Saudi Arabia Will Lead – Obaid

Published: November 20, 2011

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Editor’s Note:

The question put to a group of thoughtful observers of Middle East affairs by “bitter lemons-international” was to address winners and losers in the Arab revolutions, in the context of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco. Nawaf Obaid was among the four specialists who took up the question and he offered his perspective that Saudi Arabia faces new difficulties in an increasingly destabilized region but that the turmoil shows the Kingdom’s enhanced “centrality” to the region’s security and stability. Obaid, senior fellow at Riyadh-based King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies,

The “bitter lemons” family of publications provide a joint Palestinian-Israeli effort to “promote a civilized exchange of views about Israel-Arab conflict and additional Middle East issues”

Edition 33 Volume 9 – November 17, 2011
Winners and losers in the Arab revolutions: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco


Saudi Arabia Will Lead
Nawaf Obaid

Since the chaos of the so-called “Arab spring” began last January, the centrality of Saudi Arabia to the region’s security and stability has only been enhanced. It is true that the unrest has brought challenges for the kingdom, chief among them regional instability and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Nevertheless, over the long term the kingdom is well-positioned to emerge from this period with a stronger diplomatic hand and a more robust strategic position. As the Saudi government continues to use its resources to enhance the welfare of its people and stabilize the Arab world, its stature will grow while that of extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and rogue states like Iran will wither.

Despite the rhetoric in the West, the so-called Arab spring has ushered in a period of hardship across the region. Tens of thousands of civilians have died and the collapse of long-standing regimes has created a power vacuum where tribal resentment and regional rivalries take priority over national unity. The prospect of protracted civil war in these societies is real, especially given their vast stockpiles of unsecured weapons. Although some countries are at greater risk than others, the story is playing out in some form across the entire region. Even in cosmopolitan Egypt, which has historically had a deep national identity and was well-integrated into the global economy, early indications are that the Muslim Brotherhood is poised to dominate in the first post-Mubarak government. At the moment, there is no central authority in Egypt, and all the major organs of government save the army have collapsed.

These developments provide difficulties for Saudi Arabia because they have destabilized the region. The possibility that weapons will be easier to obtain in coming years is troubling, as is the prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise. But even in this context, the kingdom has enjoyed stability and prosperity. The Saudi leadership recently oversaw a successful Hajj in which three million Muslims took part, including about two million visitors from outside the country. Despite warnings from some quarters, no unrest was seen during this pilgrimage. On the political front, the routinization of succession was demonstrated when the process proceeded in an orderly fashion after the death of Crown Prince Sultan.

More important than the challenges posed by regional unrest are the benefits to Saudi Arabia. The most important derives from the fact that Iran and al-Qaeda–the kingdom’s two primary foes–have been seriously weakened by the waves of protest. Iran had staked its strategy in the Arab world on its ties to the Syrian government and the strength of Hizballah, its Lebanese proxy. However, the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has dramatically weakened Iran’s position. Assad is Iran’s most vocal ally in the Arab League and when he inevitably loses power, Iran will have no Arab representative for its interests. The loss of the Assad regime will degrade Hizballah’s ability to organize within Lebanon and to threaten regional stability. At the same time, the unrest has helped cement the historical ties between the Saudi leadership and the Arab tribes that constitute the majority of Syria’s population. Saudi Arabia led the regional diplomatic effort against! the Assad regime and was the first major nation to withdraw its ambassador and suspend all contacts with the Syrian government.

The unrest has also weakened al-Qaeda, a group that declared war on the kingdom years before it began its campaign against the West. Although it has tried to co-opt the protest movements with desperate shows of rhetorical support, al-Qaeda has been completely absent from the demonstrations and has played no role in bringing down any of the regimes. This is significant because its decades-long campaign of violence was aimed explicitly at overthrowing leaders like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In many cases, peaceful protesters accomplished in less than a month what al-Qaeda could not do during the past 15 years. This has discredited the movement’s ideology, which over the long run helps eliminate one of the kingdom’s key foes.

Into the power vacuum that has appeared, Saudi Arabia’s vast economic and financial resources have provided it with a unique capability to aid those that have been affected by the recent unrest. The United States and Europe are unable to provide the financial assistance that these countries need, given the severe fiscal problems that they themselves face. Saudi Arabia on the other hand has already pledged over $15 billion in assistance to various Arab countries, with more likely to follow. In addition to financial support, the kingdom’s defense support for the Bahraini government against Iranian-backed protesters was key to maintaining stability in that island nation.

There is no doubt that the unrest that has shaken the Arab world over the past year has created many difficulties for the region, most notably the possibility of continued civil conflict, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the danger of unsecured weapons. But due to its growing strength and unshaken stability, Saudi Arabia is in a unique position to lead through this challenging period. When the dust from the regional upheavals settles, Iran, al-Qaeda, and the enemies of stability will find themselves weakened and the Saudi kingdom will lead in transforming the so-called Arab spring’s bitter autumn harvest into a new era of peace and stability in the Arab world.

-Published 17/11/2011 ©
Reprinted with permission.


Nawaf Obaid is senior fellow at King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh.

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