Vali Nasr: Will the Saudis Kill the Arab Spring?

Bloomberg: In his speech last week on the Middle East, President Barack Obama left little doubt that America stands with the people of the region in their demand for change. This puts the U.S. on a collision course with Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom has emerged as the leader of a new rejectionist front that is determined to defeat popular demand for reform. One would have expected Iran to lead such a front, but instead it is America’s closest Arab ally in the region that is seeking to defeat our policy. Though the president made no mention of Saudi Arabia in his speech, in the near term, dealing with the kingdom is the biggest challenge facing the U.S. in the Middle East.

Saudi rulers have made clear that they find U.S. support for democracy naive and dangerous, an existential threat to the monarchies of the Persian Gulf. If the U.S. supports democracy, the Saudis are signaling, it can no longer count on its special bond with Riyadh (read: oil).

The Saudi threat is intended to present U.S. policymakers with a choice between U.S. values and U.S. interests. The idea is that either Washington stays the course, supporting the Arab people’s demands for reform, and risks a rift with Saudi Arabia, or it protects that relationship and loses the rest of the Middle East.

In fact, the choice between U.S. values and interests is a false choice, as the president made clear in his speech. Now, American policy has to reflect this truth. So far, Washington has tried to placate the Saudis. It is time we challenged their words and deeds, instead.

Tectonic Shift

It’s no surprise that the tectonic shift in Arab politics, a popular revolt calling for reform, openness and accountability, worries the Saudi monarchy. The kingdom, like the rest of the Arab world, has a young population that wants jobs, freedom and a say in politics. Thirty-nine percent of Saudis ages 20 to 24 are unemployed. Having watched Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak step down amid protests in which Egyptian youths played a key role, Saudi King Abdullah announced $35 billion in new social benefits to head off demands for reform at home. That bought the monarchy time, but too many dominoes are falling in its direction to allow for complacency. Violent protests on Saudi Arabia’s borders, inside Bahrain and Yemen, have been particularly troubling.

From the outset, Riyadh encouraged every Arab ruler to resist reform. The more Washington embraced the Arab Spring, the more Riyadh worried. Saudi rulers took particular exception to Washington’s call for Mubarak to resign, and when the U.S. urged reform in Bahrain, they saw U.S. policy as a direct threat to them.

Encouraging Dialog

Washington had encouraged Bahrain’s king, Hamad ibn Isa al- Khalifa, to enter into dialog with the opposition there, and American diplomats were directly involved in mediating talks. An agreement was almost at hand when Riyadh took the rare step of undermining U.S. policy. Saudi rulers persuaded Bahrain to scuttle the talks and bring in troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to suppress the protests.

The weak excuse for this clumsy crackdown was that Iran was orchestrating the protests and Iranian expansionism had to be stopped in its tracks. A local protest inspired by popular demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt was transformed into a regional conflict. The Saudi strategy was clear: shift the focus from democracy to the bogeyman, Iran.

Emboldened by the outcome in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia has mounted a regional strategy to defeat the Arab Spring. Riyadh has called for expansion of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a group of Arab countries that are oil-producing and sit on the Persian Gulf, to include Jordan and Morocco, which qualify on neither count.

Mollifying Protesters

The expansion would transform the GCC into the Arab world’s club of monarchies. Membership would provide cash-strapped Jordan and Morocco ample financial resources to mollify angry protesters. In return, they would have to abandon reform and be prepared to lend their more serious militaries to put down protests should they erupt again in Gulf states.

Saudi Arabia’s new posture is a serious challenge to U.S. policy. Conceding to Saudi demands will put America on the wrong side of a widely popular historical transformation in the region, and thus will only hurt U.S. interests in the long run. Bahrain’s heavy-handed suppression of protests has already dented American standing in the region.

Having Saudi Arabia deliberately ratchet up tensions with Iran is also risky. The Persian Gulf monarchies don’t have the military muscle to back their aggressive policy toward Iran. Their credibility depends on U.S. support. And if baiting Iran escalates tensions in the Gulf, U.S. interests and the sheer size of its military presence there will inevitably put the U.S. in the middle of the conflict.

Confronting the Challenge

For all these reasons, the U.S. needs to confront the Saudi challenge head-on. Failure to do so will hurt our standing in the region and alienate public opinion there, which will only benefit Iran.

The U.S. should assert its leadership role in the Middle East. It should make clear that, our close ties to Saudi Arabia notwithstanding, we will be as vigilant in pushing for reform in Bahrain as in Libya or Syria. Washington should be prepared to act if the monarchy in Bahrain doesn’t end its crackdown and start a meaningful dialog with the opposition. We should also make clear to Jordan and Morocco that America supports their reform initiatives and won’t look favorably on reversing course.

It’s true that we rely on the GCC for oil, but there will be no interruption in the flow of oil if we disagree with the Gulf states. Their livelihood depends on oil; to profit from it, they must sell it. Moreover, the GCC countries need us to protect their security, as was made amply clear in both wars with Iraq. What should concern us, then, is not the Saudi threats but rather how the people of the Middle East will judge our policies at this critical juncture in their history.

