The New Arab Cold War: Monarchies Versus the Arab Awakening

The old Arab Cold War was fought in the 1960s between the republican states who wanted to transform the Arab world through the use of pan-Arabism and the monarchies, which were opposed to that phenomenon. The latter envisioned the former as the “enemies,” since the pan-Arabists were focused on overthrowing the monarchies. The leader of the republican camp was Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser. The leader of the monarchical camp was Saudi Arabia. The two camps fought a civil war in Yemen in the early 1960s. The bloody political change of Iraq in 1958, which permanently transformed Iraq from a monarchy into a republic, proved that the fear of the Arab monarchies regarding the republican states was not unfounded. Now, a new Arab Cold War is being fought once again under the Saudi leadership for the preservation of the monarchies. The “enemy” this time is the Arab Awakening, which threatens to sweep aside all autocratic regimes. Two Arab dictators – Zein el-Abideen Bin Ali and Hosni Mubarak – have been ousted by this social force, and Muammar Qaddafi, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Bishara Assad are awaiting their turn.

The Saudi monarchy is truly afraid of the sustained revolutionary power of the Arab Awakening, which has no charismatic leaders. That factor makes it hard for the sitting autocrats to jail or kill the leaders and contain the uprising. It is a genuinely grass-roots movement that is riding the electronic shoulders of the social media – Facebook, twitter, electronic messaging, etc.

In response to this popular uprising, the Saudi rulers have adopted a variegated strategy. When the government of Bahrain “invited” the Saudi government to put down the popular uprising, it responded instantly and categorically through the use of force. That “invitation” was also endorsed by the Gulf Cooperation Council, all of whose members are monarchies.

Regarding the Yemen awakening, the Saudi strategy is focused on easing out President Ali Abdullah Saleh, hoping that such an outcome would enable Riyadh to play a major role in selecting the nature of the succeeding government and even Saleh’s heir. However, the Yemeni President, through his sustained intransigence to leave power, is not making the potential fulfillment of Saudi aspirations any easier. What is more important is that, after ousting Saleh, the Yemeni populace will certainly not allow the Saudis to impose another dictator on them. However, the Saudi monarchs seem to have great faith in their ability to persuade anyone by showering petrodollars on them.

Saudi Arabia will be faced with a major power if the Arab awakening succeeds in ousting Saleh and if Yemen becomes a democracy. The Saudi rulers are currently faced with an almost “no-win” situation in Yemen. They cannot afford to adopt a hands-off policy as Yemen undergoes a revolutionary transformation of its regime. The creation of democracy in Yemen is bound to escalate the aspirations for democracy of similar forces in Saudi Arabia. Secondly, the large number of the Shia population in Yemen is already keeping the political consciousness and activism of the Saudi Shias at a high level. That variable is keeping the Saudi rulers awake at night, even as Saleh becomes increasingly weaker in his hold on power.

As a response to the awakening of the Bahraini population, which is more than 65 percent of the population of that tiny emirate, Saudi Arabia is raising its level of suspicion about Iran’s complicity, even when American intelligence has found no credible basis for such a claim. The fact of the matter is that the Iranian government is just as much of a target of its own protest movement – the Green movements – as the Bahraini or the Yemeni governments are targets of their respective uprisings. So, by insisting on the alleged complicity by Iran in Bahrain, the Saudi rulers, quite unwisely, are raising the level of tension with Iran at a time when cooperation between those two countries is most crucial.

Another feature of the Saudi strategy about the Arab Awakening in their neighborhood is the establishment of an alliance of monarchies. For that purpose, the government in Riyadh has invited Jordan and Morocco. That type of alliance, even if it were to materialize, cannot stem the tide of change in the streets of Amman or Fez, and Manama or Riyadh, for that matter. However, Saudi Arabia can ill afford to recognize the capacity for political change on the part of a popular uprising and do nothing.

The only hope for Saudi Arabia is that, at least thus far, the monarchies have not yet been uprooted as a result of domestic uprisings. Bahrain came close, but the Saudis are doing their very best to put an end to it through the use of force.

The final feature of the Saudi strategy is to shower its citizens with money, hoping that such an attitude will buy their loyalty to the regime. Thus far, that attitude seems to have been keeping the level of fermentation inside Saudi Arabia at a manageable level. However, one has to wait and see what happens in Yemen and Bahrain. A potential civil war – stemming from Saleh’s refusal to step down from power – will be damaging to Saudi security. The general expectation is that al-Qaida will quickly emerge as a major player in the resultant chaos. The United States is not likely to stand aside and let the events take their own course. If it intervenes, even under the cover of U.N. sanctions, the level of violence in Yemen may be beyond the control of anyone.