Lieutenant General (Retired) Sir Simon Mayall, KBE, CB is a recognised authority on Gulf affairs, with a distinguished career in the British military that culminated in his appointments as Defence Senior Adviser (Middle East) from 2011-2014 and as the Prime Minister’s Security Envoy to Iraq from 2014-2015. General Mayall believes Barack Obama will have received a polite but stiff reception in Riyadh from the Saudi and GCC leadership. It is no secret that Obama does not warm to Gulf monarchies, and US policies in the Middle East have undermined America’s reputation in the Gulf as a reliable ally.
Saudi Arabia watched as the United States dropped Mubarak, stood aside from Syria, failed to plan for Libya’s future after eliminating Gaddafi, and then pursued rapprochement with Iran, all with no reassuring noises to their old Sunni friends and allies in the Gulf. He says, many Western players in this arena have failed to comprehend the complexity of the leadership challenges in the region, where it is not just a competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, but between Persians, Turks and Arabs, and between Sunnis, Shias, and a range of minorities.
General Mayall explains there is a feeling in the Gulf that Turkey, despite being broadly Sunni, and in spite of President Erdogan’s ambitions to do so, cannot provide leadership to the Arab world. Turks are ethnically different from Arabs, and sour memories of the Ottoman Empire are still palpable. Egypt, in its current turmoil and economic weakness, is also in a poor position to provide leadership to the Sunni Arabs. That role, therefore, falls to Saudi Arabia which already feels beleaguered. Saudi Arabia can be a complex ally, but the West needs to keep faith with them. Hope lies with the many well-educated and sophisticated Al-Saud individuals, who recognise that the Kingdom’s long-term stability depends on their capacity to manage reform in all areas, not least on the sensitive issue of gender equality. However, it is foolish to underestimate the constraints imposed on the House of Saud by their centuries-old “alliance” with the Wahhabis. Traditionally, power in the Muslim word is underpinned by the support of the religious authorities, the ulema, who bestow “legitimacy” on the Muslim leaders. The House of Saud depends on the ulema, proclaiming at Friday prayers, that it is the duty of citizens to support the Al Sauds. If Saudi Arabia were to move too far away from the Wahhabi belief in what constitutes the “right way of living”, the ulema might begin to sow their doubts among a very socially conservative population. Given the experience of the fall-out from the “Arab Spring”, many observers are, at last, beginning to recognise the value of stability in the region, and that nothing good will come from actions that might de-stabilise the Kingdom. General Mayall suggests there is no early end in sight to any process that might lead to the eventual “separation of church and state”, as took place in Western societies. This will be a generational struggle and probably accompanied by much violence.
He explains that while many people grasp the confrontation between Sunni and Shia, they often do not identify the splits in the Sunni world between modernists, social and religious conservatives, and those violent takfiri ideologues associated with Al Qaeda, Daesh and Boko Haram, who look on any compromise with Western values as heresy. He is critical of the West’s short-sightedness in playing a part in the creation of these latter organisations, when they encouraged the Saudis to support the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Russians. Young jihadis returned to their own countries, or communities in the West, as continues to happen, inspired and infected by this violent and extremist ideology.
Now Saudi Arabia feels under a quadruple threat. Firstly from a critical West that objects to elements of its conservative social foundations. Secondly from the takfiris who regard them as compromised by their close association with the West. Thirdly from Iranian and Shia ambition. The fourth threat is from the prospect of declining oil dependency by the world, allied to the burgeoning youth population, a common feature across the whole Middle East. All parties see Saudi Arabia as “running with the fox and chasing with the hounds”, but General Mayall hopes that, having learnt the lessons from Iraq and Libya, the West does not want further instability, this time in the Gulf, a region vital to the smooth running of the global economy. It is in this context that they are worried about America’s lack of support, sympathy or understanding, let alone the perceived tilt towards Iran. It is also why Saudi Arabia has a grudging respect for President Putin who, despite the fact that he is supporting the Assad Alawite regime in Syria, and by extension Iran, looks to be a more reliable ally to have on your side, with a better understanding of his own national interest, and a greater respect for stability.
Stability in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, is vital for the Middle East in its current turmoil, and for the wider world, given the economic challenges and now the refugee crisis. The Al Sauds know they are under scrutiny, but General Mayall suggests that the West would do well to show greater understanding of the context of their situation, rather than harbouring unrealistic ideas about the short-term benefits of democracy, liberalism or secularism. The better approach is to offer reassurance and support, not routine public criticism. The Gulf states know the challenges and the threats they face. Where, to feel secure in the reliability of Western support, there is a far better chance that they will take those political,
economic and social steps that they know they need to take for long-term stability and, at the same time, Iran may be persuaded to rein in its own regional ambitions and act as a responsible regional power.