At the end of February 2011, it looked as though the old order was crumbling across the Arab world. Inspired by the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor, massive popular demonstrations ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was not long to follow. Similar uprisings began to swell in Algeria, Jordan, Bahrain, and Yemen, and the anciens regimes appeared helpless against the rising tide of popular anger and nonviolent resistance.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, actively worked to encourage the forces of counter-revolution throughout the region. From Morocco to Bahrain, Saudi financing, support, and intelligence has sought to prevent political turmoil, reinforce existing dynasties, and crush nascent democratic movements before they could reach critical mass. This reactionary tide has been supported by some ideologues in Washington, who worry that Arab democratization would be detrimental to U.S. policy objectives.
Though allowing Saudi Arabia to stifle change and suffocate democratic aspirations within the region may appear to serve U.S. interests in the short term, it will certainly have blowback down the road. At a watershed political moment, the United States has failed to act in accordance with its stated principles, and as a result, popular anger towards Saudi Arabia’s counter-revolutionary campaigns is causing increasing numbers of Arabs to turn against the United States as well. The fallout from Washington’s support for the Arab counter-revolution could haunt U.S. policy for decades to come.
The Wrong Side of History
The reaction of U.S. elites to the wave of Arab democratization has been lukewarm at best. While paying lip service to self-professed ideals of democracy and self-determination, government officials and policy analysts have expressed reservations about the long-term implications of Arab democracy to U.S. strategic interests.
Some pundits, like Daniel Pipes, the neoconservative director of the Middle East Forum, have worried about losing “our bastards” in the Middle East and the damage new regimes could do to themselves and their neighbors. Others have been busy wringing their hands about volatility in energy markets, reduced access to oil and natural gas reserves, and the potential nationalization of corporate holdings. There is little doubt, however, that one of the main strategic concerns is the potential damage that a new power dynamic could inflict on the two key U.S. regional allies: Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Israeli fears have been apparent from the very beginning, which is not much of a surprise considering the anti-Zionist messages emanating from Egypt and Tunisia. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was visibly distraught over the loss of a key regional ally in Hosni Mubarak, and Israeli entreaties have likely contributed to the lukewarm U.S. response to other uprisings. However, Israel was helpless in stemming the tides of change in Egypt, and initially watched with trepidation as the unfriendly but reliable regime of Bashar Al-Assad has teetered on the brink of collapse. Because of its limited regional reach, Israel has focused much of its energy on the halls of the U.S. Congress, counting on the faithful support of like-minded U.S. think tanks, journalists, and pundits.
The dirtier work of counter-revolutionary action, meanwhile, has fallen to the Saudi Arabian government.
Turning the Tides: Bahrain and the GCC Counter-Revolution
Nowhere has the outsized importance of Saudi interests been clearer than in the Obama administration’s response to the uprisings in the small island kingdom of Bahrain. Despite the apparently democratic, non-sectarian intentions of the protestors, both Riyadh and Washington were quick to play the sectarian card, inaccurately framing the conflict as one between Sunni and Shi’a, rather than between an entrenched regime and disillusioned citizenry. As a result, the United States has significantly stepped back its support for Arab revolutions. “Not only is the U.S.—not to say the rest of the West—effectively deferring to Saudi policy, particularly in the Gulf, but it also appears to be hedging its bets against truly democratic change elsewhere in the region,” says Jim Lobe, Washington Bureau Chief of the Inter Press Service.
By rebranding the protestors as Iran-affiliated sectarian zealots, the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council used a shared defense clause as a pretext to militarily assault the democratic movements. On March 14, its Peninsula Shield Force moved thousands of troops into Bahrain in response to a rapidly-escalating protest movement. Despite assurances by Peninsula Shield force commander Mutlaq Bin Salem al-Azima that the military deployment intended to “bring goodness, peace, and love to Bahrain,” video footage and eye witness accounts detailed a grim scenario of mass arrests, beatings, and dozens of deaths.
