LONDON – During the three years of political upheaval in the Middle East since the “Arab Spring” began, Saudi Arabia has attempted to maintain its dominant status in the region by any means necessary. In 2013, the Saudi royal family searched for regional allies, and sought – as in Egypt – to restore old allies to power. The Kingdom also used its vast oil wealth to bring about the type of regional stability with which they have been familiar for decades.
To the relief of the Saudi royals, the Arab Spring did not lead to the creation of functioning democracies in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, or Syria. Better still, from their perspective, the Islamist regimes that emerged proved to be either fundamentally incompetent, and thus easily overthrown (as with President Mohamed Morsi’s government in Egypt), or merely dysfunctional (as in Tunisia), and thus possessing no appeal as a model for other countries.
Still, the Arab Spring revolutions did fundamentally undermine the pillars of the old regional system with which the Kingdom was so comfortable. It ousted reliable old allies like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (now hiding out in Riyadh), and turned once-tolerable regimes like Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria into murderous opponents.
Saudi Arabia’s initial response to the fracturing of a system that it had underwritten with petrodollars was to increase support for those of its allies that were still standing – Jordan, Lebanon, and Bahrain. Its next move was to underwrite the Egyptian army’s removal of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, thumbing its nose at the United States in the process.