Saudi Arabia and the New Middle East Strategy and response to the Arab Spring
The Arab Spring, also known as the Jasmine Revolution, represents a series of protests that embraced the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), since the end of 2010, resulting in the collapse of certain authoritarian regimes in the region.
Saudi Arabia used its petrodollar wealth to maintain the stability within the Gulf Cooperation Council.
In practice, the Arab Spring was externally regarded by Riyadh as a threat to its strategic security, potentially undermining its regional influence, as well as the Saudi alliances[i]. Within this context, Saudi Arabia perceived the events taking place in the MENA region as a threat to its own stability, thus adopting a counter-revolutionary stance in Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait or Oman, in order to support the regimes in these countries. Saudi Arabia used its petrodollar wealth to maintain the stability within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), bestowing upon the governments of Manama, Muscat or Kuwait City more than 20 billion USD. Moreover, together with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Saudis offered in December 2011 grants of 5 billion USD to Jordan and Morocco[ii] and supported the 2013 Egyptian revolution against President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Prince Bandar bin Sultan himself, the Saudi intelligence chief at the time, met with the Egyptian opposition and the Western states, advocating for a regime change in Cairo[iii], which proved that the Saudis were not willing to make concessions with actors that were not considered their allies.
However, at the same time, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy did not concern only the perpetuation of the older status-quo, but it was also aimed at obtaining any strategic advantage that would enhance its influence in the Arab world, simultaneously marginalizing its main geopolitical competitor, Iran.
Therefore, the Saudis supported many Sunni groups who were militating against the regimes in Syria and Iraq. In Lebanon, they supported the creation of The Future Movement, as a counterpart to Hezbollah, and in Palestine they strengthened their ties with Al Fatah, to the detriment of Iran’s relation with Hamas, so that it is not sufficient to regard the Saudi reaction to the Arab Spring as merely counter-revolutionary. The Saudi response is also a strategic one[iv], resulting in the development of many proxy wars with the Iranian state, thus deepening sectarian cleavages.
It is not sufficient to regard the Saudi reaction to the Arab Spring as merely counter-revolutionary.
The Saudis legitimated their discourse as a leader of the Muslim world through the custody of the two Holy Mosques, Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina[v], aiming to consolidate, under Riyadh’s leadership, a Sunni axis, as an attempt to limit the ascension of the Muslim Brotherhood in MENA, as Turkey and Qatar desired immediately after the Arab Spring. Turkey, perceived at the time as a successful political model for the Arab world, as a result of its capacity to merge the market economy with the Muslim values, did not manage to impose its agenda in Egypt or Syria, being rather focused on issues such as domestic terrorism, the failed coup of July 2016 or the Kurdish problem in Levant. Within this context, neither Qatar managed to continue a policy of support for the Brotherhood, Iran remaining thus the only hegemonic competitor of the Saudis.
Last but not least, the Kingdom used petrodollars to attract in its sphere of influence many states from Western Africa, such as Somalia, Djibouti or Sudan, which, at the beginning of 2016, broke off diplomatic relation with Tehran. Amongst these, Sudan’s decision was the most surprising, as Khartoum was usually considered an important ally of Iran. It was not only money which helped the emergence of new Saudi alliances, but also the ascension of some Salafist groups in the African states, which promoted Riyadh’s interests. An example is Ansar al-Sunnah, a Salafist movement in Sudan, supported by Saudi Arabia, which, due to the social trust it amassed, managed to enter the country’s government, thus placing more pressure on the political leadership.
The Kingdom used petrodollars to attract in its sphere of influence many states from Western Africa, such as Somalia, Djibouti or Sudan, which, at the beginning of 2016, broke off diplomatic relation with Tehran.
Beginning with the summer of 2016, when Egypt supported the plan proposed by Russia and Iran at the United Nations for solving the Syrian crisis, the Sunni axis was again weakened, this time by Cairo. The Saudis, having firmly supported the current regime to the detriment of the one led by the Muslim Brotherhood, were upset by the Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement, particularly as a result of the bilateral meeting of the two countries’ foreign ministers with the occasion of the UN Summit at New York in 2016.[vi]
As a response, the Saudis began to support the initiatives of Sudan and Ethiopia in Africa, amongst which there was The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, formerly known as the Millennium Dam, perceived as a threat to the capacity of Egypt to supply itself with water from the Nile.
