It’s time to stop characterizing Saudi Arabia as the regional champion of counter-revolution. While we’re at it, we should stop treating the Arab Spring as a movement that finds vindication only when political overhaul in every Arab country is complete. The downfall of regimes in Tunis and Cairo generated unprecedented calls for political opening everywhere, but this pressure has not made its way into the kingdom.
Nonetheless, many mistakenly assume that Saudi leaders feel the pressure and project this belief onto their analysis of Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic maneuvers in the region. Thus, the argument goes: Saudi Arabia is counter-revolutionary because it wants to send a stern message to citizens in monarchic regimes to remain obedient to their royal rulers.
But do Saudi leaders really feel the pressure? A genuine lack of impetus, not government repression, accounts for the absence of protests and calls for regime change in the kingdom. The kingdom’s rulers have for the most part accounted for the interests of Saudi citizens and are being repaid with stability.
Regionally, Saudi Arabia has not been the archetypal villain to the Arab protester. It has merely accounted for its national interests, as any country would. It hasn’t adopted a coherent stance on protest movements, but who says it has to (see: Obama Administration)? The kingdom’s mixed responses to movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and now Syria reflect not only the complexity and dynamism of its strategic portfolio but also its growing consciousness of its own regional influence.
Let’s start in Riyadh, where the interior ministry stalks and intimidates opponents to the al-Saud family. It’s true that reform-minded liberals who have spoken out against the regime have wound up in prison for lengthy periods of time. This is a practice that should stop, and Saudi rulers would be wise to adopt basic criminal justice reforms.
But the March 11 “Day of Rage” was awfully uneventful. Why? Saudi Arabia’s economic wealth and the genuine religion-based conservatism of its population have suppressed liberal activism, and the relatively impressive extent of King Abdullah’s social and economic reform program has coopted liberal demands. Rather than contribute to counter-revolutionary paranoia, Saudi Arabia’s (stable) domestic context legitimizes and adds force to its regional diplomatic pronouncements and maneuvers.
Regionally, focusing on the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) actions illuminates the kingdom’s stance on other protest movements.
In some ways, the Saudi-led GCC intervention into Bahrain did resemble counter-revolution. But the kingdom feared that Iranian meddling contributed to protests in the majority-Shiite island-state. There isn’t evidence to support this claim, and overplaying Iranian influence could effectively become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But did it ever occur to us that Saudi Arabia was and continues to be wrong about Iran’s role in Bahrain? After all, a long history of tensions and mistrust between Tehran and Riyadh, underlined by their sectarian rivalry, informs the latter’s anxiety about the former’s intent to extend its influence into the Gulf and destabilize Gulf countries.
The GCC then extended membership invitations to Jordan and Morocco in May. Inviting Jordan, a state in Iran’s immediate vicinity, and Morocco, a country with its fair share of sparring with Iran, to join the GCC addressed the most glaring concern of Saudi Arabia’s strategic portfolio: its Cold War with the Islamic Republic. Saudi Arabia clearly foresees a rivalry with Iran in the future that will demand resources, diplomatic wrangling, and potentially lives. In this zero-sum game, adding to one’s alliance structure deals a severe blow to the opposing side (in the context of current uprisings against Iran’s proxy in Syria, this point takes on added significance).
The Saudi-led effort to expand the GCC further addresses the kingdom’s concern with the American security umbrella. At the height of Egyptian protests, Saudi Arabia neither actively counteracted protests nor criticized Egyptians’ calls for political opening; rather, it asked that Mubarak be allowed to oversee the transition to democracy. The Saudis acknowledged that the goal of Egypt’s protesters—that Mubarak leave—would ultimately be realized; they simply did not want to behold the horror of swift American abandonment that they realized they might one day face.
Rather than naively trust American security guarantees, the kingdom is confronting the reality that even perennial alliances can have shaky foundations. It is flexing its diplomatic muscle by circumventing its longtime American ally as it seeks to construct its own regional security framework.
And then there are those cases where the kingdom has condoned or even supported protests because doing so actually serves its interests. The Libya case is straightforward; Saudi Arabia watched with satisfaction as Libyans directed their collective rage against the very man allegedly involved in a 2004 plot to assassinate then-crown prince Abdullah. In a region where personal relationships color diplomatic interactions, the Saudis’ implicit support for popular protest and approval of the NATO intervention had everything to do with the hatred Saudi leaders harbor for Muammar Qaddafi.
And now the Saudis have adopted a semi-principled approach to the disturbing extent of violence and repression al-Assad has employed against Syrians. In a rare rebuke of a fellow Arab leader, King Abdullah called on al-Assad to “issue and enact reforms that are not merely promises but actual reforms.” Saudi Arabia’s statement will only intensify regional and international pressure on al-Assad’s regime, which has been complicit in Iran’s regional obstructionism, and therefore deal a major blow to the kingdom’s rival across the gulf.
The statement further reflects Saudi Arabia’s understanding of the importance of its voice to regional developments. In a confirmation of Saudi Arabia’s regional influence, Bahrain and Kuwait followed Saudi Arabia in recalling their ambassadors from Syria. And King Abdullah’s statement carries significant weight precisely because Saudi Arabia has remained a powerful anchor of stability during a chaotic 2011.
The Arab Spring is not a nebulous force that regimes either embrace or oppose. It is a phenomenon that has profound repercussions for every Arab states’ strategic calculus. A closer analysis of the array of Saudi actions reveals an emerging ethos of self-reliance and diplomatic confidence, not an entrenched counter-revolution hysteria.