Though the Arab world, along with much of the international community, was visibly outraged at the invasion, Washington remained hesitant to interfere. At a press conference held during some of the worst violence against protestors, President Obama refused to openly condemn the Saudi offensive, stating instead that “each country is different, each country has its own traditions; America can't dictate how they run their societies.”
A week later, a spokesperson for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen praised the Bahraini government “for the very measured way they have been handling the popular crisis here.” Many Washington insiders applauded the decision to defend the Bahraini monarchy, secure the U.S. naval base, and guarantee stability for the Saudi regime. Michael Rubin, a self-professed “Arab democracy expert” at the American Enterprise Institute, argued that Obama must “preserve the monarchies,” offering only enough reform to guarantee “renewed stability and preservation of regimes that are essential to U.S. national security.”
Regardless of whether Washington actively endorses Saudi Arabian objectives in Bahrain and elsewhere, there can be no doubt that U.S. support for the monarchy has been a cornerstone of Washington’s regional foreign policy. U.S. arms exports to Saudi Arabia have recently surpassed the level of weapons supplied to Israel, making Saudi Arabia the number one importer of U.S. weapons worldwide.
Meanwhile, the GCC has begun to expand its reach to include other conservative Arab monarchies, entertaining the possibility of adding Jordan and Morocco to its membership list. Though Jordan and Morocco have historic ties with the Gulf, primarily through energy dependence and economic aid, the inclusion of non-Gulf states into the GCC is an unprecedented maneuver, leading the Economist to joke that the organization should be renamed the “Gulf Counter-Revolutionary Club.”
Issandr Al-Amrani, proprietor of the popular blog The Arabist, succinctly explained the underlying motive as based in shared security concerns: “Some of the Gulf countries—notably Saudi Arabia—have an interest in not seeing any Arab monarchy evolve towards a real, democratic, constitutional monarchy.”
Remarkably, scarcely a word of protest has emanated from Washington. Elliott Abrams, a neoconservative ideologue at the Council on Foreign Relations, admitted that “the Saudis have counseled (i.e., pressured) the kings of Morocco and Jordan to abandon their announced reform plans,” while arguing that “an enlarged and well financed GCC can provide real leadership to the Arab world,” stressing the need to “preserve royal roles” and “good relations with the United States, including in most cases close intelligence and military ties.”
The influence and power of the GCC can also be seen in Yemen, where the Saudis have assumed primary responsibility for mediating between the Yemeni public and their delegitimized dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The GCC plan—calling for immunity from prosecution for Saleh and a guaranteed majority for Saleh’s party in the future cabinet—was roundly rejected by the public, eliciting demonstrations and riots across Yemen.
Once again, Washington turned a blind eye to popular demands, deferring to the GCC plan and moderating its own expectations to align with those of the Saudis. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) used the same rhetoric employed by beleaguered dictators across the Middle East to warn a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that Yemen constitutes a “jihadist nest” where the loss of strong leadership would inevitably embolden terrorist movements. The Obama administration followed suit, strongly urging both the Yemeni government and the protestors to accept Saudi mediation.
Even now, Saudi Arabia has continued to support Saleh during his convalescence in Riyadh, helping to plan and support his return to Yemen. Despite the fact that Yemeni opposition groups have formed their own transitional council, both Saudi Arabia and the United States have continued to insist on Saleh’s return, and many expect Yemen to descend back into chaos as a result.
Tunisia and Egypt
Even the successful overthrows in Tunisia and Egypt are being directly influenced by Saudi Arabian politics. While Ben Ali lives comfortably in exile in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia has stepped up as the largest creditor for both Tunisia and Egypt, providing $4 billion to Egypt alone in the form of soft loans, credit lines, bond purchases, and central bank deposits, more than double the amount pledged by the United States. Such financial reliance will doubtless buy significant political influence, and high level Egyptian government officials have already met on numerous occasions with members of the ruling Al-Saud family. Concerns already abound that Saudi influence is negatively affecting the trial of Mubarak. After Saudi officials condemned Mubarak’s prosecution as a “humiliating spectacle,” the trial has subsequently been pulled from television, and adjourned until the following month.
