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Washington, Riyadh and the Arab Spring

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23 June 2011 11:26

For a country that believes in its own exceptionalism and its ability to export individualism and liberty, supporting popular revolts against autocratic rulers provides some distinct foreign policy challenges for the US. The growing assertiveness of Saudi Arabia is perhaps at the top of the list of challenges.

Saudi Arabia was, like pretty well everyone else, taken aback by the speed of events in north Africa that culminated in the departure of Hosni Mubarak, one of Riyadh's closest allies. If some in the West saw the Arab Spring as a chance to fundamentally reshape the Arab political landscape, Riyadh saw in it a threat to the status quo that had to be stopped.

Riyadh's increasing activism in the region shows it has recovered after the initial shock of the revolts.

The entry of 1000 Saudi troops into Bahrain illustrated how much the island state mattered to the Saudis both as a demonstration to regional political reformists and as a warning to the Iranians. Links across the causeway have been further strengthened by the marriage between the Saudi king's daughter and the son of the Bahraini king. Riyadh has also led efforts to expand the GCC to include two more Sunni monarchies, with its invitations to Morocco and Jordan.

To its south, Riyadh has, through luck or good management, engineered the departure of President Saleh into Saudi territory, while the future of Yemen is being decided in a manner that will favour Saudi interests. Saudi Arabia has also forestalled the growth of its own minuscule protest movement (and that of less affluent neighbours, Oman and Bahrain) by spending over $130 billion this year on expanding the government workforce and providing housing for its nationals. 

Riyadh (and its Gulf neighbours, over whom it has considerable influence) remains economically vital both globally and regionally, to an extent that makes it impervious to US pressure for political reform. Riyadh remains the only viable petroleum swing producer, without which events in places such as Libya would have far greater consequence to the world economy.

Equally important, the Gulf remains a vital labour market for many regional states, whose economies rely on remittances. To take two examples, remittances account for 17% of Egypt's income (second after tourism), 50% of which comes from workers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE. Over 20% of Lebanon's GDP relies on remittances, with the GCC accounting for 58% of this total. President Obama announced a $1 billion aid package for Egypt in May, but Saudi Arabia pledged $4 billion later that month. Combine that with Riyadh's support for the Egyptian labour market, and you see the relative influence of the two countries over Cairo's present and future rulers.

But Riyadh's anger at what it sees as Washington's misunderstanding of the region, exemplified by the White House's withdrawal of support for President Mubarak and its continued public support for democratisation, is not likely to lead to any permanent rupture in relations, because the two countries' security interests are so intertwined.

For all of its expanding economic ties with China, Riyadh understands that the US shares its concerns over Iranian interference in the region and is the only one that can ultimately guarantee Saudi Arabia's security. Only Washington's involvement can progress the Middle East peace process, while Riyadh and Washington share the same concerns about the security threat posed by Yemen (hence Washington's muted public statements concerning the political protests there).

For the US, any moves by GCC states to shut their labour markets to countries like Egypt could destroy any chance of democracy taking hold. The Arab Spring was always going to be a contest between principle and pragmatism in shaping Washington's regional foreign policy. So far at least, we have seen rhetorical evocation of principle but actions dictated by pragmatism; given the advantages Riyadh enjoys, Washington has little choice.

As we have seen before in the region, there are significant limits to American exceptionalism.

Photo by Flickr user Ewen McIntosh

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