The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The Saudi-led counter-revolution

The NYT covers the Saudi-led counter revolution, starting with a lede that is a hodgepodge of bombastic adjectives and mixed metaphors:

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia is flexing its financial and diplomatic might across the Middle East in a wide-ranging bid to contain the tide of change, shield fellow monarchs from popular discontent and avert the overthrow of any more leaders struggling to calm turbulent republics.

The NYT is obviously suffering from editorial cuts. OK, now that my writerly criticism is out of the way, to the meat of the story:

“We’re sending a message that monarchies are not where this is happening,” Prince Waleed bin Talal al-Saud, a businessman and high-profile member of the habitually reticent royal family, told The New York Times’s editorial board, referring to the unrest. “We are not trying to get our way by force, but to safeguard our interests.”

The range of the Saudi intervention is extraordinary as the unrest pushes Riyadh’s hand to forge what some commentators, in Egypt and elsewhere, brand a “counterrevolution.” Some Saudi and foreign analysts find the term too sweeping for the steps the Saudis have actually taken, though it appears unparalleled in the region.

“I am sure that the Saudis do not like this revolutionary wave — they were really scared,” said Khalid Dakhil, a Saudi political analyst and columnist. “But they are realistic here.”

In Egypt, where the revolution has already toppled a close Saudi ally in Hosni Mubarak, the Saudis are dispensing aid and mending ties in part to help head off a good showing by the Muslim Brotherhood in the upcoming parliamentary elections. The Saudis worry that an empowered Muslim Brotherhood could damage Saudi legitimacy by presenting a model of Islamic law different from the Wahhabi tradition of an absolute monarch.

“If another model of Shariah says that you have to resist, this will create a deep difficulty,” said Abdulaziz Algasim, a Saudi lawyer.

Saudi officials are also concerned that Egypt’s foreign policy is shifting, with its outreach to the Islamist group Hamas and plans to restore ties with Iran. The Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, also retains a personal interest in protecting Mr. Mubarak, analysts believe.

The Arab Spring began to unravel an alliance of so-called moderate Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which were willing to work closely with the United States and promote peace with Israel. American support for the Arab uprisings also strained relations, prompting Saudi Arabia to split from Washington on some issues while questioning its longstanding reliance on the United States to protect its interests.

Blake Hounshell remarked on Twitter that Prince al-Waleed does not usually use "we" since he likes to paint himself as a royal outsider. Seems there is a real rallying of ranks among the monarchs, which is what makes what is happening in Bahrain and Morocco so important. If one of them falls or is pressured into making real concessions, the others will have a much tougher time justifying their absolutist nature. This is something many worry about in Morocco: even if the king were inclined to make a real transition to constitutional monarchy, would the Saudis allow him to do so? Same goes for Jordan.

The other thing that is made refreshingly clear in this piece — in the last paragraph quoted above — is how much the Arab Spring took place against the US-Israeli-Saudi system in the region. And it shows that the destabilization of Saudi Arabia has to be a key goal of Arab democrats in the next few years — the best form of defense is offense. Just don't look to Washington for help on that one, despite Vali Nasr's rather preposterous idea that the al-Sauds are on a collision course with Obama. (To be fair he makes the argument that the US needs to fight back against the Saudi counter-revolution.)

See also this Bloggingheads episode featuring Bernard Heykal and Madawi al-Rasheed on Saudi Arabia.