(Vali Nasr is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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9 Responses to Vali Nasr: Will the Saudis Kill the Arab Spring?

  1. PB says:

    Vali’s opinion is simply naive. It is based on the common ideology being pushed through NYTimes and others that the Saudi’s are going it alone while the US is supporting democracy. The reality is that we cannot be seen as the direct oppressors of the Arab Awakening, so we have our surrogate do our bidding. To assume the Saudi’s would do anything on their own, and to top it off, further assuming that they would even dare to do it against US interests is simply ridiculous as well as naive. The Saudi’s would not take a leak without getting permission from Washington.
    The entire strategy is consistent with what the President presented in his speech: On the one hand he had to appear he supported the demonstrations. Did he have any other choice? Can anyone imagine if Obama came out condemning the demonstrators? Then, his silly support of democracy was followed with not specifics and no real vision. He did not mention what he would do to support reforms in Bahrain, Jordan, Morrocco and other nations. He did not even mention the Saudi’s but had their ambassador in the front row. That all means we support the Saudi initiative. If Vali remains skeptical then he should turn his attention to Obama’s VERY SPECIFIC threats and plan of action against Syria.

    The strategy is clear: Turn the Arab Awakening violent which would give room for us to maneuver (ie send armed Wahaabi’s across Iraqi border into Syrian towns, arm rebells in Libya). This violence would allow our surrogate to also use violence to put down other flames. Through this struggle one clear thing would emerge: An Arab FRONT defending against the Iranian threat. If in the process Gaddafi and Assad are eliminated that’s just the icing on the cake. Through violence the national security card can be played and it is the surest way to suppress any public revolt. Oil interests secured!

    Vali, I expected more. 😉

  2. Ben says:

    Oh man the Irony:

    So much for Arab Spring and Democracy! 😉
    One by one, from Tunisia to Egypt to Lybia, they will become Islamic dictatorship or mock democracy like the one we see in Iran and I will sit back and enjoy the view 😉

  3. PB says:

    Good for you Ben. Just make sure the world you live in remains in the confines of your brain.

  4. PB says:


    Just to let you know, I did read your article. It was interesting, but typical of the way we interpret things here in the West. I am reminded of the way Iran’s revolution was interpreted “the people were not ready for modernity.” But that was not the reason for the revolution. You find the reasons, ironically, in the same article you have sited. Notice the author claims the nation had become modern and “good” under the dictatorship by claiming that the capital city even looks like a dusty Marsaille. He interviews women who are scared of wearing the veil. Yet, it shows the Islamist are winning because the electorate is expected to give them a 30% share of their votes. It all points to the fact that we are scared of democracy and we are willing to ignore the signs. DId the author think about the fact that perhaps many Tunisians did not want their capital resemble a French city? or as the author puts it a cheap imitation of one as he calls it “dusty.” Did Tunisians want to look like Tunisia instead? Does their capital remind them of their French owners? The author even dares to point out, and hopes people like yourself to ignore, that the “interior” of the nation and away from the “dusty” capital is very poor. This picture shows that Tunisia was not modern and was not well off, it was only the vacation spot of “half naked” European women who for year did not have to respect the Islamic traditions of the nation they had entered. Perhaps the majority of the population wants some Islamic enforcement. Is it backwardness to award the public’s wish?

    Are people turning to religion because the Islamists have magic potion, or they are turning to it because their wishes were ignored for decades as the French did what they wanted with their country? The sooner they get to express themselves, the sooner they’ll get rid of the Islamist monkey off their back. That’s what they called the Islamists of Turkey too, but they turned out to be pretty democratic once they were allowed to participate.

  5. Ben says:


    Thank you for spending the time for reading the Article. Although we have vast difference of opinions, but you raised a very good point in terms of why people turn to religion. However let me clearify my point.

    Unfortunately the masses at times are incredibly stupid. This stupidity is apparent when it comes to religion. Anywhere under this sun, the people usually get involved with religion. Everybody have the right to practice their religion. However, RELIGION IN ITS CORE IS POISON FOR POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT. I am going to use an example from the country that I strongly support. In Israel, one of the biggest obstacles to peace are the settlement and it is notioned from influence of religion in Israeli politics. Although, again let me clearify, I don’t believe Settlements are the only obstacle to peace or why the peace process has been installed, but it does provide the Palestinians with an excuse. My point is that, religion should NEVER EVER BEEN INVOLVED WITH POLITICS.
    That’s why I don’t think this Arab springs will be as fruitful as people think they would be. A democracy without a firm stance against religious involvement will not succeed no matter which country is enforcing it. Perfect perfect example of it is: IRAN.

    At the end, it will take decades for this Arab springs to actually turn into what we like to call as functioning democracy. Arab societies are heading toward dark ages of Islamic Dictatorships. However, that is a necessary steps for these societies to finnally transform into functioning democracies. Just like Europe that went through religious dark ages to transmit into working democracy, Arab countries will have to go through with it and it would probably take a big scale war similiar to WWI and WWII to knock some sense into people’s head.

