Belmont Club

New Allies For Old

Robert Burns of the Associated Press reports that the Pentagon is arming Saudi Arabia as a counterweight to Iran.  The key elements are a $60 billion arms deal and the development of an elite force that will protect the Kingdom’s future nuclear sites.  All this is taking place in a bizarre political environment where the Saudis and the US are at loggerheads over the “Arab Spring”. The extent of Saudi cooperation with America is also so domestically sensitive that the huge program is taking place behind an information curtain. The 35,000 man “elite force” will be trained by US personnel and overseen by Central Command.

The forging of closer U.S.-Saudi military ties is so sensitive, particularly in Saudi Arabia, that the Pentagon and the State Department declined requests for on-the-record comment and U.S. officials rejected a request for an interview with the two-star Army general, Robert G. Catalanotti, who manages the project to build a “facilities security force” to protect the Saudis’ network of oil installations and other critical infrastructure. The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to two written requests for comment.

The main threat to Saudi Arabia may be from within. Despite its vast oil wealth, revenues have not been able to keep pace with rising expectations and population growth. NPR reports that “when you look beyond the luxury SUVs, upscale malls and glittery high rises in the desert kingdom, a far different view of Saudi life emerges — one laced with poverty and unemployment, affecting millions of people. It’s a problem many Saudis are reluctant to acknowledge.” Anthony Cordesman at the CSIS writes:

Every shift at the top of the Saudi monarchy does raise questions. Human rights and the rule of law need modernization. Saudi Shi’ites face discrimination that needs to be eliminated — although things have slowly improved and few see a far more repressive regime in Iran as much of a model.

The key reasons for concern, however, are structural, and economics and demographics may ultimately prove to be far more of an issue than politics. Saudi Arabia has to deal with the same demographic pressures, and “youth bulge,” that has threatened or toppled regimes elsewhere in the Middle East. Saudi society is still dealing with all of the radical social changes caused by moving from a small, poor population of some 3.8 million uneducated Bedouins in 1950 to a largely settled, urbanized, and far better educated nation that exists today.

In spite of Saudi government efforts, direct unemployment is close to 11% — and this does not take account of lags in getting jobs, limits to the number of women seeking jobs, and disguised unemployment. Moreover, the US census bureau estimates that Saudi Arabia will grow to 34 million in 2030, in spite of a sharp decline in its past rate of population growth.

As is the case with every state in the Middle East, this means longer-term stability involves challenges that go far beyond political reform. Saudi Arabia must find better ways of giving men education for jobs, rather than in religion. It must bring women – who are a larger percentage of secondary school and university graduates than men – a full role in the labor force and society.

Essentially this means that the US is going to rely on the New Shah of Iran to hold back the successors of the Old Shah of Iran, except that the New Shah of Iran has nothing like the competence and openness of the old one. Carter failed. Maybe Obama will succeed and the second time’s a charm.