Would the monarchs of the Holy Alliance have supported a democratic uprising anywhere in Europe in 1820? Would Prince Metternich have backed nationalist movements in 1848? Of course not. But their supposed reactionary analogue in the Arab upheavals of 2011, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, has now come out, forcefully if indirectly, for a regime change in Syria. That makes the third time during this Arab spring that Saudi Arabia, the supposed champion of the status-quo, has thrown an Arab leader under the bus. Bashar al-Asad now joins Muammar al-Qaddafi and Ali Abdullah Saleh in the club of Arab leaders Saudi Arabia can do without.
The immediate reaction to the Saudi recall of its ambassador to Damascus in many news outlets (including the BBC, the New York Times and the Washington Post) emphasized the incongruity (and the hypocrisy) of an absolute monarchy that had sent troops to Bahrain to put down popular protests calling on a fellow dictator to stop oppressing his people. But that is the wrong frame in which to understand Saudi Arabia's regional policy during this time of Arab upheaval. The right frame is the regional balance of power battle between Riyadh and Tehran. In that context, the Saudi move against the Asad regime makes much more sense.
Syria is Iran's most important and longest-standing Arab ally. Under Bashar's father, Hafiz al-Asad, Damascus was able to sustain good relations with Riyadh while also cultivating the Persian connection. But the son has proven less nimble in balancing his regional relations. Syrian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon (and assumed Syrian involvement, if not directly then indirectly, in the assassination of Saudi ally Rafiq al-Hariri) alienated Riyadh. Bashar even publicly insulted the Saudi king and other Arab leaders over their stance during the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006. King Abdullah was hesitant to break fully with Damascus, as demonstrations against the regime accelerated over the past five months, given the importance of Syria in regional politics. But the escalating violence of the past week, coming at the beginning of Ramadan, seemed to seal the issue. Dealing Iran a blow in regional politics trumps the risks of greater instability.
While public opinion is hardly a major factor in Saudi foreign policy decisions, on the break with Syria the King was following, not leading, his people. The Saudi media and Saudi-owned pan-Arab media has been vehemently opposed to Asad's crackdown and sympathetic to the protestors. This is where the Ramadan timing comes into the picture. During the holy month religious feelings are heightened. The sectarian element of the Syrian confrontation, with an ostensibly secular and Alawite Shiite dominated regime brutally suppressing the Sunni Muslim majority, becomes a more prominent element in how the overwhelmingly Sunni Saudis, population and leadership, view events.
The sectarian factor, never absent, is now becoming a more open element in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. The Saudi and Gulf commentary on events in Bahrain was openly sectarian. While the Saudi leaders do not explain their policies in sectarian terms and tend to view the region more in balance of power terms, they have always thought that sectarianism was their hole card in the confrontation with Iran. There are more Sunnis in the region than Shiites. They know it and the Iranians know it. But playing up the sectarian element of regional conflict will blow back on the Saudis sooner rather than later. Heightened sectarian tension provides fertile ground for extremist salafi jihadist movements like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to sell their anti-Shiite ideas and recruit new members. The Saudi leadership believes it has the AQAP threat under control, but their current actions could be providing a safety net for an organization that, like its parent, has suffered serious reverses in recent years.
The "sectarianization" of regional balance of power conflicts should concern the United States as well. The United States has an interest in a stable Iraq, a stable Lebanon, a Syria that does not implode into all-out civil war, and a Bahrain that overcomes the bitterness of its government's recent brutal crackdown on its citizens. Heightened sectarian feelings work against all those interests. While the Saudis are correct that there are more Sunnis than Shiites in the Muslim world, privileging sectarian identity gives the Iranian regime an entry into the politics of many Arab states. Riyadh would be better served by encouraging a common Arab identity that overcomes sectarian differences and emphasizes the foreignness of Iran in the Arab world while marginalizing sectarian extremists like al Qaeda and its sympathizers.
While the sectarian issue should be a concern for the United States, in the immediate term the Saudi move against the Asad regime places Riyadh squarely on the side of Washington yet again. Even those not particularly friendly to the Saudis call for the United States to join the kingdom in upping the pressure on Damascus. This points to the bankruptcy of another popular "Arab spring" trope -- the supposed crisis in Saudi-U.S. relations. It is certainly true that the two countries have ended up on opposite sides of some regional issues, like the fall of Hosni Mubarak and the Bahraini crackdown. A U.S. veto of a Palestinian statehood resolution in the Security Council will also highlight their differences. But on a number of issues the Saudis and the United States have lined up together -- Libya, Lebanon, containment of Iran -- and even cooperated directly as in Yemen. U.S. arms sales to and military training missions in Saudi Arabia continue apace. The Saudi-U.S. relationship is complicated and changing, but it is hardly on the brink of divorce.
So where do the Saudis stand as the Arab spring undergoes a hot summer and an uncertain fall? Saudi Arabia is against regime change in allied states. It supports its fellow monarchs both out of concern for its own domestic regime security, ideological solidarity, and balance of power politics. It might not like democracy much, and certainly not at home, but that does not mean it will oppose all democratic movements. Its support for the March 14 anti-Syrian coalition in Lebanon in the last two Lebanese elections was crucial. When leaders, even leaders with whom it has had decent relations in the past, no longer can get the job done, the Saudis will help usher them out the door. They will deal with their successors in a pragmatic way (as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Egypt, the deposers of Saudi ally Hosni Mubarak, quickly realized). They will oppose leaders and groups that they think are allied with Iran, whether it is Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Asad regime in Syria, or Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq. Their focus is on checking and rolling back Iranian influence in the Arab world. That is what drives their policy, not some imagined notion of anti-revolutionary dictatorial solidarity. Let's understand Saudi regional policy for what it is, and let Prince Metternich rest in peace.
F. Gregory Gause, III teaches political science at the University of Vermont and is the author of The International Politics of the Persian Gulf (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
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