Saudi Arabia as a Potential Rogue State

Jennifer Bucholz

June 1997



Saudi Arabia, ancient times until the recent past. The image one conjures is of rolling sand dunes, accompanied by the sound of ancient Arabic melodies floating in the background. Peaceful encampments of bedouin dot the sprawling desert. Millions of faithful Muslims answer the call from the minaret and turn five times a day, in unison, to the west to issue their prayers, kneeling upon artfully woven mats. Clusters of oil derricks slowly pump forth black gold from the desert’s brown sands. In short, it’s a land of Arab tradition, the heart of Islam, and, more recently, the beneficiary of vast wealth.

Saudi Arabia, 1 January 2000. A coup occurs in the desert kingdom, transforming the Saudi state from an ally of the West to an anti-U.S. state aligned with Iraq, and the kingdom soon is considered a full-fledged rogue state. This rapid change seems entirely "out of the blue." But is it? What internal and/or governmental factors would precipitate this occurrence? What theoretical conditions would explain this turn of events?

Before delving into these questions, it is necessary to understand exactly what constitutes a rogue state. According to Michael Klare in his definitive book Rogue States and Nuclear Outlaws (1), there are four main criteria for a state to be considered a rogue. Such a state is typically a rising third world power, possesses a large military establishment and a substantial stockpile of modern weaponry, desires or possesses weapons of mass destruction, and has regional hegemonic inclinations or other ambitions threatening U.S. interests.

In examining the Saudi state’s potential for becoming a rogue state and the likelihood of such a coup occurring, this paper will cover the following topics: 1) Islam versus the West in Saudi Arabia, 2) Saudi Arabia as a second Iran, 3) recent incidents of terrorism in Saudi Arabia, 4) Saudi oil wealth and military development, 5) governmental factors in the downfall of the Saudi regime, 6) the influence of the U.S., and will conclude by discussing the specific occurrences necessary for such a transformation to take place.

Islam Versus the West in Saudi Arabia

Since the Saudis’ grand entrance onto the world stage as a wealthy oil exporting nation in the 1950s, a status amplified in the 1970s with the drastic rise in oil prices, the House of Saud has desperately tried to align their desert kingdom with the West. However, many Saudis are resistant to what they perceive as Westernization, largely on the grounds of conservative Islam.

Indeed, the government itself waffles on the issue of Islam versus Westernization. The Saudis are proud of their long history of close relations with Western powers. The Saudi monarchy was recognized by France as early as 1927, and the Saudi history with the U.S. began in the early 1930s with the admission of oil-drilling Americans into the kingdom and was consummated with the 1945 visit between King Abdul Aziz and President Roosevelt. In 1995 Prince Sultan expressed this pride in addressing an American audience: "The relation [between Saudi Arabia and America] began fifty years ago when King Abdul Aziz met with President Roosevelt. That was a meeting of friends who earnestly sought to serve their people and to preserve human rights. And this friendship has continued during the years of subsequent Saudi kings and U.S. presidents." (2). Also, the Saudis have pursued Western-style development through their series of five-year development plans, have relied upon their Western friends for military help during the Gulf War of 1991, and have even requested the assistance of American economic advisors in reviving the post-Gulf War Saudi economy (3). But at the same time, the Saudi government has used its funds to bankroll several fundamentalist Islamic movements, some of which were clear enemies of Westernization in the Islamic Middle East. Since the 1950s they have supported the Muslim Brotherhood, even during the organization’s attempts to assassinate Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, a champion of Egyptian modernization. Since then, they have continued to sponsor several Brotherhood spin-off groups, such as the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, which fought against the French (4).

In the last two decades there have been several blatant signs that Saudi subjects are not satisfied with their government’s compromise position on the issue of Islam versus the West. On 20 November 1979 three hundred armed religious extremists occupied the great mosque in Mecca (5). During the occupation, the extremists made their message clear by berating the Saudi royal family and the country’s rush to modernization (6). This siege occurred just months after the Islamic revolution in Iran, in which radical Islamicist Khomeni overthrew the Shah, a Western-oriented reformer. (The parallels between the Iranian revolution and the current Saudi situation will be discussed in greater detail later.) The occupation of the mosque was a message from the people to the government warning the regime of what awaited if it did not remain sufficiently conservative.

In the early 1990s the issue resurfaced with the Gulf War, a heated subject of contention among Saudis. For one, the humiliating defeat of regional Muslim nation Iraq by foreign secular Western nation the U.S. precipitated the spread of vengeful Muslim fundamentalism and anti-U.S. and anti-regime sentiment within Saudi Arabia (7). Many Saudi subjects vehemently opposed Saudi collaboration with the U.S. against a brother Muslim nation, and hold the regime to blame for the subversion of Islamic values to the U.S.’ "corrupting Western influences" because it was the regime who invited the Western "infidels" into the region (8). According to Sudanese fundamentalist leader Hassan Abdullah al-Turabi, "the Gulf War has shattered the dynasty’s legacy" amongst the Saudi people (9).

During the Gulf War leaflets and letters circulated amongst the Saudi population berating the corrupt and un-Islamic behavior of the royal family, and audio cassettes with vehemently anti-U.S. and anti-Saud messages could be purchased in street markets alongside everyday wares (10). The popularity of these dangerous cassettes reached such levels that the Saudi government offered a $500,000 reward for anyone who could assist in finding the authors of these propaganda works (11).

