Calls for closer unity among the Gulf states are not new. There has
been talk of a common currency like the euro for some time, but the
Saudis seem much more determined to achieve one now than ever before.
The Arab revolutions have removed key Saudi allies like Egypt's Hosni
Mubarak--but also long-time enemies like Libya's Muammar Qaddafi. For a
very conservative and very old ruling family, this kind of change is
disturbing. Even more alarming was the Shia democracy movement in
Bahrain, which briefly threatened the stability of the island nation.
(It is linked by a causeway to Saudi Arabia's Eastern province, an area
that has witnessed more than a year of unrest among the kingdom's own
Aside from the restive Shia minority, the kingdom has not experienced
serious political turmoil so far. But this stability is largely due to
enormous and expensive efforts by the royal family to buy off any
potential discontent. King Abdullah and Crown Prince Nayef have spent
tens of billions in the last year on increased salaries, pensions and
other disbursements. They know that the kingdom is not immune from the
desire for change that has swept North Africa and other Arab states.
Some 80 percent of Saudis are under the age of thirty and are not as
loyal to the House of Saud's monopoly on power as their elders. Thus as
democracy succeeds in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, the ruling regime
will face pressure to reform at home.
The Saudis believe they and their fellow monarchs must hang together
or hang separately. If the Bahraini royal family accepts genuine
political reform and democracy, pressure inside the kingdom will grow.
The Saudis also recognize that there are limits to even their largesse
and ability to buy off dissent. A more unified Arabian royal club would
provide greater access to the fabulous wealth of Qatar and the UAE,
which have only tiny native populations, to help buy off unrest in
poorer and more populous states like Bahrain and Oman. For equally
obvious reasons, Doha and Abu Dhabi don't want to play.
And then there is the broken humpty dumpty of the peninsula, Yemen,
whose long-serving ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was finally eased out of
power last year. The transition came under tremendous pressure from the
Saudis to install Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi as president, all in an effort
to end the unrest that swept the country for a year. Hadi has made
modest progress in cooling tensions in Sanaa, but he faces open
rebellion in the North and South. The Houthi rebels who have been
pressing for autonomy, if not independence, in the northern province of
Saadah for years effectively have taken control of that province and
large parts of its two neighbors, creating a independent administration
along the Yemeni-Saudi border. Riyadh fought a bloody border war with
the Houthis two years ago and is not pleased to see them stronger than