Saudi Arabia is cracking down hard on internal dissent. As The Washington Post chronicles:
The case of Raif Badawi, a blogger whose criticism of Saudi Arabia’s powerful religious leaders led to a sentence of 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes in public, has focused harsh international attention in recent days on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.But Badawi’s case is simply the most recent example of what rights groups call an intensifying campaign to punish activists, bloggers and anyone else who challenges the country’s political or religious leaders. People have been jailed for tweets, and two women have been held since early December for defying the ban on women driving.
It’s not surprising that Saudi Arabia is clamping down. For one thing, the oil price plunge means government will have less money to spread around to make people happy. Growing worries about a restive Shi’a-dominated, oil-rich eastern province in an age of sectarian war, fears that the Shia at home could become a fifth column for Iran, and worries about pro-Isis and al-Qaeda radicals turning against the government are all leading Saudi authorities to bring the hammer down. [UPDATE: The news today of King Abdullah’s death adds an additional factor to the analysis. While the succession of Prince Salman came as no surprise, monarchies get nervous when the crown shifts and when, as now, the shift comes at a time of regional and financial insecurity, the instinct to clamp down becomes overwhelming.]Under threat, the government also needs to make sure its relationship with the powerful religious establishment is rock solid. So the poor blogger scheduled to get lashed is in such terrible trouble for offending the religious authorities rather than for attacking the monarchy or regular government officials. The royal family needs to keep the clerics close at a time when so many possible sources of danger, internal or external, threaten the peace of the kingdom.Americans generally look at unhappy and distasteful developments like this through a moralistic, human-rights lens. That’s fair enough as far as it goes: imprisoning people for political activity, to say nothing of brutally flogging someone who has offended religious authorities, offends basic moral principles that Americans take seriously. But to understand what is going on in the world, much less to act constructively in it, it’s important to understand why other countries do what they do.In this case, we’ve got to understand that given the political and ideological foundations of the Saudi state, crackdowns are pretty much inevitable when the regional security situation is in the rotten shape it is now. Saudi officials feel that their country has its back against the wall, with an aggressive and implacably hostile Iran challenging them everywhere they look. At the same time, the U.S. seems to be resigned to accepting an era of Iranian primacy in the Gulf. (American officials may and indeed do deny that this their intention, but we are trying to understand Saudi, not American, perceptions here). The Saudis are bringing the oil prices down more or less the way the Dutch used to open the dykes and flood their fields when an enemy approached. From the Saudi point of view, this is one of those things you only do in the face of truly grave circumstances—and they know very well that lower oil prices will cut into the financial resources they need to buy peace at home and influence abroad.Americans like the low oil prices and hate the crackdown, but from a Saudi perspective they are two sides of the same coin. Moreover, the Saudis blame the U.S. for putting them in a situation where these are the only choices they have.If Americans actually want to help Saudi dissidents—as opposed to making feel-good pronouncements about how angry and offended we are by Saudi behavior—the way to do that is to do a better job of stabilizing the region. From the Saudi point of view, there is a direct line between Barack Obama’s outreach to Iran and the lashes on the blogger’s back.Now that’s the Saudi view and not the way an American would see things. But if Americans want to change Saudi behavior, we have to understand the Saudi point of view. A regime that feels endangered is circling the wagons. This behavior is unlikely to change until the Saudis begin to feel more secure.