Only a few months after the end of the Gulf War, in May 1991, a protest at Buraida, Saudi Arabia, clearly demonstrated the public’s variance with the state on the issue of the Gulf War. In the aftermath of the war, provincial governor Prince Abdul Ilah ibn Abdul Aziz banned two militant preachers in the city of Buraida from delivering Friday sermons. Thousands of civilians immediately took to the streets in protest, led by the local ulema (esteemed religious leaders) and religious police. This incident revealed a vast difference between what the government and the people see as acceptable, and it also reveals a severe underestimation on the part of the government as to the populace’s salience regarding militant fundamentalism. The response of the head of the kingdom’s Supreme Religious Council, Sheik Abdul Aziz ibn Baz, to this spectacle was even more disturbing: he supported the preachers and protestors rather than the governor. Not only does a rift exist between the government and many of its people, but also within the very government itself (12).

Obviously the views within the Saudi kingdom regarding the implementation of Islam, the ideology that lies at the very heart of the kingdom’s existence, differ greatly. The unmistakable conflict between the government and significant portions of the populace on this issue could provide an impetus for a coup from outside the government against the pro-Western regime. Additionally, the lack of cohesion within the government itself on issues regarding the implementation of Islam could similarly fuel a coup against the ruling monarchy from within the government. A coup in the name of Islam and anti-Westernism would obviously carry very real implications for future Saudi relations with the West, and would likely result in a reactionist anti-U.S. regime. According to historical precedent, such a regime would have to align itself with similarly anti-U.S. regimes, such as that of Iraq, in order to survive in the currently Western-dominated international system. An example of this phenomenon from the past is Pakistan’s alignment with Saudi Arabia in the early- to mid-1970s. In the early 1970s Pakistan was significantly weakened after the loss of East Pakistan and severe cuts in aid from the U.S.. Pakistan was in desperate need of foreign support and economic assistance, and turned to Middle Eastern Islamic nations for allies, which it found in the Saudis. By 1976 Pakistan and Saudi Arabia had developed a heavy trade relationship (13). In the Pakistan example, Pakistan was in need of local alliances as a result of discontinued support from the U.S., and pursued particular alliances on the grounds of ideology (Islam). In the proposed situation of a Saudi coup, the Saudis too would be disinherited of U.S. support - this time because the rogue regime would brandish anti-U.S. ideals - and would also develop local alliances on ideological grounds: rogue doctrine and politically conservative Islam.

Historically, Saudi Arabia is not unique in its situation. A comparable example is pre-1979 Iran. The relevance of this historical precedent to the Saudi scenario will be examined in the next section.

Saudi Arabia as a Second Iran

In 1979 Iran was shaken by a radical Islamic revolution led by Khomeni against the Shah, the longtime leader of Iran and friend of the U.S.. Under the Shah’s regime, Iran underwent extensive and rapid modernization and Westernization, and Khomeni’s revolution was, in large part, a direct response to these trends. Under Khomeni, conservative Islam, not the West or the modern economy, became the primary force in Iran, and the U.S. came to be known as the Great Satan.

Observing the situation in Saudi Arabia - the growing dissent against the regime’s wealth, malleability by Western powers, and subjugation of Islam to defensive and economic concerns - many political scientists have dubbed the Saudi kingdom a "second Iran," and predicted that the ruling House of Saud would follow a similar fate as the Shah. Indeed, there are many similarities between pre-1979 Iran and current day Saudi Arabia. Each country traditionally espoused a tremendous identification with Islam. Saudi Arabia is the "protector of Islam," as home to Islam’s two most holy sites, Mecca and Medina. Also, the Saudi constitution consists solely of the shar’ia: the Qur’an, the Traditions of the Prophet Mohammed, and commentary. The Saudi flag proclaims the primary tenet of Islam, "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet," in Arabic - the language of Islam - and on a background of green - the color of Islam. According to tradition, Islam is the raison d’etre for the Saudi kingdom. Iran, on the other hand, is also a stronghold of Islam, espousing the minority Shiite version of the faith, as opposed to Saudi Arabia, which is Sunni. As the primary Shiite state among a host of Middle Eastern Sunni states, Iran too has been branded with a role of upholder of Islam.

Despite the strong identification each of these states has with Islam, they also possess strongly pro-Western governments. Under such regimes, many Muslims feel that Islam is subjugated to other interests. This causes substantial dissent among the populace toward the regime, which is a primary cause of the revolutionary coup.

Now that these similarities have been established, is it a safe assumption that Saudi Arabia will necessarily follow the precedent of Iran? Not necessarily. Before making such an assumption, differences between the two situations must be considered.

For example, a significant aspect of the Iranian revolution was that it was a popular revolution. It had the support of millions of dissatisfied people all over the country. Quite simply, Saudi Arabia’s relative lack of population poses an obstacle for a "popular revolution." Even if the majority of the civilian Saudi population supported a coup a la Iran, there remain the questions whether a revolutionary coup could gain the momentum necessary for success from such a small population and whether this revolutionary faction could accrue enough men and power to defeat the large Saud family, which contains over 6,000 princes alone (14).

Also, there is the effect of the representativeness heuristic in the minds of the Western watchdogs, an example of psychology and deterrence in action (15). Because the Iranian revolution is such a vivid historical example in the minds of academics and political leaders studying the contemporary Middle East, these people are more aware of the possibility of a similar revolution in Saudi Arabia. Hence they will tend to err on the side of caution and do whatever they can to prohibit such a catastrophe from repeating itself.

