The political instincts of Saudi King Abdullah, 90, who is dismissed by some American pundits as “past it” and “ailing,” are still sharp enough for him to weigh in strongly in the Arab world’s current upheavals.
In June 2009, President Barack Obama impressed him by making Riyadh his first stop in the Arab world as new US president, before going on to Cairo and delivering his landmark outreach gesture to the Muslim world.
But that was four years ago. Today, the Saudi monarch is no fan of Obama. He has never forgiven him for hustling his good friend President Hosni Mubarak out of office in February 2011 with an order to step down NOW! And he has no time for any facet of the US president’s performance in the region ever since.
Abdullah’s disapproval was stoked by the “Arab Spring” as it unfolded in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.
US and European backing for the ostensibly “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood and other opponents of autocratic rulers and incumbent regimes was seen as the enemy of stability in the region.
The Saudis saw the successive breakup of states and the weakening of their political fabric and economy as creating a broad base for Western domination. They complained that the process targeted the very pro-Western regimes willing to gradually introduce economic and social reforms under the steady hand of strong ruling elites.
Those elites and the nation-state born in the last century are being swept away in the upheaval by extremist groups and ruling castes like the Muslim Brotherhood which espouse Islamic extremist ideologies and aspire to replace the incumbent regimes with a fundamentalist Islamic caliphate and Sharia law.
Riyadh galvanized into reforms and foreign interventions
After witnessing these events, Saudi and Gulf rulers feared they were doomed by Obama’s political philosophy to go the way of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. They saw the shock waves radiating from Iraq and Syria threatening to inundate the Kingdoms of Jordan and Bahrain, before drowning the Saudi monarchy as well.
This nightmare perception galvanized Saudi rulers into preventive action.
The king and princes set about bolstering the throne – first on the domestic front, with measures ranging from a $130 billion benefits package released to the populace in March 2011, to tighter supervision of Facebook and Twitter, and a major campaign to provide jobs for university graduates.
Second, Riyadh adopted a more proactive foreign policy: It slashed assistance to post-Mubarak Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi and took steps to thwart the Shiite-led push across the region.
The Saudis decided to respond to the rising strength of the Syrian-Iranian-Hizballah bloc, which they saw as being boosted in the past year by US and Western European passivity and their non-response to the Syrian rebels’ appeals for means to fight against Bashar Assad’s butchery and the country’s devastation.
This response was manifested in the past two years by four steps for directly counteracting US objectives in the Middle East and Persian Gulf:
Squashing Muslim Brotherhood elements – in defiance of Obama
1. Helping Bahrain quell the Shiite disturbances, aided by Iran and Hizballah for toppling the throne.
Saudi armored forces went into the tiny kingdom – in defiance of Obama administration endorsement of Shiite demands for more rights.
2. Encouraging the Gulf emirates to crack down hard on Muslim Brotherhood elements. Like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other sheikhdoms had Brotherhood adherents and propagandists fired from their jobs or detained.
3. Actively promoting the change of rulers in Qatar last year. The pro-Muslim Brotherhood emir, Hamid bin Khalifa al-Thani, abdicated in favor of his son, Crown Prince Tamim bin Khalifa al-Thani, who then and there, sacked Prime Minister Jassem bin Jaber al-Thani, the proponent of Qatar’s pro-Brotherhood, anti-Saudi policies. Riyadh has since enjoyed an attentive ear in Doha.
4. And in the past couple of months, Saudi Arabia threw its wholehearted support behind Egypt’s top soldier, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and his coup against the Muslim Brotherhood.
After passing the hat round, the Saudis collected $40 billion to sustain the Egyptian military from Kuwait, the UAE and its own treasury.
Saudis seek to form their own Sunni bloc
This wasn’t the first Saudi sally into active foreign intervention, but it is the most comprehensive and ambitious ever undertaken by the deeply conservative kingdom. Riyadh hopes to establish a new Sunni Middle East alliance composed of moderate Arab regimes that will counteract Obama administration initiatives in the Arab world.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt will form the grouping’s nucleus, encircled by the Gulf emirates and Jordan and, at a later stage, perhaps some North African states. The durability of this grouping will gain strength paradoxically from the rising potency of the rival it is bent on defeating, namely the Syrian-Iranian and Hizballah bloc. It would also depend heavily on Egypt achieving stable rule.
To succeed, the Saud-led group must keep going with domestic social and political reforms, even though they were prompted by the despised Arab Spring.