Saudis Uneasy Amid Arab Unrest

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There are jitters in Saudi Arabia as the protests across the Arab world get close to home. The Saudis are nervous now that there are revolutions on their borders with both Bahrain and Yemen.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The protests sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East have passed by Saudi Arabia. But the kingdom, with one-fifth of the world's oil supply, is still feeling the pressure. There is unrest on two of its borders. In Yemen, protesters continue to call for the president to step down. And the unrest there has spread to the north among supporters of an insurgency by the country's Shiite minority.

In Bahrain, the royal family, with close links to Saudi Arabia, is being challenged by the Shiite majority in the country. Saudi Arabia's long alliance with Washington is also under new pressure. King Abdullah warned the U.S. not to side with demonstrations against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, arrived in Riyadh yesterday to assure the Saudis that the U.S. is committed to stability in the Gulf.

NPR's Deborah Amos is in Qatar's capital, Doha. And Deb, with so much at stake for the Saudis, how are they handling the revolts on their borders?

DEBORAH AMOS: Well, according to diplomats and regional specialists, the Saudis are extremely worried because every certainty has been undermined by these pro-democracy movements, including their relationship with the United States. They were unhappy with how the U.S. handled Egypt. They are watching how the U.S. handles the uprising in Bahrain. It has been unsettling to all the Gulf monarchies. They thought that they were immune from these uprisings. Now, we have one in Bahrain, so everybody is watching how this one turns out.

SIEGEL: There's the fact that the protesters in Bahrain are mostly Shiite, and they're demanding democracy from a Sunni royal family. Does that have a special resonance for the Saudis?

AMOS: Very much so. In fact, it has wider regional implications because the way the Saudis see it, this becomes another win for predominantly Shiite Iran. So this is a geopolitical problem. And in fact, the Bahrain royal family has been playing the Iran fear card about this uprising of the majority Shia population. And Saudi Arabia has another concern, and that is they also have a Shiite population, a minority. They live in the eastern province, which is very close to Bahrain. So the worry is that a successful uprising in Bahrain would encourage Shiites in Saudi Arabia.

In fact, last week, a very rare protest in the Saudi town of Qatif, where people went out on the streets because they wanted political dissidents released from jail. And in fact, the interior ministry did just that. A Saudi in Riyadh said to me today that the government doesn't want to provoke any unrest in the eastern province, so they wanted to avoid any sparks of protests.

SIEGEL: Now, as you've said, the Saudis may be questioning the reliability of their alliance with the United States, and there seems to be some divergence of national interests and values. Today, the Saudis, in a very rare public rebuke, expressed regret over a U.S. vote at the United Nations.

AMOS: The issue was the U.S. veto of a draft U.N. resolution condemning Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land. Now, the kingdom sees itself as the defender of Palestinian right. But to make that public statement was another sign of Saudi unease over this popular mood that's sweeping the region, very unusual for the Saudis to do.

SIEGEL: Does it affect matters that Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has been out of the kingdom for medical treatment for several months?

AMOS: It does, Robert, because it raises questions of succession. The king is 87 years old. He is in failing health. So is the crown prince. He is in his early 80s. The next in line is Prince Nayef. He is a conservative. And so I think that there is uncertainty in the kingdom whether King Abdullah's policies - he's a reformer - will continue when succession takes place.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Deborah Amos speaking to us from Doha, the capital of Qatar. Deb, thank you.

AMOS: Thank you, Robert.

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