How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
On October 4, a brief, ominous release came from the state-controlled Saudi Press Agency in Riyadh acknowledging that there had been violent clashes in the eastern city of Qatif between restive Shiites and Saudi security forces. It reported that "a group of instigators of sedition, discord and unrest" had assembled in the heart of the kingdom's oil-rich region, armed with Molotov cocktails. As authorities cleared the protesters, 11 officers were wounded. The government made clear it would respond to any further dissent by "any mercenary or misled person" with "an iron fist." Meanwhile, it pointed the finger of blame for the riots at a "foreign country," a thinly veiled reference to archrival Iran.
Saudi Arabia has played a singular role throughout the Arab Spring. With a guiding hand -- and often an iron fist -- Riyadh has worked tirelessly to stage manage affairs across the entire region. In fact, if there was a moment of the Arab revolt that sounded the death knell for a broad and rapid transition to representative government across the Middle East, it came on the last day of February, when Saudi tanks rolled across the border to help put down the mass uprising that threatened the powers that be in neighboring Bahrain. The invasion served an immediate strategic goal: The show of force gave Riyadh's fellow Sunni monarchy in Manama the muscle it needed to keep control of its Shia-majority population and, in turn, its hold on power.
But that was hardly the only advantage King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud gained. The aggression quelled momentum in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich eastern province among the newly restive Shia minority who had been taking cues from Bahrain. The column of tanks also served as a symbolic shot across the bow of Iran: The brazen move was a clear signal from Riyadh to every state in the Middle East that it would stop at nothing, ranging from soft diplomacy to full-on military engagement, in its determination to lead a region-wide counterrevolution.
From the Arab Spring's beginning, Riyadh reached directly into local conflicts. As far back as January, the kingdom offered refuge to Tunisia's deposed leader, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Eager that popular justice not become the norm for Arab dictators, Riyadh has steadfastly refused to extradite Ben Ali to stand trial. (He remains in Riyadh to this day.) Moreover, Ben Ali's statements, issued through his lawyer, have consistently called on Tunisians to continue the path of "modernization." For fear of upsetting his Saudi hosts, he has not been able to express what must be his horror as a secularist at the dramatic emergence of Ennahda ("Awakening"), the main Islamist party, on the Tunisian political scene. Ennahda's meteoric rise is widely believed to be, at least in part, bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries.
Islamists across the region are working in Riyadh's favor. As with the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the Saudis gained newfound influence with the Muslim Brotherhood and its even more hard-line Salfi allies, who reportedly take funds from the Saudis. The Muslim Brotherhood has vaulted to prominence in the post-Mubarak era. It draws hundreds of thousands to rallies. It looks set to sweep forthcoming elections. After all, it is telling that Muslim Brotherhood members took refuge in Saudi Arabia during the decades of persecution under former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Today, the party makes a good partner for Riyadh, as it never utters even a whisper of criticism of what more radical Islamist outfits denounce as the Saudi royal family's treacherous ties with the West. If Saudi Arabia desperately backed Mubarak to his last days, in post-revolutionary Egypt the kingdom is now closely connected to the country's new political power brokers.
All of this makes the situation in Yemen look quite familiar. When President Ali Abdullah Saleh was injured in the June bombing of his presidential palace, he fled to (where else?) Saudi Arabia. When Saleh returned to his country last month, he found himself more indebted to Riyadh than ever. Essentially, Saudi medics had saved his life, and in a tribal region such personal debts are not quickly forgotten. But Saleh may not matter much: In the capital of Sana'a, the exhausted protesters have largely departed the main square they had occupied. It has been taken over by activists from Islah (or, the Islamist Congregation for Reform), the country's main Islamist party. Islah was founded by leading members of the powerful, Saudi-backed Hashid tribal confederation, whose decision to turn against Saleh was a key moment in the uprising. Whichever side emerges triumphant from the power struggle now under way, the Saudis have both eventualities -- either Saleh or the Hashids -- covered.
Looking at the future of the Middle East, perhaps the most decisive change could come in Syria. It was with a heavy dose of irony that King Abdullah condemned Syria for the murderous crackdown Damascus was waging against its own popular rebellion in early August. Of course, Riyadh has a less than exemplary human rights record, to say the least. Likewise, King Abdullah's announcement that he was withdrawing Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Damascus was less a protest against the savage brutality of the Syrian regime (if it was at all) as it was another chapter in Riyadh's ongoing effort to loosen Iran's grasp on the region's counterrevolution. The simultaneous decision by fellow Gulf Cooperation Council members -- Kuwait and Bahrain -- to likewise withdraw their ambassadors, followed by a communiqué from the Arab League expressing predictably muted misgivings about Damascus' ongoing massacres, indicated the kingdom's ability to line up allies and make them dance to the tune of the regional powerhouse.
If the Syrian regime collapses (which is hardly imminent but appearing more and more possible as peaceful demonstrations give way to armed insurrection), it would mean the end not only of a brutal dictatorship but also of the only other ostensibly secular Arab country apart from Tunisia -- another boon for Riyadh. However, in light of Saudi Arabia's hardened stance, the real question is what it envisions would happen in Syria if the regime were overthrown. Riyadh's hope, clearly, is that a post-Assad Syria would align itself with a new Sunni-led, more anti-Iran government in Damascus. That may be hoping against hope, at least in the short term, because Syria is more likely to descend into a bloody, sectarian-driven civil war than witness a smooth transition to a new government. Riyadh, though, is banking on the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies ultimately coming out on top. It is certainly true that, since most Syrians are Sunnis and the Muslim Brotherhood is the best organized of the opposition groups, they are the most likely to fill the vacuum in the long term.
If the Arab Spring had any hope of ushering in greater freedom and democracy, it would have had to challenge from the beginning the influence of Saudi Arabia, the region's Washington-allied superpower and its most antidemocratic, repressive regime. That is a tall order indeed. The tragic irony of the uprisings is that the exact opposite happened.