One of the most obvious situational differences is economic. Saudi Arabia is vastly wealthy due to oil revenues. Though much of this wealth remains in the royal family, a substantial amount trickles down to the general population. In any case, because of the development of its oil resources, Saudi Arabia possesses a great deal more usable wealth than non-oil-possessing or undeveloped countries such as pre-1979 Iran. Pre-1979 Iran was a country of widespread poverty. In addition to Islamic fundamentalism, this poverty was a leading force in the revolution of 1979. Hence the Iranian revolution was not only a matter of ideals, but also a matter of changing the socio-economic status quo, a factor which on the surface does not seem to play into the current Saudi situation.

But allow me for a moment to linger on the question of the Saudi economy. Above, the argument was made that the Saudis are so much wealthier than the Iranians at the time of their revolution, and that this difference makes the Saudi regime less likely to be the target of a similar revolution. While the fact of Saudi wealth is true, the complex economic question cannot be dismissed in such a cursory fashion. In fact, the Saudis are currently working their way into debt. While oil revenues are tremendous, so are government expenditures on expenses from military expenditures to construction of royal hospitals and universities (16) to failed irrigation attempts to involved development plans. On top of these expenditures is heaped the cost of the Gulf War, which put the Saudis $55 billion in debt. Just as this debt hit after the Gulf War, oil prices sagged, the population ballooned, and unemployment rates topped 25% (17). While this still does not reduce the Saudis to the poverty level of pre-1979 Iran, perception of poverty is relative. This is an example of psychology and deterence theories (18), this time applied to the average Saudi subject. A member of the private sector who is used to living at a certain level of wealth, as the Saudis before the Gulf War or in the heyday of high oil prices, may feel greatly deprived when no longer benefiting from such a favorable economic situation, as the Saudis in the post-Gulf War economic slump. This is a result of the difference in reference points between the pre-1979 Iranians and current day Saudis (19). Because the reference point of the oil-rich Saudis is so high, any significant drop in prosperity from that reference point would be considered deprivation and poverty. This could also be considered an example of unmotivated bias on the part of the Saudi subjects regarding their economic status (20). In an unmotivated bias an actor’s perception is shaped by what he expects. For the Saudis of the last forty years, wealth is an expectation. It is part of their belief about themselves. Because they expect a modest degree of wealth, they perceive anything less as deprivation and react virulently, as a result of their unmotivated bias. Thus, while objectively the poverty levels in the Iranian and Saudi examples may not be equivalent, a suffering Saudi economy and perceived relative poverty could bring about the same socio-economic effects in a potentially revolutionary situation, as the Saudis are in now.

Related to this discussion of Saudi subjects’ satisfaction with the economy is the limited nature of their supply of oil. While Saudi Arabia does possess a large portion of the world’s oil reserves, one day even that will run out. Unless drastic and successful diversification of the Saudi economy occurs before this time, the Saudi economic situation will suffer enormously upon losing one-third of its income (21), especially if government spending remains as high as it currently is. At this point, though it may be decades from now, the Saudis will be in much the same situation as Iran before its revolution and will be very susceptible to such a coup.

What does all this mean with regards to the application of the historical precedent of the Iranian revolution? As evidenced by the clear similarity of the Islam versus pro-Western government ideological conflict and the partial similarity of the economic situations, there are many parallels to be drawn from the Iranian revolution regarding the Saudi status quo.

But as the two clear situational differences (the population issue and the applicability of the representativeness heuristic) indicate, the situations are not similar enough to allow an unqualified conclusion that what happened in Iran will necessarily happen in Saudi Arabia.

In short, for the purpose of making a definite prediction regarding a revolutionary Saudi coup, the example of Iran alone is pragmatically insufficient, because of the differences in the two situations. However, I maintain that it is still highly relevant to this study because of the similarities that do exist. The Iranian example does provide a unique example of revolution against Western influence under the pretense of Islam. Secondarily, it provides one example among many of how economic dissatisfaction can contribute to a revolution, which may become even more relevant to the Saudi situation upon the future collapse of the oil industry.

Recent Incidents of Terrorism in Saudi Arabia

The issue of dissent in the desert kingdom has been newly revived by two major terrorist attacks on Americans in Saudi Arabia in the last two years. Saudi terrorists have claimed responsibility for both. The first was a car bombing at a building used by U.S. personnel to train the Saudi National Guard on 13 November, 1995 (22). Fatalities of the bombing included five Americans, two Indians, and no Saudis. At the time of the attack, several dissident groups claimed responsibility. Later, Abdulaziz Fahd Nasser, one of four arrested for the bombing, said that they opposed Saudi Arabia’s close ties with "non-Muslim countries" and were angered by the regime’s failure to strictly observe Islamic tenets (23). In the following months, the U.S. State Department received further threats, as announced in this January statement: "The U.S. Embassy has received new and disturbing reports that additional attacks may be planned against institutions identified with the United States and its interests in Saudi Arabia." The threats deterred Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s planned visit to Riyadh to meet with Crown Prince Abdullah, who is leading the country during King Fahd’s illness. When the two did meet, Abdullah assured Christopher that the two countries would not abandon their close ties despite suspicion among conservative groups about the U.S.-Saudi relations (24).

Then in late June 1996, as a fulfillment of the threat of promised additional attacks, a bomb went off in front of a U.S. building in Dhahran, which housed U.S. military personnel. Several U.S. citizens died in the attack (25).

