Trying to rein in the Arab Spring
Saudi Arabia’s physical and financial war on the uprisings reveals the shakiness of the House of Saud and the impotence of American power.
As the Arab uprisings that swept away Middle East despots earlier this year have lost momentum, a countervailing force has come to the fore: the dead hand of the House of Saud.
Having only just survived a bomb attack on Friday, Yemen’s deeply unpopular president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has been forced to seek treatment, not to mention refuge, in Saudi Arabia. It has been reported that the Saudi regime, keen for a less inflammatory figure to be installed in Saleh’s place, is unlikely to let him return. Saudi interference in the affairs of another nation should not be a surprise, however. Since at least March, Saudi Arabia’s ruling royal family has been tireless in its efforts to quiet discontent and silence protest across the region. Clearly impressed, the New York Times called the range of Saudi intervention ‘extraordinary’.
Most obviously, of course, there was Saudi Arabia’s de facto military intervention in protest-ridden Bahrain in mid-March. While this might have been portrayed as a member of the Saudi-led, six-state Gulf Cooperation Council helping out a weaker member in the form of Bahrain’s Crown Prince al-Khalifa, there seems little doubt that the 2,000-strong Saudi taskforce was rather keen to lend its heavily armoured hand in support. If there was an invitation from the Bahrain monarchy, it was one their Saudi counterparts asked for. Saudi Prince Waleed bin Talal Al-Saud had a fine-sounding way of describing the Kingdom’s recent interventions: ‘We’re sending a message that monarchies are not where this [unrest] is happening… We are not trying to get our way by force, but to safeguard our interests.’
Either way, since the Saudi intervention and the accompanying declaration of martial law in Bahrain, the once numerous and vociferous Bahraini protesters have disappeared from sight. And little wonder: the crackdown has been unrelenting in its severity. People’s movement is checked by guards at the entrance to towns and villages; thousands have been arrested, with several dying in custody; and even slightly dissenting newspapers and parties have had editors and members retired. Such has been the brutal success of the repression that the Bahrain motor racing chief Zayed Rashid Alzayani proudly announced that Bahrain is ready once again to host a Formula 1 motor race. ‘We went through a rough patch’, he said with a mouth full of grisly euphemism.
But the Saudi regime has not just been sending troops and tanks over the causeway and into Bahrain. It has also been sending billions of dollars over land and into the hands of Egypt’s army-led ruling council – $4 billion, in fact. While the fall of their pro-Western ally General Hosni Mubarrak might have caught the Saudi royals unawares, they were not going to be caught out by the aftermath. And Saudi largesse is not limited to propping up Egypt’s increasingly long-term transitional military rulers: billions of dollars have also been given to fellow Gulf states Oman and the aforementioned Bahrain.
If finance and armies have been the principal ways by which Saudi Arabia has been trying to manage a region-wide popular but diffuse insurgence, then other, more unusual tactics have also been employed. So it was that in May, the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council made the unusual step of announcing that it would be open to the membership of Jordan and Morocco. While Jordan, though not actually on the Persian Gulf, could at least lay claim to being a neighbour of Saudi Arabia, Morocco is on the north-western tip of Africa. To put it into perspective, the UK is actually slightly closer to the Gulf states than Morocco is. Unsurprisingly, Moroccan officials were reportedly bemused by the offer.
But that is not to say that they weren’t tempted by the offer. Because while there are a great deal of cultural and religious differences, not to mention a great physical distance, between Morocco and the GCC sextet of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, UAE, Qatar and Kuwait, they do have something in common. They are all autocratic regimes that differ politically only in degree. And they are all to a greater or lesser extent threatened by domestic popular uprisings of the type that has already shaken the despotic regimes of Tunisia and Egypt to the ground. Just this February, for instance, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, a sovereign possessed of immense executive powers despite being part of a constitutional monarchy, was forced to put down Egypt-inspired street protests. The prospect of teaming up with the kings, emirs and sheikhs of the thoroughly anti-democratic Gulf states in an alliance of shared autocratic interests is not as absurd a proposition for King Mohammed as a glance at a map would suggest.
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The attempted expansion of the GCC, a prospective Coalition of Kings, reveals a lot about the role of the GCC for its members. Established in 1981, in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, it always claimed that its raison d’être was economic union and national security. In practice, however, a different purpose has emerged. Yes, it donated billions in aid to Iraq during the conflict with Iran in the early 1980s, but come an actual threat to one of its members, as with the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and it proved itself completely impotent. This is not surprising. Its real function, as a loose alliance of undemocratically constituted states, was not so much externally focused as internally focused. In the words of an American-based professor, Mohammed Ayoob, the GCC’s purpose is ‘not defence against external enemies threatening the security of GCC states but cooperation against domestic challenges to authoritarian regimes. Its main task was and continues to be coordination of internal security measures, including sharing of intelligence, aimed at controlling and suppressing the populations of member states in order to provide security to the autocratic monarchies of the Persian Gulf.’
And make no mistake, despite its wealth, Saudi Arabia, by far the biggest, most important GCC member, is wracked by internal tensions not dissimilar to those that have shaken neighbouring regimes. For instance, on 11 March, the Saudi government was fearful enough of opposition protests demanding political reform to order its security forces to shut down the Kingdom’s streets. As they did so, foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal swore that the regime would ‘cut off any finger’ raised against it. A week later, King Abdullah played the good cop and outlined measures for a redistribution of wealth, a mark less of benevolence towards his subjects than fear of them.
This isn’t to say external threats are unimportant to the GCC. In fact, Iran is very important. It provides the ready-to-hand spectre to justify whatever coercive and repressive measures a GCC regime wants to justify. Ever cited, never seen, Iranian influence in protests, from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, is not an actual fact for the repeatedly repressed; rather it’s an incredibly useful fiction for the repeat repressors.
Yet, if the GCC, with the Saudis at the helm, is doing foreign policy on the hoof, invading here, aiding there, and chucking out a few friendly membership invitations to equally insecure monarchs in between, this is not part of some master plan for autocracy across the region. And nor is it a return to the 1950s or 1960s when Saudi Arabia, backed by the US, led the counter-offensive against pan-Arab nationalism.
Rather, the Saudi regime’s desperate attempts to keep a lid on popular protest across the region are born of a profound insecurity, one induced by the final unravelling of the old world order that once held sway across the Middle East. In the past, the House of Saud would have been willingly in thrall to the US, at first when it was tussling with the USSR, and then when it was the sole world power in the region. But, withered in authority and semi-clueless as to its interests, the US is not what it was. In the absence of the old regional power brokers, the Saudi King and his despotic cronies in the GCC are desperately hoping that they can shore up their power and interests all by themselves. As one commentator close to the Saudi regime wrote recently: ‘Riyadh intends to pursue a much more assertive foreign policy, at times conflicting with American interests.’
This approach seems to have had an oppressive success so far, but that is not due to Saudi strength. The kingdom’s insecurity, driving it to interfere in the affairs of the region to an unprecedented degree, has met with an all too moveable force: the unfortunately leaderless impotence of the popular protests. The strengthening of these oppositional forces, through their own volition rather than any form of foreign intervention, is the thing that might finally shake the House of Saud to its foundations.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.