Saudi Arabia: Rolling Back the Arab Spring

Gulf Cooperation Council troops entering BahrainThe Saudi and Bahraini monarchies recently announced the engagement of a Saudi princess to a Bahraini prince. A substantial bridal party has preceded her, though. Starting March 14th, 4,000 Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops, mostly from Saudi Arabia, have entered Bahrain to suppress its protest movement. Some 1,600 Saudi soldiers will remain in the country indefinitely to safeguard the regime there from further “disturbances,” i.e., pro-democracy protests.

Bahrain’s government will be seeking accommodations for these soldiers in the form of new, permanent GCC bases. This process will be helped along by the billions of dollars in aid that Bahrain is set to receive from the GCC.

The GCC presence has freed up the hard-pressed Bahraini security forces to take more “proactive” actions such as home and mosque demolitions. The United States has called on all parties to exercise restraint — though this has fallen on deaf ears with respect to Bahraini security forces, which have detained and intimidated numerous activists. Dozens of protesters have been killed or are missing.

Some dowry.

Arab Counterrevolution’s Heroic Square

At the hub of the pro-democracy demonstrations in the Bahraini capital of Manama, the Bahraini authorities remodeled the public plaza known as Pearl Square and renamed it the Gulf Cooperation Council Square to expunge any associations with Cairo’s Tahrir Square or Bahraini nationalism.

“Now even the Arab counterrevolution has its heroic square,” opined the German news outlet Der Spiegel.

It is fitting that the square has been renamed after the Saudi-dominated GCC, because the Saudis have been working hard to keep the winds of the Arab Spring from blowing into the Persian Gulf.

Saudi diplomacy has gone into crisis management mode as both old allies (President Saleh of Yemen) and old enemies (President Assad of Syria) face destabilizing domestic protests. “Regime change” is not something the Saudis — or the United States — is very comfortable with, even in Syria, unless they are able to manage it with military action (like the ongoing intervention in Libya).

“We are back to the 1950s and early 1960s, when the Saudis led the opposition to the revolutions at that time, the revolutions of Arabism,” according to a Saudi political analyst in the The Washington Post.

“We” are indeed turning back the clock — to the time when the United States sought to suppress self-determination in the Persian Gulf by means both fair and foul. The “special relationship” between the United States and Saudi Arabia has stood the test of time based on mutual interests — oil for security. It is therefore not surprising that the U.S.-Saudi alliance still endures as Saudi Arabia attempts to manage and roll back the winds of revolutionary transformation, from Bahrain to Yemen, with U.S. acquiescence.

Dictators-In-Arms

In addition to sending troops and using force as they did in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia has also sought to control the Arab Spring through backroom negotiations. The Saudis fear an Egyptian rapprochement with Iran and have responded accordingly: Der Spiegel reports that the Kingdom has promised the Egyptian transitional government $4 billion.

Although no friend of the Syrian government, the Saudis have felt compelled to proclaim their support for President Assad. “Better the devil you know,” as the saying goes. Saudi Arabia is also trying to bring Jordan and Morocco into its fold as a way to control and repress social discontent in those countries. Even though neither Morocco nor Jordan is a Gulf country, the Saudis have been pressing for their acceptance into the GCC.

The Saudis have also moved to extend the hand of Arab fraternity (or despotic fraternity) to deposed Tunisian president Ben Ali, who is now residing in Saudi Arabia (the new Tunisian government tried and convicted him in absentia for corruption charges). Idi Amin also took up residence there — and so has Yemeni President Saleh. “A Five-Star Retirement Home for Dictators” is what Ellen Knickmeyer sardonically calls the Kingdom in a recent article for Foreign Policy.

Shia Scare

One of the tactics being used in Bahrain is the “Shia Scare.” As its majority Shia population grows ever larger and calls for increasing change, the minority Sunni Bahraini monarchy sees an Iranian (i.e., “Shia”) hand in everything. But as Olivier Roy points out: “Arab Shias are not an Iranian fifth column: Shias in Iraq and Bahrain have long understood the dangers of becoming instruments of Iran. They are Iraqis and Bahrainis first and foremost and are fighting to be recognised as full citizens of the countries in which they live. But, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, they depend on Iranian patronage in a hostile Sunni environment.”

