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  • Published on: 21st September 2019
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As the Arab Spring swept across North Africa towards the greater Middle East, Saudi Arabia braced itself for what this mounting wave of uprisings could mean both domestically and regionally. In the context of the Arab Spring, March 2011 was a nervous time in Riyadh, with a serious and justifiable fear of the domino effect and its possibility of spreading protests calling for more participation, accountability, and an opening in the Kingdom’s political system. 1,2 The status quo that had established the Saudi regime as the tacit leaders and protectors of the Arab world was also in jeopardy of being significantly shifted to other groups that could eventually rival Saudi Arabia for Islamic supremacy. The Saudi leadership wanted to preserve its leadership role along with its Islamic model in the Arab region and feared losing its unique Islamic credentials to Islamists in other countries seeking to reach power. The mere possibility of neighboring states combining Islamist politics with democracy was seen as an existential threat to the Saudi model and it seriously alarmed the Saudi state. 3

Compelled to resist these uprisings and with the changing geopolitical landscape, Saudi Arabia revised and implemented its foreign policies to “guarantee the permanence of the monarchy as a model government in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and loyal military republicanism elsewhere.” 4 Saudi foreign policy focused on developing measures to be both proactive and reactive as uprisings continued to swell across the region. Using its significant economic resources and its vast military arsenal, Saudi Arabia played a prominent role in a number of countries in the region by providing generous grants to preserve other allied monarchies in Oman, Bahrain, Morocco and Jordan to help stem the tide of the Arab spring while also preserving a semblance of stability and calm back at home through new employment opportunities, subsidies, and other welfare services worth billions of dollars. 5, 6 This nuanced approach may have succeeded in keeping the Arab Spring beyond the Saudi borders, but it also immersed Saudi Arabia in the complex and tangled domestic affairs of its neighbors.

While Saudi Arabia was able to use its vast financial resources to throw money to avoid possible uprisings at home and its military might to stem any possible domestic rumbling, its attempts to extend this dual approach in addressing the impact of the Arab spring regionally has led to mixed results at best.  In Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s longstanding ally Hosni Mubarak was deposed and a subsequent democratic election swept the Muslim Brotherhood to power. The Saudi monarchy viewed this party’s rise to power and the election of Mohamed Morsi as a possible regional rival as they also have religious credentials. The Saudi reaction was to play an active role in the successful overthrow of the Morsi presidency by supporting the military coup that replaced him with Abdel Al-Fattah Al-Sisi, a Saudi political ally who the state continues to support with significant economic aid and subsidies to the present day. 7

Another regional neighbor where Saudi intervention successfully stemmed the flow of the Arab Spring was in Bahrain where the Saudi monarchy sent troops to suppress popular protests. While at home, the Saudi monarchy purposely left sectarian differences, regional rivalries, and tribal fragmentation to work against the emergence of a unified Saudi Islamist protest movement, it channeled local Islamist euphoria when it used its troops in Bahrain to snuff the peaceful protest movement in 2011.8 These uprisings in Bahrain were led by Shiites who were seeking democratic reforms in an attempt to end the reign of the Sunni led Bahraini monarchy.  Having witnessed what transpired in Iraq, when democratic elections led to a new Shia led government, the Saudis wanted to avoid a similar democratic process to elect another Shia led government in Bahrain.  The preservation of the Bahraini monarchy became the paramount objective of the Saudis, as they feared a change in government through a democratic process would only serve to invigorate groups within Saudi Arabia’s borders while simultaneously strengthening its regional archrival, Iran. 9

The relative successes enjoyed by Saudi Arabia in Egypt and Bahrain could not be replicated in other parts of the region as the Arab Spring continued to spread to places like Syria and Yemen where the violent civil conflicts and have further divided the Arab world into Sunni and Shia camps and have sparked the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.  In Syria, Assad’s repression of peaceful demonstrators was not denounced in Saudi Arabia at first given that the Saudi's were themselves battling similar unrest in Bahrain and within its own borders to preserve the status quo. 10 However, as soon as it became rather clear that Assad’s brutal tactics were producing drastic amounts of casualties, the Syrian opposition was not easily containable, and that Assad would not be able to swiftly deal with the crisis, Saudi Arabia began to reconsider its approach and rather than try to stem tide of the Arab Spring in Syria, it moved to support the end of the Assad dictatorship through the large-scale supply of weapons and funds to various rebel forces. Saudi foreign policy in regards to Syria dramatically shifted from preserving the status quo as it had elsewhere in the region to actively seeking Assad’s demise and thereby seriously curtailing Iran’s regional ambitions as both Iran and Hezbollah strategically relied on the Assad government. 11

In Yemen, meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s footprint was even more pronounced than in Syria, through its direct military involvement in a crippling civil war. Yemen experienced its own Arab Spring in 2011 and this led to the Houthi uprising after the country’s youth called for democratic change and transition because they were not represented in the government. The Saudi’s responded to the popular protests in Yemen during the Arab Spring by negotiating to remove the longstanding president Ali Abdullah Saleh and installing his Vice President, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. 12 When President Hadi himself was removed from power by a band of militia fighters known as the Houthis, who the Saudi’s accused were being funded by Iran, Yemen plummeted into a proxy war between the two regional archrivals that continues to spill blood to this very day.  The Saudi led coalition is trapped in a quagmire in Yemen with no end to the hostilities on the horizon. Its efforts to isolate Yemen through a military blockade from land, sea and air has placed the country under siege and has directly led to tens of thousands of civilian deaths along with a humanitarian crisis that may have repercussions in the region for generations to come.  

     While the Arab Spring did not topple the Saudi monarchy, it markedly changed Saudi foreign policy from promoting its self-appointed leadership role in the Islamic world to actively seeking to preserve it by overtly supporting the established monarchies and dictatorships considered allies and supporting forces of change against regimes considered hostile.  For Saudi Arabia the remnants of the Arab Spring have sparked a regional cold war with Iran where the Saudi’s are seeking to contain Iran’s reach across the region through the same combination of economic influence and military might.  The sovereignty of Arab states across the region are more susceptible than ever to further Saudi meddling and influence in their domestic affairs as a result.

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