“Pro-Israel” U.S. organizations such as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy are conveniently ignoring the pervasive Saudi influence on the post-revolutionary states. A recent report by David Schenker titled “Egypt’s Enduring Challenges: Shaping the Post-Mubarak Environment” devotes significant attention to “Concerns about Iran” and the importance of “Standing up to Hizballah,” but any discussion on Saudi Arabia is notably absent.
For its own part, Washington has hedged its support for the burgeoning democracy in Egypt by channeling much if its funding directly to the military, and exerting influence to ensure that trusted military leaders maintain significant political power. Such figures, such as Commander-in-chief Mohamed Tantawi, have been largely discredited by the Egyptians themselves, and many have troublesome histories as puppets of the dictatorship. Their presence may keep the situation temporarily stable, but the long-term effects of externally supporting Mubarak’s legacy will almost certainly prove troublesome.
With Libya now under the control of rebel forces, it is useful to see the role that GCC money, arms, intelligence, and strategic support have played in propping up the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC). Keen to keep the anti-Qaddafi movement controlled by Gulf-friendly allies, the Saudis have actively worked to bestow legitimacy to factions led by ex-Justice Minister Mustapha Abdul-Jalil, and Saudi training and support has encouraged the creation of a surprisingly robust security apparatus for the state-to-be, complete with torture, indefinite detention, and acts of wanton violence again civilian populations.
It did not take long for the security apparatus of the Libyan resistance to turn on itself. As Patrick Cockburn notes in the Independent, “This week TNC diplomats took over the Libyan embassies in London and Washington and are about to do so in Ottawa. In a masterpiece of mistiming, Britain recognized the rebel government on the day when some of its members were shooting their own commander-in-chief and burning his body.”
The new leadership has also created a deeply concerning gender dynamic. Unlike the popular movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and elsewhere, the Saudi-supported Libyan opposition is bereft of female representation. While women were instrumental in starting the protests, they now constitute less than 5 percent of the current opposition leadership. As the popular blogger As’ad Abu-Khalil tellingly remarked, the “House of Saud serving as the mid-wife of change … will ensure that the newborn is a horrific monster.”
The preservation of the Arab monarchies is a clear strategic benefit to Saudi Arabia, and the monarchs’ willingness to support militarist U.S. policies has earned them the support of many U.S. neoconservatives and foreign policy hawks. History, however, cannot be unmade, and the rising tide of resentment Arabs bear for their rulers is quickly translating into frustration toward the western powers that enable them.
Much as the U.S.-sponsored overthrow of Iranian Prime Minster Mohammed Mossadeq has colored Iranian relations with the United States for decades, so will our handling of the Arab Spring determine how the next generation of Arabs will choose to interact with the United States. Preliminary polling by the Pew Research Center shows that Egyptians’ approval rating of the United States remains below 20 percent, and most Egyptians view Washington as an obstacle to their liberation, rather than an advocate for it.  Even more disturbing is a recent poll conducted by IBOPE/Zogby International, that shows in post-revolutionary Egypt, support for the United States is at an all-time low of 5 percent. Similar trends are seen in in the newly-inducted GCC states of Jordan and Morocco.
To continue to ignore the democratic aspirations of millions, in the interests of misguided short-term strategies, is to doom U.S. efforts in the Middle East for decades to come. Undoing the damage caused by the “U.S.-Saudi Axis” will require American policymakers to break with the Saudi regime, denounce its efforts to stifle democracy, and roundly criticize its draconian subjugation of its own population. Otherwise, Washington’s legitimacy can scarcely be said to be any higher than that of the regimes it continues to support.