But the bombings of November 1995 and June 1996 were not isolated incidents. The following message issued 25 February, 1997, by the American Embassy and Consulates in Saudi Arabia provides very real evidence of the continuing plague of terrorism by Saudis against Americans within Saudi borders: "The embassy notes with deep concern a recent interview aired on London television on 20 February with well-known terrorist Usama Bin Ladin in which he not only threatened again the U.S. military in Saudi Arabia but also called for the expulsion of American civilians. At the same time the Embassy continues to receive reports indicating possible surveillance or probes of U.S. military and government facilities suggesting that planning for terrorist action against U.S. interests in Saudi Arabia continues unabated."

As voiced by the terrorist Nasser, the reason behind such bombings is primarily opposition to the Saudi regime’s connections to the U.S., which explains the select targets of the bombings: U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia. The bombings are significant to this study for two reasons. First, they are further evidence of growing Saudi dissatisfaction with the persistently pro-U.S. choices of the regime. Secondly, they are evidence of the growing prevalence of terrorism as a political means in Saudi Arabia. Sponsoring of terrorist acts is a basic characteristic of rogue states; indeed, the first list of such rogue states was the U.S. State Department’s list of states sponsoring international terrorism. Although the current government does not sponsor such acts, the track record of the dissident groups leads one to the conclusion that they would have no reservations utilizing terrorism on an international scale if they were to come to power.

Saudi Oil Wealth and Military Development

Many of the characteristics necessary for a state to be considered a rogue focus on military capability. Over the last several decades the Saudis have accrued a vast pool of wealth through booming oil exports. A significant percentage of this wealth has been used by the regime to invest in the state’s military capabilities and to acquire modern weaponry. If a revolutionary coup were to occur, the vast capabilities acquired by the Saudis under the monarchy would allow Saudi Arabia to become a rogue state.

Most Western countries, the U.S. being a prime example, import more than they export, creating a trade deficit. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, exports more than twice as much as it imports, giving it a huge profit, which goes primarily into the government’s coffers. In 1990, the Saudis imported $21.5 billion of goods, and exported $44.3 billion (26), over one-third of which was oil (27). These profits give the kingdom a tremendous leeway to invest in whatever they choose: economic diversification, education, public services, the royal family’s plush lifestyle, military goods... the list goes on and on. The monarchy has invested money in each of these fields and more; however, it seems as though a large portion of these funds has gone to weaponry.

In 1994 Saudi Arabia was the world’s ninth highest spender on military expenditures, with $17.2 billion, which translates to 14.2% of the Saudi Gross National Product (GNP) being poured into the military. To give this fact some perspective, the only other Middle Eastern country in the world’s top twenty in this category was Israel, at a distant number nineteen. Thus the argument that such high Saudi expenditures are solely to keep up with regional competition is dismissed. To show how abnormally high this ratio of military expenditures to GNP is, let us compare with the U.S.. In the same year (1994) U.S. military expenditures were 4.2% of the U.S. GNP. This figure is comparable to the percentage for most states. In addition, these U.S. expenditures are for a country that is often touted as the world’s policeman, engaging in military and peacekeeping operations around the world, and the U.S. defense must protect a much larger population and land mass than that of Saudi Arabia. But still the percentage of GNP spent by the Saudis on defense is more than three times as large. Obviously, the Saudi government’s defense expenditures are abnormally high.

Furthermore, the Saudis do not seem to be spending their investments on manpower. In 1994 the Saudis actually reduced the size of their armed forces by 8,000, or approximately 13% (28). They were one of only three Middle Eastern countries to reduce the number of persons in their military that year. Additionally, the sheer number of people in the Saudi armed forces personnel and the ratio of total armed forces personnel to population are both small - not even in the top twenty of countries worldwide for those figures. Hence, the decreases in armed forces personnel in the year 1994 are not coincidental, but rather are indicative of a consistently low number of persons in the armed forces, and hence a relatively small amount of defense expenditures spent on personnel.

However, this does not indicate that the Saudi military is weak in any way. On the contrary, if defense funds are not being spent on maintaining an inordinately large standing army, they must be spent on something else: weaponry. Indeed, in the years 1992-1994, the Saudis were by far the largest arms importer in the Middle East, importing a full 60% of the imported arms for the entire region, and spending over $20 billion on arms imports over those three years. In fact, the next-largest importer, Egypt, imported only one-fifth the amount of arms the Saudis imported, and supposed regional military powerhouses such as Israel and Iran fell far behind. As tremendous as these Saudi arms-importing expenditures may be, they are actually part of a gradual decline in arms importation for the Saudis since the mid-1980s peak of approximately $10 billion per year. Though some might think this is an indicator that arms are no longer a great concern of the Saudis, I disagree, because though they may be declining slightly, Saudi arms expenditures remain inordinately high. Instead, I interpret this trend of slightly declining arms import expenditures, combined with the history of very high expenditures, to be an indicator that the Saudis have been stockpiling imported arms, and may even be reaching a saturation point (29).

Information on the particular types of weapons acquired by the Saudis in recent years is difficult to come by; understandably, it is a matter of Saudi national security and is not published in its entirety. However, it is known that after the Gulf War a substantial number of main battle tanks, armor, artillery, and other heavy equipment and major war-waging weapons were sold to the Saudis (30). Such conventional weaponry and equipment surely gave the Saudis a substantial supply of modern weapons, in addition to what they already had, and filled out their military establishment. Such an establishment and weapons supply, as stated in the introduction, is a necessary prerequisite for a rogue state. Ironically, much of the weapons acquired in this manner after the Gulf War came from the U.S. and other Western powers, who would become the enemy with a Saudi coup and have their own weapons turned against them!

