The Shifting Sands of Arab Politics

The Arab Spring has complicated relations within the Middle East. Prior to the revolts, one could point to only one real state-to-state axis—the Arabs against the Iranians. The Arab states were, despite their massive securitization, more or less united as status quo powers, seeking to keep down liberal and Islamist oppositions while making slow, or no, progress on reform. The revolts ended that consensus. Egypt and Tunisia have been forced to accelerate reforms and be at least slightly responsive to popular demands. Morocco and Jordan have forestalled revolution with moves towards constitutionalism. Some states, like Syria and Yemen, have lost what little regional influence they had, and some states, led by Saudi Arabia, are attempting to salvage what they can of the old order.

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The Saudi trend has been visible from the start. Though the al Saud legitimize their rule via religion, King Abdullah had very unkind words for the movement against the secular Egyptian regime. The intervention in Bahrain by the Gulf Cooperation Council (led by the Saudis) was one of Saudi Arabia’s most aggressive foreign policy maneuvers since the downfall of the Ikhwan. Given the extreme cautiousness typically seen in Saudi affairs, it is a strong indicator that the princes are frightened, but that they have an active, positive policy stance. Their latest actions demonstrate that further. They have attempted to gain admission for Jordan and Morocco in the Gulf Cooperation Council (Morocco being 2,900 miles from the Gulf), and have extended significant amounts of aid, including hundreds of millions of dollars and three million barrels of oil (a necessity given Jordan’s energy crisis, which is itself an indirect product of the Arab Spring). They’ve reportedly been pushing very hard in back rooms against constitutionalist reforms. They are clearly trying to establish a new axis—an axis of conservative monarchies–under the auspices of the GCC.

This is a throwback to old-school Arab politics—the Arab Cold War, in which the revolutionary, faintly pro-Soviet regimes (led by Nasser’s Egypt) were aligned against the traditional,faintly pro-American monarchies (led by the Saudis). This Cold War, like the broader Cold War to which it was a subtext, created much intrigue and a few proxy wars (notably that in North Yemen in the 1960s).

Unlike the old days, the US has so far indicated that it won’t be taken for a ride by the conservative factions, and has aligned against the al Saud by advising leaders like Jordan’s King Abdullah that reform is the only sustainable path. The alignment isn’t a hard position—it’s so far only extended to advice and light pressure on Jordan and Bahrain, and it has carefully avoided criticism of the Saudis. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even called the Women2Drive protests in Saudi Arabia “brave” but an internal Saudi matter, prompting criticism from the movement’s leaders.

One could say, then, that there are several axes forming in the new Middle East, of varying strengths. Despite overwrought worries of an Egypt-Iran rapprochement, the Arab-Iranian rivalry is as strong as ever. The GCC and the Saudis have emerged as the leading counterrevolutionary player, and the US has taken a position that, when we look past the soft content I discussed, is neither for nor against the counterrevolution. The revolutionaries are not themselves an axis, though they could plausibly become one (though not one with nearly the strength of Nasser’s). Egypt is still up in the air, and we will not know the final impact of the Spring on foreign relations until it settles down. It is unlikely that Egypt will take a strong stance—the generals will not allow it. The al Saud, in the name of stability, have pushed a four billion dollar aid package towards Cairo. As long as they remain friendly or neutral towards the new government, it will have no reason to turn against Riyadh and create a new Arab Cold War. It’s quite likely that Egypt will merely turn inward—it has enough problems internally, and the only foreign policies that could adequately distract from those problems (attacking Israel, or aligning with Iran) are insane, and would only make its problems worse in the long run. The true test will come if another revolt breaks out once Egypt has its house in order (or less in disorder). Will there be a popular outcry to aid the rebels? The Saudis could see this as a restoration of Nasserite revisionism, and this could really reopen old fissures.

We are also seeing an ostensibly changed US-Saudi relationship. Prince Turki bin Faisal and an old associate of his both published op-eds in the Washington Post warning of a shift towards a less friendly position. I can’t speak to his associate’s influence, but I’d call Turki a semi-authoritative voice (he’s more or less out of the government, but has close ties to senior figures) on the movements of the al Saud. There is indeed a struggle over the GCC’s expansion. However, the Saudis did act unilaterally last week to raise global oil production after a breakdown of negotiations in OPEC, and this certainly benefits the US. Obama is learning, as so many American presidents have, that despite our dramatically different systems of government, the United States and Saudi Arabia have a relationship founded on deep, common interests—stable, moderately priced oil, counterterrorism, Gulf peace and balance, and political stability. We are merely entering a period in which the superstructure of the relationship will show some cracks.



Filed under Arab World, Saudi Arabia

3 responses to “The Shifting Sands of Arab Politics

  1. Nicely written overview but with a surprising finish that the text does not seem to support. As the Arab Spring and Saudi counterrevolution roil the Mideast, where is the evidence that Saudi Arabia and the US share common national interests? Oil is no answer. Iran, Saddam’s Iraq, the old USSR, Venezuela…everyone wants to sell us their oil.

    It seems to me that the events of Arab Spring demonstrate the clash between long-term US national interests and the interests of the ruling sheiks of Saudi Arabia. Riyadh worsened the crisis in Bahrain by transforming it from peaceful democratic protest into sectarian repression that will come back to haunt the US. Riyadh undercut Egyptian reform, essential to prevent a disaster in that poverty-ridden, corruption-ridden and horribly misgoverned state. Again, slamming the lid back on is likely to provoke something far more destabilizing than Tahrir Square.

    Rather, I would argue that Erdogan’s Turkey currently offers the U.S. the best deal available in the Mideast: moderate, modernizing, democratizing Islam that rejects the three pillars of extremism in that region–Iranian Shi’i/nationalist crusade, Israeli expansionism, and Saudi Arabia’s Salafi crusade–and tries instead to find positive-sum outcomes.

    • The difference is that the Saudis are afraid–have been for decades, and get more so every day–of a world where oil isn’t king anymore. That’s the self-interested reason they have for thumbing their nose at OPEC last week. Iran, which led the charge for the anti-production-hike faction, doesn’t share that interest because it has a much tighter budget and doesn’t have excess capacity–it would rather sell a little less and get more revenue. They don’t have the luxury of thinking ten, twenty, fifty years into the future and trying to keep the world hooked on oil. They’re living hand-to-mouth. That excess capacity keeps the US interested, because (provided Hormuz is clear) it can significantly improve the stability of the world oil markets. That’s all far from sufficient to explain the closeness of Riyadh and Washington, but the Kingdom’s immense security needs probably fill that gap.
      Is there a clash between the US and Saudi preferences on governance style? Definitely. It’s not going to be nearly as severe, though, as the Saudi-Egyptian dynamic of the old Arab Cold War, because the Arab Spring, despite being pan-Arab in extent and in causation (it hasn’t spread to Iran, for instance), is not an evangelical movement. If it has a foreign policy at all, it seems to be against the peace with Israel, but as long as undemocratic power remains a part of the system, that’s a dead issue, so the Saudis aren’t going to worry about it. There are long-term disagreements, but the energy and security worries trump that.
      Turkey’s really playing a quiet game here–they were wise to hold out at first and use the in-system influence they’ve got in Syria, but they might boost their credibility on the “Arab street” if they, say, unilaterally created a safe zone in northern Syria. The path they’re on is a safe path, but it’s not a leadership path. A true major regional player simply isn’t going to let things go south like that in its own backyard.

  2. Pingback: Saudi Arabia: The Cost of Empire | John Allen Gay's Middle East Blog

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