Although Iran has its aspirations in the Gulf, Roy notes, “Saudi Arabia is behind the elaboration of a grand narrative that pits Persian Shias against Arab Sunnis and in which all Arab Shias are regarded as Arabic-speaking Persians (as well as heretics, according to Wahhabi doctrine).”

And with the Obama administration ostensibly less “tough” on Iran than its predecessors, there is a growing sense of U.S. abandonment in Riyadh over the supposed Shia threat, according to Saudi analyst Nawaf Obaid:

As Riyadh fights a cold war with Tehran, Washington has shown itself in recent months to be an unwilling and unreliable partner against this threat. The emerging political reality is a Saudi-led Arab world facing off against the aggression of Iran and its non-state proxies [Hezbollah, Hamas] and Saudi Arabia will not allow the political unrest in the region to destabilize the Arab monarchies.

The Saudis have made overtures to Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia regarding a possible containment of Iran. Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005, allegedly told a group of Pakistani generals, “The U.S. shouldn’t be counted on to restore stability across the Middle East.”

Concerns over a reputed Iranian “fifth column” in Bahrain remain pronounced among GCC (and U.S.) officials. Despite expressing some human rights concerns, the United States has largely praised the actions of the Bahraini monarchy in managing demands for greater democratization, and has warned against Iranian interference.

“The United States has not been as supportive of human rights activists in Bahrain as it would be in other circumstances, and it’s not putting as much pressure on the Bahraini government as it’s putting on Yemen, Syria, and other countries where the government is engaged in suppressing protests,” Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Al Jazeera. Saudi pressure, she argues, is exercising significant influence on U.S. politics.

Even without Saudi sway, the United States has plenty of reasons to stay silent about Bahrain. President Obama recently met with Bahrain’s rulers to discuss the strategic situation and the disposition of the U.S. Fifth Fleet based in the country.

“Backstop” against al Qaeda?

With Saudi help, Washington is now ramping up a “drone war” in Yemen against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Yemen’s historic relationship with Saudi Arabia roughly compares to that of Mexico and the United States: intervention in a 20th century civil war, an imbalanced economic relationship, and even a border barrier (purportedly aimed at “keeping out” illegal immigrants). Saudi involvement is only increasing in response to unrest and pro-democracy demonstrations in Yemen.

Though not happy with the content of the pro-democracy protests (and ever worried about al Qaeda and Iranian influence in Yemen), the Saudis are hoping to ease out a besieged President Saleh, while simultaneously taking steps to maintain their influence in the country. There is no easy solution for the Saudis regarding Yemen: President Saleh and his supporters have been bankrolled by the Saudi government for years, but continued support for Saleh may leave the Kingdom out in the cold if a new government is formed.

Although the United States publically supports a negotiated solution in Yemen likely to result in Saleh’s resignation, there is fear of the country becoming “another Afghanistan.” The rationale for the new “drone war” is that it will prevent al Qaeda from finding a new safe haven.

The United States blames AQAP for failed attempts to destroy U.S. commercial airliners, the abortive actions of the “Times Square bomber,” and the Fort Hood shooting. WikiLeaks disclosures reveal that the scope of the “drone war” over Yemen is larger than previously thought, and that the Yemeni government is an active participant (in contrast to the drone campaigns in Afghanistan and Pakistan).

It is difficult to tell just how the Arab Spring has affected official U.S. policy in Yemen, but consider this: A “secret CIA airbase” in the Mideast is reported to be under construction to enable this expanded effort. The AP reports that the United States views the new airbase as “a backstop, if al Qaeda or other anti-American rebel forces gain control.”

Charity Begins at Home

At home, the Saudis have moved quickly to suppress any stirrings of unrest. It would be an understatement to suggest that the United States looks the other way from Saudi human rights abuses. Strategic importance trumps human rights when certain allies are concerned — Musharraf’s Pakistan, Mubarak’s Egypt, Pinochet’s Chile, and, of course, Bahrain.