Now that the general Saudi military capability and conventional weapons supply have been well-documented, the question remains of Saudi interest in weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Saudi Arabia’s public reputation, in keeping with the spirit of Islam, is pacifist, so of course they have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions (31a, 31b, 31c, 31d, 31e, 31f). However, while there is no reason to think that the Saudis possess such WMDs at the current time, the prospect theory concept of the basement of fear can be used to explain why the Saudis might pursue the development or acquisition of such weapons in the near future (32). If the Saudis are put in a position to fear other WMD-possessing states, they might perceive the development or acquisition of such weapons as their only option. In the current situation, in which Saudi Arabia is at least outwardly an ally of the U.S. (as evidenced by U.S. support in the Gulf War), such fear would be absurd: the monarchy knows that it can call upon the U.S. and the UN for military support against regional aggressors. But if the government were to undergo a coup and change its alignment to anti-U.S. and in agreement with Iraq, the West’s enemy, a basement of fear situation would be entirely reasonable. For in such a situation, the Saudis would have relatively few friends in the international realm, and would be ideologically head-to-head with the U.S. and other WMD-possessing powers. If the Saudis were to enter into such a situation through a revolutionary coup against the monarchy, the attainment of WMDs would be a feasible possibility, given the funds that the Saudis have the luxury of spending on their military. Hence, the desire for and attainment of WMDs, a requirement for being a rogue state, would be entirely within the reach of a post-coup Saudi Arabia.

Governmental Factors

Problems implicit in the House of Saud itself present threats to the peaceful continuation of the monarchy. For one, the lifestyle of the wealthy royal family contrasts with the ways of the rest of the Saudi subjects. Saudi royals live in storybook marble palaces with royal guards, and have Rolls-Royces, Cadillacs, and private jets at their disposal. They hold lead positions in several hundred Saudi corporations, and maintain Cabinet posts, governorships, and military positions. The royal family exercises a special kind of power over the kingdom; as the American human rights group Freedom House says, "The Saudi royal family... virtually runs the country as a private fiefdom." In addition, young members of the family indulge in heavy drinking and drug use, habits in clear conflict with the puritanical Islam that is held as the standard for the rest of the country (33).

As well as provoking popular dissent by its abuse of wealth and power and its corrupt behaviors, the family itself poses a threat to its own survival. King Fahd is now an overweight diabetic in his mid-70s. He suffered a stroke in late 1995 and turned over the rule for three months (34). Though he defied skeptics by returning from that absence, the nation knows it is only a matter of time before their monarch turns over the rule for good. After the impending death of King Fahd, the successor is to be the "most suitable" of Fahd’s sons, as selected by the religious establishment, instead of the eldest of his sons as tradition would have it. The pool for this selection consists of six thousand princes (35). Crown Prince Abdullah, the king’s half-brother, ruled during the three month illness of Fahd in the winter of 1995-1996 (36). However, the selection of a permanent ruler from such a large crowd of princes has the potential to be a heated battle, especially since the decision is to be based on subjective merit and not on the objective criteria of birthright. The selection of one prince over another could easily prompt a coup by a disinherited prince - the classic example of the fall of a regime coming from within.

In addition to the possible insurrection within the royal family, religious and political dissidents can be found within the regime of the Sauds. An example is head of the kingdom’s Supreme Religious Council, Sheik Abdul Aziz ibn Baz, who openly differed with the provincial governor, a Saudi prince, on the issue of the protest at Buraida, by voicing support of dissident Buraida preachers (37). In addition, there are several right-wing Muslim radicals actively opposed to the House of Saud, the monarchy, and the West, such as Shiek Solman al-Audah and Safar al-Hawali (38). Each of these popular figures has the potential to lead a movement against the regime, and the existence of such figures heightens the likelihood of a coup against the House of Saud. Because of these characters’ strong sentiments against the West, it is likely that if they were to revolt, their new state would be much more in line with other Middle Eastern anti-U.S. states, such as the rogue Iraq.

Also operating within the current government are strong motivated biases that could cause the House to adopt policies that backfire and favor its opponents. Obviously, the House desires a situation in which the sentiments against the government and its policies are minimal. Because of this desire, the House is subjected to a motivated bias in which it perceives the current political threats as being much less than they truly are (39). To use the hackneyed historical analogy of Hitler, this phenomenon is much like the U.S. and Great Britain fervently denying the extent and importance of Hitler’s tyrannical desires in the mid- to late-1930s because they wanted for the sake of their world order not to have to face such a threat. In this situation the U.S. and Great Britain postponed countering Hitler’s aggression until it was nearly too late, and for a time the old order was severely threatened by the challenger Hitler and his allies. In the Saudi situation the dissidents within the country are the challengers and the House of Saud is the defender. By continuing to deny the threat posed by these challengers and refusing to seriously deal with the dissidents’ qualms as a result of the motivated bias that leads the House to believe the threats are minimal, the House may be securing its own unpleasant fate.

Influence of the United States

What role could the U.S. play in the outcome of Saudi Arabian dissension? Can the U.S. effectively prevent Saudi Arabia from revolting and following the avenue of a rogue state? Or does U.S. interference only bring harm to the teetering House of Saud?

