The Arab uprisings which beginning with Tunisia swept over the whole Arabic world, from Morocco to Syria, could not have come in a worse moment for the Saudi leadership. Weakened by internal divisions, the ageing leadership was seriously concerned about the movements of protest that materialized inside the country, not only in the Eastern province where a Shi’ite minority lives, but also in many Saudi cities. The regime responded to demonstrations in three ways. First, the heavy intervention of security forces; second, the deployment of the religious establishment, who repeatedly blamed civil disobedience as forbidden in Islam, while at the same time playing the card of sectarianism, mainly against the shi’a community. Lastly, economic benefits were distributed to buy loyalty.
These internal tensions determined how Saudi Arabia responded to revolts in the neighbouring countries and the Arab World as a whole. Three strategies were adopted: containment, counter-revolution and supporting revolution. In Tunisia and Egypt Saudi media were initially critic of the protests and stood rather clearly with the regimes. For instance, it was argued that Bu Azizi, the young Tunisian who burnt himself to death, was of weak faith and unable to endure hardship; otherwise, he would have refrained from committing suicide, an act which is condemned by Islam. Despite tight relations in security matters, Tunisia was after all marginal to Saudi politics and in the end the regime came to accept the fait accompli. However, Saudi Arabia did not congratulate Tunisians for their revolution until recently, when the new Tunisian Prime Minister, Jibali, visited Riyadh, mainly to discuss the sort of former president Ben Ali, who took refuge in Jeddah.
Egypt by contrast created a crisis, but also an opportunity. Mubarak was an important ally against Iran and the Saudi leadership tried to prolong his power. Here too these attempts proved unsuccessful and a transitional government was created. Later on, as a result of free elections, in Egypt as elsewhere, Islamists came finally to power. Surprisingly enough for a State claiming that Islamic Law is its only Constitution, Saudi Arabia was disappointed by this result. In fact, the real challenge is represented today by the Muslim Brotherhood, because they constitute an Islamic alternative to the Saudi model, propounding a mix of democracy and Islam. So far, the Saudi regime has supported the Military Council established in Cairo to counter the Brotherhood’s influence. In some occasions the old ambition to lead the whole Arab Sunni camp has materialized again, even if one can doubt about the feasibility of this project. It is in this sense that one can affirm that the Egyptian crisis was perceived also as an opportunity.
The strategy of counter-revolution was carried out mainly in Bahrain, and partly in Yemen. Saudi media presented the Bahraini democratic movement as a shiite conspiracy secretly led by Iran. This is hardly believable since Bahrain has a long tradition of political engagement and though the Shia, as every religious community, has a transnational dimension, the vast majority of Bahrainis want to remain Arabs. The greatest concern of the Saudi regime was the possible fall of the Bahraini dynasty, the Al-Khalifa, because it would have opened the doors to other changes in the Gulf countries, possibly in Saudi Arabia itself. This is why it opted for direct military intervention in support of the Al-Khalifa, a fact that barely received media coverage in the West. The move however went into a prolonged crisis, in which compromises are becoming more and more difficult: once a big brother is backing a minority regime, the latter is no longer accountable to his own people.
If containment and counter-revolution were the two main strategies adopted by Saudi Arabia during the first months of the Arab uprisings, it may come as a surprise the outspoken support that Riyadh has expressed for the Syrian revolution, above all if compared with the stance taken in Bahrain. This contradiction has obviously been exploited by Asad’s regime whose UN representative recently called for a peacekeeping force to be sent in Bahrain and Qatif (the capital of the Eastern Province) rather than his own country.
Ba’athist dictatorship has been oppressing Syrians for the last 40 years. However, behind the Saudi choice to oppose it, there probably lie some regional considerations: the purpose seems to be to defeat Iran in Syria rather than to support Syrian people. Syria is also a key to Lebanon and a success there would counter recent setbacks both in Iraq and Palestine. It must be added that over the months the democratic issue, which originally was the driving force of demonstrations, has been hijacked by sectarian tensions to the point that the Syrian conflict threatens now to become a regional war.
What would be its outcome? Personally, my biggest worry is to see the Levant divided according to sectarian lines, with Alawi, Druze, Kurdi, possibly Christian, Sunni and Shi’i principalities. I am really afraid of this scenario because the tyranny of the sect is unbearable. I hope instead for a civic state in Syria, as well in the whole Arabic world.
* Conference given in London, 20 March 2012