Saudi Arabia's Invisible Hand in the Arab Spring

How the Kingdom is Wielding Influence Across the Middle East

Courtesy Reuters

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.


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