Similar motivated biases to those described in the preceding section operate on the U.S. with regards to Saudi Arabia (40). Because the U.S. obviously favors the pro-U.S. inclination of the House of Saud, and thus desires the House to remain in power and not be threatened from dissidents, the U.S. also perceives the current opposition within Saudi Arabia against U.S. influence as minimal. Thus, because of its motivated biases, the U.S. continues on with its involved relations with the Saudis, all the while providing more fuel for the dissidents who say that Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are too closely tied (41). By ignoring the problem - popular Saudi disapproval of the U.S.’ influence over the Saudi government, Saudi policies, and hence Saudi way of life - the U.S. continues to spur resentment against the House of Saud and the U.S., which could erupt into virulent roguishness and result in a coup and another anti-U.S. state in the Middle East.

For the most threatening of dissidents in Saudi Arabia, those who are adamantly against the U.S., any intervention of the U.S. in Saudi affairs is utterly intolerable. U.S. involvement in Saudi concerns, from oil prices to military bases (42), not to mention ideologies, economic policy, modernization (43), or relations with "the Zionist entity" (44), is the very evil against which these agitators rally (45). From this perspective it seems as though there is absolutely nothing the U.S. could do to aid the situation, for any involvement whatsoever only prompts further agitation against both the U.S. and the House of Saud for allowing itself to be corrupted by Western influences.

There is always the option that the U.S. has taken so kindly to in the past: using aid money and funding to support ideologically allied governments (in this case, the House of Saud) against internal insurrection or defeat by other political systems (as in the Marshall Plan following the Second World War, which provided heavy funding to downtrodden European governments to allow them to survive in the face of communism). This approach does work in some situations, such as in the Marshall Plan, where the goal is simply to help the government survive a temporary threat. However, the force of Islam and anti-Westernism in Middle Eastern politics has been active for decades, and will not be discounted by a few years’ of American money. In the words of Sudanese fundamentalist Turabi, "Now, even the Saudis face a full-fledged Islamic movement that will no longer be bought off" (46). Using this approach to reinforce the Saudi government and postpone an upheaval would succeed only temporarily. The only merit to such a policy would be if the U.S. sought to uphold the floundering Saudi government until such a time when it could eliminate the local rogues that would possibly befriend and support a revolted rogue Saudi regime, Iraq and Iran. However, as the U.S. has no current plans to entirely obliterate these existing regimes in the near future, this approach seems utterly unfeasible and is highly unlikely.

If the U.S. were to get involved, despite the real possibility that their involvement would only make dissent more acute, their goal would be Westernization of Saudi Arabia. The U.S. has in the past assisted the Saudis to become more Westernized in the realms of education and medicine (47), economics (48), and weaponry (49), by providing goods, personnel, and advisors. This pattern of Westernization would logically continue if the U.S. continued to be involved in the Saudi situation. Westernization, especially spoon-fed by the U.S. rather than willfully chosen, is not what Saudi society needs at the present time; indeed, it is what they cry out against, out of fear that it counters what Saudi society considers valuable: Islamic tenets and values. The best option for the House of Saud at this point in order to countervail a revolutionary rogue regime is to "turn back with its tail between its legs" and return to the conservative Islam of its past. Westernization and modernization may someday be possible, even desirable, in the desert kingdom but thus far they have been too rapid and hence have soured in the eyes of many conservative Muslim subjects because of what they perceive as threats to the traditions of Islam.

The current policies of newly elected Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, who is much more liberal than his predecessor Khomeni and desires slow modernization, may be the best model for the Saudis to emulate. Khatami has obviously learned from the history of his own country, as evidenced by the care he expresses not to impose modernization too fast. Despite the situational differences, Saudi Arabia is now at a political turning point very similar to that of Iran in 1979 before the Islamic revolution. If the monarchy continues to ignore the demands of the dissident populace and pushes on with modernization and Westernization at the encouragement of the West, the Saudis could have a revolutionary coup of the nature and magnitude of Iran’s on their hands. The Saudis need to learn from the example of their neighbor across the Gulf and pursue slow modernization and Westernization only, in the style of Khatami, rather than being unduly influenced by the U.S. and pursuing more rapid modernization and Westernization, in the style of the Shah.


Each of the sections up to this point has fulfilled some part of the argument illustrating Saudi Arabia's potential for a revolutionary coup which would overturn the pro-U.S. House of Saud and create an anti-U.S. and anti-Western regime adopting roguish policies in line with Iraq. The Islam versus the West conflict within Saudi Arabia provided the reason for discontent. The example of Iran contributed by showing a parallel revolution and allowing for elaboration on the issue of Islam as a political force and other issues involved in the two situations, such as the economy. Having established that background as to why a revolutionary coup could occur, I moved on to show how such insurrection is already evident in the recent Saudi use of terror. The section on Saudi military capabilities established the fact that the Saudis have a sufficient military establishment and artillery of modern weaponry to live up to the military role of a rogue state in the event that a coup occurs to push the state through the transition from U.S. friend to foe. Also in that section, I utilized prospect theory to present the reasons the Saudis would seek to obtain weapons of mass destruction if in a post-revolutionary status, and justified economically their ability to acquire such weapons. In the sections on governmental factors and U.S. influence I enumerated potential forces that could contribute to the fall of the House of Saud, both internal to the regime and international (domestic forces were covered in the sections on Islam and terrorism). Throughout the course of the paper I used ideas from prospect theory and psychology and deterrence to explain particular aspects of the situation.

