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 Tunisia's president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's 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 finance, 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, which worries that Arab democratisation would be detrimental to US policy objectives.
Though allowing Saudi Arabia to stifle change and suffocate democratic aspirations within the region may appear to serve US 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 US policy for decades to come.
The wrong side of history
The reaction of US elites to the wave of Arab democratisation 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 US strategic interests.
Some US ruling-class 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 neighbours.Others have been busy wringing their hands about volatility in energy markets, reduced access to oil and natural gas reserves, and the potential nationalisation 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 US 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 Israel's entreaties have likely contributed to the lukewarm US 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 US Congress, counting on the faithful support of like-minded US 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 protesters, 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 US—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 protesters as Iran-affiliated sectarian zealots, the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) used a shared defence 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 eyewitness 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 protesters, 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 chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, praised the Bahrain 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 US 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 essen