Saudis eye Arab Spring with unease

By Neil Macfarquhar

New York Times News Service

Published: Friday, May 27 2011 10:28 p.m. MDT

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.

From Egypt, where the Saudis dispensed $4 billion in aid last week to shore up the ruling military council, to Yemen, where it is trying to ease out the president, to the kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco, which it has invited to join a union of Persian Gulf monarchies, Saudi Arabia is scrambling to forestall more radical change and block Iran's influence.

The kingdom is aggressively emphasizing the relative stability of monarchies, part of an effort to avert any dramatic shift from the authoritarian model, which would generate uncomfortable questions about the glacial pace of political and social change at home.

Saudi Arabia's proposal to include Jordan and Morocco in the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council — which authorized the Saudis to send in troops to quell a largely Shiite Muslim rebellion in the Sunni Muslim monarchy of Bahrain — is intended to create a kind of "Club of Kings." The idea is to signal Shiite Iran that the Sunni Arab monarchs will defend their interests, analysts said.

"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' 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 and beyond as the kingdom reaches out to ally with non-Arab Muslim states as well.

"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 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.

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