As illustrated above, the picture of post-revolutionary Saudi Arabia does fulfill Klare's requirements for being called a rogue state, except for the issue of threatening U.S. interests in the region. That issue will be treated here. For one, Saudi Arabia itself is very vital to U.S. interests in the Middle East, so the simple fact of its revolution and anti-U.S. alignment represent a threat to U.S. interests. The U.S. imports a substantial portion of its oil from Saudi Arabia, and will desire to import greater quantities of oil once its own limited reserves run out and the vast Saudi reserves remain plentiful. For a nation which depends extremely heavily on oil for its military, industry, and daily life, such as the U.S., the possibility of not being able to import this valuable commodity from what may in the not-so-distant future be one of only a few remaining sources is a threat to national interests. If one needs evidence of the U.S.' concern about maintaining reliable sources of foreign oil in the Middle East, one need only reference the Gulf War, a military conflict which was at least in part about Kuwaiti and Saudi oil, as well as about American ideals. Also, Saudi locations serve as a bases for U.S. military installations against other regional foes of the U.S., particularly since the Gulf War. The transformation of Saudi Arabia to an anti-U.S. state would pose an immediate threat to the lives of American personnel stationed within Saudi territory, and would eliminate most of the Arabian peninsula (not to mention surrounding lands and waters) as a location for U.S. military installations in the future.

These threats to American interests in Saudi Arabia proper may not be sufficient to irrevocably portray a Saudi rogue state as a regional hegemon. But the crucial role of Saudi Arabia as a leader of Islamic nations everywhere, as the geographic and historical protector of Islam, establishes the Saudis as a keystone in the U.S. security interests regarding Islamic countries. This is even more so in the Middle East because of its additional geographic proximity to Saudi Arabia. Because the Saudis have managed to remain moderate thus far, the full extent of this influence has not been tested. However, if the Saudis were to adopt a wildly radical stance, it could have a significant impact on the policies of other countries who subscribe to the same social and political code as Saudi Arabia. Just as the communist U.S.S.R. had almost total hegemonic control over regional satellites because of geographic proximity and well-propagated social and political ideology, the Saudis could have their own band of satellites, both within the Middle East and without. Visions of Kuwait, U.A.E., and Oman as the next Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia and rapidly-developing Indonesia as the next China bring the Saudis' full hegemonic capabilities into crystal-clear focus.

Now that the Saudis' rogue capability is fully established, I will move on to my conclusions about what is likely to happen in the desert kingdom. At the current time the Saudi regime is so interested in the benefits it sees in Westernization, such as future economic potential, that it truly does not perceive the severity of the dissent going on within the kingdom itself. This misperception has already been described in great detail, in terms of a motivated bias (in the government factors section above). In prospect theory terminology the regime is risk acceptant in order to avoid the loss of benefits it recedes from its current policies, such as economic profits from unregulated trade with the U.S.. The risk which the regime accepts is the possibility of disapproval from within of its current policies. The regime accepts such risk because it sees the risk as minimal. Because the regime sees the risk of severe dissension as very low, due to its motivated bias, it is not likely to make concessions to the dissidents. Hence the dissidents' complaints will go unassuaged, tensions will accumulate, and eventually the figurative great tent (50) of the Saud family will collapse.

However, such things do not happen spontaneously. Some factors will be necessary to prompt the coup and the collapse of the Saudi regime. There are many potential elements which could contribute to this. As noted in the sections on the Iranian parallel and the U.S. influence, continued rapid pushes for modernization and Westernization, as under the Shah's Iran, could prompt a coup. In the end two criteria are absolutely crucial for a serious coup to take place: a figurehead leader and a spark (51).

All famous revolutions have a leader who becomes the embodiment of the revolutionary movement. For the French he was Robespierre or Danton, for the Americans he was Washington, for the Iranians he was Khomeni. Who will it be for the Saudis? As of yet, no one. There are many possible leaders: the six thousand princes, the religious leaders within and outside the regime. But none has yet emerged as The One.

Also, there must be a spark to start the revolutionary coup in motion. This is typically a national crisis or hardship, or else a very blatantly unacceptable act on the part of the old regime.

For the Saudis, still highly dependent on the ebb and flow of the world oil market, a catastrophe on the world oil market could be that spark. The lifting of international sanctions on Iraq and subsequent crash in oil prices or the end of Saudi oil reserves, concurrent with continued dissatisfaction of the Saudis with their government, would spell the end of the current regime.

A quote by an astute American reporter on the Saudi situation quite accurately relates the tale of the Saudi future: "Riyadh will be able to keep a lid on an increasingly tense and uneasy society. But if something happens to break that bubble, the odds would shift." (52).

Of course, neither of the two criteria - the revolutionary, larger-than-life leader or the national economic catastrophe - is likely to be fulfilled by 30 June 1998. A leader of the necessary caliber and popular appeal cannot materialize in the time of one year. The international community is highly unlikely to lift sanctions on Iraq anytime in the near future, and Saudi oil reserves should last several years before running dry. But change the date to 30 June 2000 or 2010, and the scenario is quite probable. Saudi discontent will not lie dormant for long.