But U.S. silence on human rights in Saudi Arabia is deafening. Whether in response to the crackdown of public demonstrations (labor protests have been suppressed for decades), lack of religious freedoms for Saudi Arabia’s Shia Muslim population, the indentured servitude that non-Saudi guest workers endure, or the arrest of women who have protested the country’s ban on female drivers, the U.S. response has been, at best, tepid.

Domestically the Saudis have moved quickly to buy off dissent with new social spending programs, reports Steffen Hertog for Foreign Policy. This approach is not new, but its scale is: $130 billion this year alone. In addition to housing and employment program and beefing up the bureaucracy, some of this money is earmarked for the country’s religious establishment. “Many Saudis see the extra cash for religious institutions, including the religious police, as a reward for their vocal public stance against potential anti-regime demonstrations,” according to Hertog.

Because Saudi Arabia was founded on the basis of a religious-royal alliance, clerical support is a vital competent of the House of Saud’s legitimacy. Wahhabism, a particularly puritanical strain of Sunni Islamism, is the ideological glue that has held the country together since its founding in 1932.

Business as Usual

Washington has given its blessings to Saudi Arabia to continue playing its counter-revolutionary role. This helps explain the new U.S.-Saudi arms deal on the table, including “warships with integrated air and Aegis missile defense systems, as well as helicopters, patrol craft and shore infrastructure” and a program to “train a new Facilities Security Force (FSF) designed to protect sensitive Saudi oil installations . . . to reach 35,000 strong.”

Historically, the United States has relied on Saudi Arabia to do some of its dirty work, such as funding certain unscrupulous dictators and causes. This is not limited to the Middle East: The Saudis, along with France, Egypt, Morocco, and pre-Revolutionary Iran helped bankroll anti-communist movements in Africa during the Cold War through the infamous “Safari Club.” Furthermore, Saudi largesse funded anti-communist propaganda across the Muslim world for decades.

But 1979 changed all of that. That year, the Saudis faced apparent existential threats from the Shah’s fall in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the violent seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by puritanical rebels. The Saudi establishment, shaken to its core, felt compelled to boost its image as guardians of the faith in order to regain domestic and international status.

Support for the Afghan mujahedeen, and increased deference to the Wahhabi clergy at home, was the solution the establishment settled on — and Washington, hoping to give the Soviets a taste of Vietnam in Central Asia, was happy to help out. Saudi money flowed to Islamist groups all over the Muslim world with U.S. assistance. Saudi Arabia, awash in oil revenues and under the enthusiastic direction of Intelligence chief Prince Turki, became the primary channel for U.S. aid to the Afghan mujahedeen via Pakistan. The CIA utilized the shadowy and now defunct Bank of Credit and Commerce International to fund the Afghan mujahedeen.

The Taliban also received Saudi guidance in implementing a harsh Sharia-derived legal system, which included an incarnation of the Saudi religious police, the mutaween. Before 9/11 the United States was not overly concerned with such things. In fact, in 1997, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid reported a U.S. diplomat as saying that the “Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that.”

Despite a bipartisan political tempest over Saudi support for terrorist organizations after 9/11, by the mid-2000s, the furor over Saudi actions subsided as hawkish eyes turned to Iran’s nuclear program and influence in post-Saddam Iraq.

The U.S.-trained Facilities Security Force, created solely to protect Saudi oilfields, represents the key pillar of the relationship: protection of U.S. oil interests in exchange for defending the Kingdom against any threats — democratic, terroristic or otherwise. “For more than 60 years, Saudi Arabia has been bound by an unwritten bargain: oil for security,” writes Nawaf Obaid. “Riyadh has often protested but ultimately acquiesced to what it saw as misguided U.S. policies.” This business, in the form of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, is booming.

At the upcoming royal marriage between the Bahraini prince and the Saudi princess, the United States will be the Saudis’ date for the reception.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. The author would like to thank Professor Deepa Kumar of Rutgers University for her assistance with this article.