Zakaria: The Saudis Are Mad? Tough!

Why we shouldn't care that the world's most irresponsible country is displeased at the U.S.

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Fayez Nureldineafp / AFP / Getty Images

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz in Riyadh, May 2012.

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Saudi Arabia's objections to the Obama Administration's policies toward Syria and Iran are not framed by humanitarian concerns for the people of those countries. They are rooted in a pervasive anti-Shi'ite ideology. Riyadh has long treated all other versions and sects of Islam as heresy and condoned the oppression of those groups. A 2009 report from Human Rights Watch details the ways in which the Saudi government, clerics, religious police and schools systematically discriminate against the local Shi'ite population, including arrests, beatings and, on occasion, the use of live ammunition. (And not just the Shi'ites. In March 2012, Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti issued a fatwa declaring that it was "necessary to destroy all the churches in the Arabian Peninsula.")

The regime fears that any kind of empowerment of the Shi'ites anywhere could embolden the 15% of Saudi Arabia's population that is Shi'ite--and happens to live in the part of the country where most of its oil reserves can be found. That's why the Saudis sent troops into neighboring Bahrain during the Arab Spring of 2011, to crush the Shi'ite majority's uprising.

Saudi royals have been rattled by the events in their region and beyond. They sense that the discontent that launched the Arab Spring is not absent in their own populace. They fear the rehabilitation of Iran. They also know that the U.S. might very soon find itself entirely independent of Middle Eastern oil.

Given these trends, it is possible that Saudi Arabia worries that a seat on the U.N. Security Council might constrain it from having freedom of action. Or that the position could shine a light on some of its more unorthodox activities. Or that it could force Riyadh to vote on issues it would rather ignore. It is also possible that the Saudis acted in a sudden fit of pique. After all, they had spent years lobbying for the seat. Whatever the reason, let's concede that, yes, Saudi Arabia is angry with the U.S. But are we sure that's a sign Washington is doing something wrong?

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