1. Michael Klare, Rogue States and Nuclear Outlaws. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995), 130.

2. Abdul Qader Tash. "Prince Sultan's Message to the West," Arab News. 16 March 1997. Available: WWW URL:

3. World Affairs Seminar, held in Whitewater, WI, June 1995.

4. Eqbal Ahmad, "A Tug of War for Muslims' Allegiance." World Press Review (November 1994).

5. Massimo Dini, "The Growing Influence of 'God's Fanatics.'" World Press Review (March 1992).

6. ArabNet. "Saudi Arabia History: Boom and Dissent." 1996. Available: WWW URL:

7. Rae Corelli, "The Dogs Unchained." Maclean's. 28 January 1991.

8. Andrew Phillips, "'Infidels' on Holy Land." Maclean's. 28 January 1991.

9. Judith Miller, "Faces of Fundamentalism." Foreign Affairs. November-December 1994.

10. John Rossant, "Are the Sands About to Shift Under Saudi Arabia?" Business Week. 15 February 1993.

11. Dilip Hiro, "Too Little and 32 Years Too Late." The Nation. 13 April 1992.

12. Dilip Hiro, "Too Little and 32 Years Too Late." The Nation. 13 April 1992.

13. Kail C. Ellis. Pakistan's Foreign Policy: Alternating Approaches. 137-138.

14. Martin Wooster. "Shaky Arabia." American Enterprise, v. 6. 1 July 1995. 99. Available: WWW URL:

15. Robert Jervis and others, Psychology and Deterrence. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985).

16. Sandra Mackey, The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom. (Houston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987).

17. Judy Keen. "Winds Shifting in Saudi Arabia Area is Ripe for Terrorists, Experts Warn." USA Today. 26 June 1996. 3A. Available: WWW URL:

18. Robert Jervis and others, Psychology and Deterrence. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985).

19. Barbara Farnham. Avoiding Losses / Taking Risks. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994).

20. Robert Jervis and others, Psychology and Deterrence. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985).

21. John Rossant, "Are the Sands About to Shift Under Saudi Arabia?" Business Week. 15 February 1993.

22. Reuter. "U.S. Fears New Attacks in Saudi." January 1996. Available: WWW URL:

23. Abdullah Al-Shihri. "Saudi Arabia Says Four Suspects in Bombing of U.S. Post Arrested," Fort Worth Star-Telegram. 22 April 1996. Available: WWW URL:

24. Reuter. "U.S. Fears New Attacks in Saudi." January 1996. Available: WWW URL:

25. Daniel Pearl, "Fundamental Flaw: Political Islam's Hope of Unified Movement Has Failed to Solidify." The Wall Street Journal. 3 July 1996.

26. ArabNet. "Saudi Arabia Overview." 1996. Available: WWW URL:

27. John Rossant, "Are the Sands About to Shift Under Saudi Arabia?" Business Week. 15 February 1993.

28. The Saudi Arabian Directory. 1997-1998. Available: WWW URL:

29. Available: WWW URL: This is the source for all data relating to Saudi military expenditures in the section entitled Saudi Oil Wealth and Military Development, unless otherwise noted.

30. The Saudi Arabian Directory. 1997-1998. Available: WWW URL:

31. Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, text. Available: WWW URL: Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, list of signatories. Available: WWW URL: Biological Weapons Convention, text. Available: WWW URL: Biological Weapons Convention, list of signatories. Available: WWW URL: Chemical Weapons Convention, text. Available: WWW URL: Chemical Weapons Convention, list of signatories. Available: WWW URL:

32. Barbara Farnham. Avoiding Losses / Taking Risks. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994).

33. Charles J. Hanley. " In Land That's A Family Affair, Saudi Royal House Is Overflowing," San Diego Daily Transcript. 28 April 1997. Available: WWW URL:

34. Greg Myre. "Foreign Help is Welcome; Foreign Influence is Not." 27 June 1996. Available: WWW URL:

35. Martin Wooster. "Shaky Arabia." American Enterprise, v. 6. 1 July 1995. 99. Available: WWW URL:

36. Jeffrey Rosen. "Saudi Arabia Needs a Face-Lift." The Economist, v. 338. 14. 1 January 1996. Available: WWW URL:

37. Dilip Hiro, "Too Little and 32 Years Too Late." The Nation. 13 April 1992.

38. "Saudi Arabia's Future: The Cracks in the Kingdom," The Economist. 18 March 1995.

39. Robert Jervis and others, Psychology and Deterrence. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985).

40. Robert Jervis and others, Psychology and Deterrence. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985).

41. Abdullah Al-Shihri. "Saudi Arabia Says Four Suspects in Bombing of U.S. Post Arrested," Fort Worth Star-Telegram. 22 April 1996. Available: WWW URL:

42. Coalition Against Corruption in Saudi Arabia. Available: WWW URL:

43. ArabNet. "Saudi Arabia History: Boom and Dissent." 1996. Available: WWW URL:

44. Khaled Al Maeena. "Madeline Albright Should Be Fried in Her Excess Weight," Asharq Al-Awsat, Al Madina, Urdo News, Gulf News. 1 October 1996. Available: WWW URL:

45. Abdullah Al-Shihri. "Saudi Arabia Says Four Suspects in Bombing of U.S. Post Arrested," Fort Worth Star-Telegram. 22 April 1996. Available: WWW URL:

46. Judith Miller, "Faces of Fundamentalism." Foreign Affairs. November-December 1994.

47. Sandra Mackey, The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom. (Houston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987).

48. World Affairs Seminar, held in Whitewater, WI, June 1995.

49. The Saudi Arabian Directory. 1997-1998. Available: WWW URL:

50. The Bedouin analogy of a "great Iraqi tent" is a characteristic of Saddam Hussein's Iraqi unity propaganda. The analogy has been borrowed here and applied to the Saudis in an exercise of irony.

51. Crane Brinton, Anatomy of a Revolution.

52. John Rossant, "Are the Sands About to Shift Under Saudi Arabia?" Business Week. 15 February 1993.