abdullah's 79-year-old and ailing younger brother Salman became king upon his death, he will probably not hold that position long. Like many in the inbred royal family, he has congenital spinal problems, he has suffered at least one stroke, and some analysts suggest he suffers from dementia.

Rumors always surround the Saudi royal family, and some of those amplifying them have never met the people whom they discuss, let alone set foot in Saudi Arabia. Still, given his age, Salman's tenure will probably last months, or perhaps a year or two, but even the best medical treatment might not be able to keep him alive much longer.

His brother and crown prince, Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, is a relatively spry 69-year-old. He used to head the Saudi intelligence service and was the family disciplinarian. If he was willing to put princes behind bars, it is not hard to imagine his attitude toward dissidents, Sufis and Shiites.

Indeed, while some analysts suggest he is a relative liberal—and that term must be taken with a grain of salt within the context of the royal family—he was a strong proponent for an even stronger crackdown on the restive, oil-rich Eastern Province.

The real problem, however, lies with the appointment of Muhammad bin Nayef as deputy crown prince. Bin Nayef, now only 55, will represent a generational shift in the Saudi leadership which traditionally passes between brothers rather than from father to son.

He is a hard-liner and steeped in sectarian warfare. He has, for example, handled the Saudi aspect of operations in both Yemen and Syria. While Washington Post columnist David Ignatius has written that Bin Nayef's role in Syria was a reflection of the Kingdom's concern over the growing radicalization of the Syrian opposition, Saudis from the Eastern Province suggest that Bin Nayef has been the driving force for Saudi Arabia's most hard-line, repressive policies.

And he also took a hard line against allowing Saudi women to drive, an issue which is not only a priority for feminists, but also is a matter of economic concern for the Saudi middle and lower class for whom driving wives and daughters either distracts from work or represents a large expense to hire a driver.

There is often hope in the West that autocratic regimes moderate with time. Alas, Bin Nayef's record and appointment as second in line suggests the intention by the Saudi royal family to tack more conservative in coming years.

It seems rather than blunt sectarianism and repression with reforms, the House of Saud has just decided to double down on repression. That will neither bring economic stability and health to Saudi Arabia nor will it lend itself to moderation and stability throughout the region.

Michael Rubin is resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute website.