Cairo haunts Riyadh again

It is not Iran or Iran’s agents in Baghdad who have dealt the heaviest strategic blow to Saudi Arabia’s influence in the Middle East—but Cairo, its closest Arab friend.

The ousting of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak meant not only the loss of a strong ally but also the collapse of the old balance of power.

The region could no longer be divided on a Riyadh/Cairo vs Tehran/Damascus axis. Revolutions have struck both “moderate” Egypt and Tunisia and “hardline” Damascus and Tripoli. The principal challenge for the Saudi regime is no longer the influence of Syria, Iran or Hezbollah, but the contagion of revolutions.

The Saudis dispatched troops to the kingdom of Bahrain to suppress a revolt against the Sunni rule of the Khalifas. And when the Yemeni revolution erupted, they moved to bolster Ali Abdullah Saleh’s reign, pumping in millions to buy tribal allegiances and supplying his army with equipment, intelligence and logistical support.

As the Yemeni revolution raged on, winning the support of most tribes and causing large-scale defections in the army, the Saudi regime had no choice but to let go of its man in Sana’a, as long as it was perceived not as the fruit of popular pressure but as a smooth power transition within the framework of its own Gulf Cooperation Council proposal.

With shrapnel-peppered Saleh’s forced exit to a Saudi hospital after last week’s attack on his presidential compound, Riyadh is again seeking to wrest the initiative from the street and act as Yemen’s chief powerbroker.

Although it has tried for years to detach Syria from Iran, it is not keen to see its old enemy collapse because of popular protests and is now, paradoxically, working to protect the Assad regime. King Abdullah has even phoned President Bashar al-Assad to offer “solidarity with Syria against conspiracies targeting its stability and security”. Saudi Arabia is sparing no expense in containing popular rebellions and suppressing potential ones.

Despite its fear of post-revolutionary Egypt, it recently granted the country $4-billion in aid to appease its generals; $20-billion has been lavished on Bahrain and Oman, another kingdom beset by popular unrest; and $400-million donated to the monarchy in Jordan.

For the House of Saud, Arab revolutions set a dangerous precedent. This is the backdrop to the Saudi invitation to Jordan and Morocco to join the Gulf Co-operation Council, an organisation that ought to be rebranded as the Club of Arab Despotic Monarchies.

Jordan, known for its powerful security apparatus, could act as a useful buffer against revolutionary penetration from Levantine Syria.

The invitation to Morocco, located at the far end of the Arab hemisphere, has baffled many, but its principal virtue is its 35-million population, compensating for the loss of Riyadh’s old heavyweight ally, Egypt.

Jordan and Morocco share monarchical systems of rule, but also economic need.

Their fragile economies, crippled by debt and corruption, constitute an advantage in the eyes of Saudi strategists, rendering them more amenable to bribery and manipulation.

Riyadh has watched anxiously as demands for reform have escalated. In Jordan, demonstrations have even spread into the tribal south, the regime’s traditional support base. A broad alliance of Islamists and leftists has coalesced after the resignation of two ministers over a graft case.

As alliance leader Ahmad Obeidat put it: “Tyranny and corruption are Jordan’s main problems. Fighting corruption starts with reforming the regime itself.”

The same political mobilisation characterises Morocco, North Africa’s only kingdom. The February 20 youth movement has held weekly demonstrations for constitutional reform. Human rights groups report a mass arrest campaign and regular torture. Kamal al-Ammari, a pro-democracy activist, was beaten to death at a rally last week in the city of Safa. By trying to fortify these monarchies, Saudi Arabia is seeking to preserve itself by stemming a perceived domino effect.

The message is clear: revolutions are a strictly republican phenomenon to which monarchies are immune. But the goal is to keep reform at bay, too: there must be no talk of constitutional monarchies. Although the Saudi regime is preoccupied by the Iranian threat, its eye is now focused on Egypt and the Arab revolutions, existing and potential. It dreads nothing more than a return to the 1950s and 1960s scenario of Cairo spearheading a revolutionary Arab world against pro-American conservative kingdoms.

Riyadh is now seeking to reproduce the 1955 Baghdad Pact, forged in confrontation with Nasser and his revolutionary officers and bringing together the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Pahlavi Iran and royal Iraq, as well as Turkey and Pakistan.

Some of the players have been replaced and nationalism has made way for Islamism, but the structure of the strategic game is the same.

And so is its greatest weapon: money. In a battle in which internal fears coincide with external interests, the Saudis are resuming their old role as the vanguard of a Cold War against change.—

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