Bookmark and Share
Give the Saudi monarchy their dues. They are experts when it comes to manipulating political environment in their region to work in their favor—all by using soft power without attracting too much attention. Some would call that style stealthy and deadly.

This is exactly what the monarchy has been able to achieve in Yemen and Bahrain by propping up pro-Saudi rulers in these two countries to keep them in power despite massive protests that would have toppled the toughest regimes elsewhere.

The house of al-Saud has become highly adept in exploiting regional ethnic and religious fault lines to advance its own political goals, a practice first used in the 1950s against Nasser’s Egypt and continued till now.

The blueprint for the kingdom’s reaction to revolutionary movements in the Middle East has remained unchanged, whether it is applied to a military-led regime similar to Nasser’s, or a clergy-lead government upheaval like the one in Iran. The Saudi recipe calls for a combination of media, religious, security and political pressures aiming to halt any meaningful change in the region—especially if it can negatively affect the monarchy’s standing.

The Saudi regime has a formidable arsenal, which includes its massive oil revenues, media empires, religious establishment, intelligence services, and the gravitas of its political leadership. The monarchy wields this unrivaled collection of assets with skill and fluency that puts leading western political establishments to shame, making Obama’s national security team look like amateurs in comparison.

Take Bahrain, for example. The Saudis invaded the country with no objection from the United States. One would think that the U.S. would at least show concern for the safety of its Fifth Fleet servicemen who are now forced to share a small patch of land with thousands of well-armed soldiers without any supposed coordination. The rest of the world, too, supported the invasion and continued to sell arms to the country that targets peaceful protesters, and will not be leaving Bahrain anytime soon.

As for Yemen, the monarchy’s many years of involvement in the affairs of its poorer neighbor yielded great results—both President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his main rival Sadiq Al-Ahmar are loyal to Saudi Arabia and have been on its payroll for decades. Meanwhile, the leaders of the uprising have been sidelined and left with nothing more than giving speeches at rapidly shrinking rallies.

Some might believe—erroneously—that the United States is taking the lead in Yemen. U.S. officials may get photo ops with Yemeni leaders, but these leaders dance to Saudi music alone. The reason is simple: the Saudis pay for those who obey them and complicate things for those who defy them.

The kingdom understands the importance of winning the loyalty of the security forces, which played the deciding factor in Tunisia and Egypt. The calculus of political power in these states is such that the regimes fall when the military remains neutral or sides with the protest movement, and survive when the military stays loyal to the government. This explains the zeal with which the Saudis have been arming and funding the Yemeni army, national guards and tribal fighters loyal to the Saleh regime.

The monarchy also deftly used its media assets, including the respected Al Arabiya TV station and a plethora of religious channels run by its religious and security organizations, to exploit sectarian and ethnic fears in the region played out between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, and between Arabs and Persians. What’s more, Riyadh’s talking points have trickled down to Washington, where some analysts are now parroting the Saudi line by characterizing the Bahraini uprising as an Iranian plot to infiltrate Arab countries, and the Yemeni revolution as a way to give Iran a foothold on the southern flank of the Arabian Peninsula to spread Shi’a Islam.

The Saudi success is rooted in the region’s fragmentation and the ease of buying out loyalists, especially among the Saudi-oriented salafists who have been attacking churches in Egypt and movie theaters in Tunisia. This is a strategy that makes it easy for the rest of the world to equate revolution with chaos. The kingdom thus has not only been able to keep its head above the water, but also has continued to actively shape the region to fit its needs.

Ali Al Ahmed is the director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington D.C., a non-profit research organization. He is a journalist and expert on Saudi Arabian political affairs including terrorism, Islamic movements, Wahhabi Islam, Saudi political history, Saudi-American relations, and the al-Saud family history.

One Response to How Saudi Arabia Thwarted Uprisings in Yemen and Bahrain

  1. David Pollock says:
    VN:F [1.9.11_1134]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)

    I agree with Ali al-Ahmed that Saudi Arabia is working to thwart democracy in both Yemen and Bahrain—and that this policy is succeeding. But I would put this narrow focus in the larger perspective of Saudi Arabia’s overall regional position, and its broader relations with the United States. Viewed in that light, the picture appears much more mixed.

    The recent Saudi “successes” in these two neighboring countries should be weighed against very serious setbacks elsewhere: in Egypt, where a friendly autocrat of long standing was unceremoniously deposed by popular pressure in just a few weeks; and in Iran, where a hostile, rival theocracy continues its march toward both nuclear weapons and regional predominance. To make matter worse, the Saudis see these twin disasters as signs of self-defeating American errors and inhibitions, leaving Riyadh in the lurch.

    With Mubarak gone, the main Saudi interest is now to keep Egypt steered not toward democracy, but away from Iran. Billions of dollars in Saudi economic aid to the desperate new government in Cairo are apparently conditioned on just this one demand. From Riyadh’s vantage point, the United States is simply too distracted and destitute to make up for its original sin of pushing Mubarak out by keeping Egypt’s new rulers under control.

    This disillusionment with U.S. policy is actually what led Saudi Arabia to its highly uncharacteristic, decisive military intervention in Bahrain. Saudi troops are keeping a subordinate Sunni monarch on the throne; nipping the democratic “virus” in the bud before it can infect and maybe undermine stability in other small oil sheikhdoms, or even inside Saudi Arabia itself; and preempting a potential Iranian beachhead on its border— all with relatively little bloodshed to boot. As a result, the United States has accepted this anti-democratic fait accompli as part of “the price of the price of oil.”

    In Yemen, by contrast, as Mr. Al-Ahmed writes, Saudi policy is to back not only the government but at least part of the opposition as well, thus ensuring the survival if not the stability of another weak, subservient, and undemocratic neighbor. Symptomatic of this double game, along with the increasing infirmity of Saudi Arabia’s own decisionmakers, is Riyadh’s refusal to guarantee that Yemeni president Saleh will stay there, and avoid causing still more trouble back home. This fulfills, yet again, the reported deathbed advice of King Abdul Aziz al-Saud, founder of the modern Saudi kingdom, to protect the security of his country by “keeping the [Saudi] tribes united and Yemen divided.” The common denominator in both cases is a Saudi judgment that the United States, despite its substantial strategic interests in both Bahrain and Yemen, cannot be counted on to keep a friendly government in power in either country.

    But this brings us to another arena of shifting Saudi policy: Syria. Here, the popular uprising against President Assad’s regime is creating a newfound convergence of interests between Washington and Riyadh, in weakening and perhaps eventually toppling Iran’s only major Arab ally. This time, Saudi soft power—Al-Arabiya TV and other pan-Arab media, money, Muslim (Sunni) solidarity, and discreet diplomacy—is being deployed against a dictator, in the service not of democracy but of traditional Saudi “riyalpolitik” in the struggle against Iran. And this time, too, the self-interested Saudi policy is quite compatible with U.S. interests as well.

    In short, while Saudi Arabia opposes U.S. policy on democracy, it generally ends up supporting U.S. policies on oil and Iran. And as the old American saying goes, “two out of three ain’t bad.”

    David Pollock is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, focusing on the political dynamics of Middle Eastern countries. Previously, he served as senior advisor for the Broader Middle East at the State Department where he provided policy advice on issues of democracy and reform in the region, with a focus on women’s rights.