Saudi Arabia and the Changing Regional Order

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Reza Jalali
Middle East Analyst

The fifth anniversary of popular uprisings in the Arab world, which started in 2011, is approaching. The popular uprisings led to remarkable changes in regional order and the type of actions taken by political players in the region, while also influencing regional security and the nature of intra-Arab campaigns. One of the countries, which has seen changes in its security environment as a result of these uprisings is Saudi Arabia; a country whose policies have now faced the region with new developments. However, what a review of not-so-far past will reveal is the impact of these critical foci on changes in security environment and actions of Saudi Arabia in the region and the Arab world, which can provide a clearer picture of the performance of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy under the present circumstances in the region.

At the outset of developments in the Middle East, which started in 2011, Saudi Arabia, following suit with the conservative tradition of its foreign policy, remained silent and during one month of developments that ended in the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the former Tunisian president, Riyadh did not take a clear position on this situation for a number of reasons. Firstly, Tunisia is a Mediterranean country located in North Africa and due to the geographical distance between Tunisia and the Persian Gulf and its location in North Africa subregion, Saudi Arabia did not take any clear and decisive position on developments in that country. Secondly, Saudi Arabia was trying to avoid being accused of interference in Tunisia against the will of that country’s people. Thirdly, throughout rapid changes in Tunisia, the outlook of future developments in the country was not clear and even up to a few days before the fall of Ben Ali, nobody believed that he would have to flee the country and relinquish power. These three reasons were behind Saudi Arabia’s inaction throughout the Tunisian crisis, which last for about a month.

The next stage of developments started through the popular uprising in Egypt on January 25, 2011. During this stage, Saudi Arabia gave up the position of impartiality and silence that it had adopted in the face of developments in Tunisia, and took sides with the Egyptian regime by opposing the main demand of protesters, which was the fall of that regime.
A few factors were instrumental in Saudi Arabia’s transition from impartiality to interference and partiality. The most important of those factors was that unlike Tunisia, Egypt enjoys a special standing in the Arab world and has always been considered as one of the influential leaders of the so-called “Arab axis of moderation.” This axis has been a counterweight for the “resistance axis,” and has brought Saudi Arabia and other conservative countries in the region close to Egypt. From this viewpoint, the fall of the former Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, and the rise of a substitute government with a totally different foreign policy orientation, could weaken the entire group of countries that formed the Arab axis of moderation.

Following the fall of Mubarak, the third phase of Saudi Arabia’s policy toward developments in the Middle East began.

In this phase, Saudi Arabia focused most of its attention to preventing the spread of protests onto its soil and took advantage of all kinds of financial and security measures to achieve this goal. Therefore, soon after the fall of Tunisian and Egyptian regimes and the beginning of two major uprisings in Bahrain and Libya, Saudi Arabia took steps to control its domestic situation. The most famous of those steps was announcement of an investment worth USD 37 billion on direct order of Saudi King Abdullah for the improvement of the country’s economic situation, creation of new jobs, increasing salaries of civil servants, and helping students and jobless people. This step, on its own managed to effectively quench a large part of protest rallies inside Saudi Arabia. There are two major differences between uprisings in Saudi Arabia and uprisings in other countries, including Egypt and Tunisia. The first difference is the religious nature of uprisings in Saudi Arabia, with the second one being the encounter between that uprising and government’s capabilities. Although many non-Shias took part in the limited uprising in Saudi Arabia, the geographical location of the uprising clearly showed that Shia Muslims were main component of that uprising. In addition, in terms of financial might, Saudi regime was not at all comparable to regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.

For this reason, it was predictable that developments would take a different course in Saudi Arabia. After suppression of the uprising and distribution of money among people in Saudi Arabia, which helped the Saudi government to put an end to domestic crisis, Saudis turned their attention to what was going on outside the country. In view of foreign policy goals and priorities of Saudi Arabia, the highest attention by Riyadh was paid to countering developments in the Arabian Peninsula countries, especially in the member states of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council [(P)GCC]. At the same time, the crisis in Syria provided Saudis with a good opportunity to pursue the goal of regime change in Syria in order to get rid of the existing challenges facing Arab – Western approach. Due to regional and strategic dimensions and importance of Syria and the type of relations between its government and some regional states, and especially in view of its position within the resistance axis, regime change in Syria was very important for Saudis. After Saudi Arabia managed to control the Arab world developments in its periphery, Riyadh took steps to entangle the Syrian government in a domestic crisis and, in fact, the crisis in Syria was used by Saudi Arabia to change the emerging power equations in the region and create a balance in the face of the new order that had arisen out of new developments in the Middle East. The role that Saudi Arabia played within the framework of Western and Arab strategy, and which led to weakening of Syria or reduction of its regional role, consisted of two parts: 1. Changing the regional order, and 2. Fomenting discourse-based and ideological confrontation.

The existing discourse-based confrontation caused regional developments in the Middle East not to remain limited to a change in governments and political systems as a result of popular uprisings, but move toward religious tensions. This trend is based on a strategy, which aims to guarantee survival of the political system in Saudi Arabia and also seeks to boost regional position, influence and role of Saudi Arabia.

In fact, an analysis of the ongoing behavior of Saudi Arabia and the effects of Arab revolutions shows that the Middle East region will continue to witness further conflicts, and new forms of rivalry and change will be seen even in forthcoming years.

Key WordsSaudi Arabia, Regional Order, Popular Uprisings, Arab world, Tunisia, Egypt, Impartiality, Interference, Middle East, Shia Muslims, Suppression, (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, Discourse-based and Ideological Confrontation, Jalali

Source: Etemad Newspaper
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

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