In turn, the discourse of the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, concerning the territorial disputes between his country and Egypt, began to be promoted both in Saudi press and in the messages of some leaders from Riyadh.
The differences of opinion between Cairo and Riyadh with respect to the Syrian matter are actually the outcome of divergent interests of the two countries, as Egypt is willing to support a regime close to Iran that would not allow the ascension of the Muslim Brothers which would result in the revival of the Brotherhood in MENA, also fostering protests and social tensions in Egypt[vii]. This stance proves that, although it does not support the Muslim Brotherhood, the Iranian state remains the main source of fear for Saudi Arabia, the latter subsequently being willing to do everything to limit its geopolitical ascension, even to constrain through proxy elements some allies, such as Egypt.
The Saudis will not accept a government led by the Houthi or the breakup of Yemen. A potential Houthi success in Yemen could lead to the so-called “Shiite awakening”, destabilizing both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Yemen remains a major problem for the Saudis, as the post-Arab Spring political transition ended as a failure, and the advancement of the Houthi rebels, considered a proxy of Iran, could destabilize the Kingdom. Therefore, the Saudis will not accept a government led by the Houthi or the breakup of Yemen, as in the period before 1990, into North Yemen and South Yemen respectively, because, in both situations, Iran could obtain an ally in Bab el Mandeb Strait and in the Red Sea. Moreover, a potential Houthi success in Yemen could lead to the so-called “Shiite awakening”, destabilizing both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, countries which were confronted with massive protests of the Shiite communities within the context of the Jasmine Revolution.
Most probably, in the short term, Saudi Arabia and Iran will avoid a direct military confrontation and, in the best-case scenario, the two powers would negotiate an agreement that would lead to regional stability and the division of spheres of influence. Otherwise, it is very possible that the two will orchestrate a hybrid war in order to reciprocally destabilize themselves. Besides, the Saudis accuse Iran of supporting the Shiite revolts in Bahrain and in the Kingdom, whereas Tehran claims that Saudi Arabia provides logistical and financial support to the Iranian Kurds in order to obtain their independence and, automatically, the sundering of Iran.
[i]Fouad Ibrahim, Reform, security in Saudi Arabia, Al Monitor, Octomber 16, 2013, available at http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/politics/2013/12/saudi-arabia-security-reform-regional-interference.html, accesed on 21.01.2017
[ii]Guido Steinberg, Leading the Counter-Revolution. Saudi Arabia and the Arab Spring, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik German Institute for International and Security Affairs, June 2014, p.14, available at https://www.swp-berlin.org/fileadmin/contents/products/research_papers/2014_RP07_sbg.pdf, accesed on 25.01.2017
[iii]Toby Matthiesen, The domestic sources of Saudi foreign policy: Islamists and the state in the wake of the Arab Uprisings, BROOKINGS Institute, pp.4-5, available at https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Saudi-Arabia_Matthiesen-FINALE.pdf, accesed on 31.01.2017
[iv]René Rieger, In Search of Stability: Saudi Arabia and the Arab Spring, Gulf Research Center, 2014, p.14, available at https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/182104/GRM_Rieger_final__09-07-14_3405.pdf, accesed on 07.02.2017
[v]Fouad Ibrahim, Reform, security in Saudi Arabia, Al Monitor, Octomber 16, 2013, available at http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/politics/2013/12/saudi-arabia-security-reform-regional-interference.html, accesed on 21.01.2017
[vi]Alaa Bayoumi, The Saudi Egyptian divide runs deeper than Syria, Al Araby, October 21, 2016, available at https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/comment/2016/10/21/the-saudi-egyptian-divide-runs-deeper-than-syria, accesed on 20.02.2017
[vii]Alain Gresh, Turbulent times for Saudi-Egyptian relations, Al Araby, December 14, 2016, available at https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/comment/2016/12/15/turbulent-times-for-saudi-egyptian-relations, accesed on 01.02.2017