    To Sum it up, don’t celebrate too early. It is only the begining.

  6. PB says:


    There is nothing in your last comments that I disagree with. You are right about religion. You may be right about Arab Spring going into the dark religious fanaticism. Those are the possibilities.

    But let us be more hopeful. We have the example of Turkey. Let’s look at Iran: After 33 years, Iran has several hopeful signs. Those points don’t often make it to our news programs. The Islamic Republic heavily invested in education for both boys and girls. It is facing a massive educated feminist lobbyist group and an army of female lawyers. The last 4 presidential elections all candidate, from both sides of the political spectrum, attempted to appeal to women. They even brought their ugly wives to stand next to them in the past 2 elections. Even Jon Steward did a funny piece on that, comparing Michelle Obama to the one eyed hejabbed wife of Mousavi. The 2009 election dispute is simply the latest confrontation that begun with the University uprising of 1999. While one may feel they were crushed, there is already public discussions, even by the Supreme Leader, that the upcoming Majlis elections will be “different” and “transparent.” Also, remember that Iranians went from a Royal dictatorship to 33 years of constant electoral process (though unfair) and it affects the average mind set. Even Ahmadinejad’s right hand man, Mashaei, said we have nothing against the State Israel-A first. Despite Ahmadinejad’s demonization (that is our fault) his comments toward Israel have been far more conciliatory than what has been advertised and consistent with Mashaei’s. If you go back to the Q&A session at the Columbia University, Ahmadinejad said “I accept the hollocaust as historic fact,” but why are the palestinians paying its price? Regardless of whether you agree with his statements, the fact that his public declaration that he agrees the event happened but did not make a headline tell us he has been picked to be demonized (not that I he is my favorite politician but he is a far more complex character than has been advertised). We need enemies. But his situation is telling of a greater trend, that most Iranian politicians are more moderate than 30 years ago.
    Iran’s official policy toward Israel is “if the Palestinians accept it, we will too.”

    I don’t think what comes out of this “Arab Spring” will replicate Iran’s style of government. Iran’s history is unique to Iran. If you go to Iran, you will quickly realize it is far more moderate, far more modern than what appears on the newspapers. It is far less religious on the streets than what is on the public airways. The State realizes these trends and the politicians that are elected are reflecting these trends.

    I believe Iran’s confrontation with Israel is natural and far more secular than what you may believe. Iran’s economy has gone from 34th (33 years ago) to 17th in the world as ranked by the IMF. Iran’s influence has accordingly expanded through a mixture of religious connections and national interest interventions. It is natural that Iran would confront the one regional power that stands to block its influence-The nuclear, non-Middle Eastern, hegemonical influence of the West as expressed independently and through the State of Israel. The fact is that we are witnessing the filling of the power vacuum that occurred in the ME after the fall of Ottoman Empire, and ironically through the rise of the two natural regional powers-Iran and Turkey. None of this is Islamic vs Jewish. This is pure power politics. I believe once Israel and Israelis understood and accepted that their long term security can only come from Teheran and Ankara, and not from Washington and Burssells, then Israel will make the necessary compromises that the Islamic Republic will duplicate. As long as Israel believes that it can somehow destroy Hezbollah and defeat Iran using the US might, there will not peace. And indeed, I believe like you, that there may be a WWII like confrontation in the cards. But at the core this is power politics, not religious. If Iran and Israel can find a way to understand they are both here to stay and need to accommodate each other (it happened during Iran-Iraq war when Iran bought weapons from Israel directly), and if Israel decides to be a ME country, rather than its current status of Western state, it will happen. I believe that Iran’s official policy toward Israel (stated above) is a recognition that Iran cannot get rid of Israel. There may be a back channel way, eventually, this issue will be solved.

    Thanks for you thoughtful comments. And sorry mine was so long.

  7. Ben says:

    Last point to respond: I am not too negative about Arab Spring. You said it the best, it is only the begining. However, there are a lot of people talking about how this is a glorious times and everything is going to be all lovy dovy. With exception of American Revolution which you really can’t even call it a revolution, every revolution has gone through some violent times due to vacume of power and power struggle between forces.

    All I am saying is that it is not time to celebrate, but it is definitely a positive step for the Arab community to get rid of their dictators. I’m going to use a bumper sticker slogan and say: “Any day a dictator falls is a good day”.
    However, this movement and its effects are far from over. :)

  8. Ben says:

    About Iran and Israel:

    Iran and Israel had previously cooperated behind closed doors. Nowdays, it seems like they are cooperating again due to the business deals between Israeli companies and Iranian governments that even involves weapon trade. We are not really involved with the business that goes behind closed doors and understandings of Agents of both countries but one day might come that would shock the whole world. 💡

  9. PB says:

    No dispute in any of the excellent points you have made. No doubt we must be cautious about this so called revolutions. Thanks.

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