Saudi Arabia's Quandary
The political leadership in Saudi Arabia was stunned by the "Arab spring" events and initially panicked. The rapid toppling of Tunisia's president and then Egypt's in populist uprisings seemed to spread like wildfire, including to neighboring Bahrain. Instability and rapid change appeared unstoppable, a situation that was deemed to undermine Saudi Arabia's interests and standing in the region. The crisis was compounded by the perception that the United States was equivocating on what to do about these events, and the Saudis found it unforgivable that Washington quickly abandoned a long-standing ally like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Should an uprising take place in Saudi Arabia, the US might also turn its back on the regime. Riyadh had to fend for itself and something had to be done to halt the tide of events. Riyadh decided that Bahrain would become the breakwater.
On February 14, 2011 Bahraini demonstrators took to the street and the Saudis made it clear that they would do whatever it takes to keep the al-Khalifa dynasty in power in Manama. Ultimately, a Gulf Cooperation Council military force led by Saudi Arabia went into Bahrain to support the regime, and it remains there today. Unfortunately, no pressure has been exerted on the al-Khalifas to adopt genuine reforms, which would address the structural discrimination against the majority Shiite population on the island kingdom as well as the misrule and pervasive corruption. An argument was elaborated that Iran was fomenting the Shiites in Bahrain to rebel, with the aim of toppling the regime and installing a pro-Iranian government. There has been little evidence to substantiate this claim, but this does not mean that Iran would not take advantage of the instability and ultimately have an ally in Manama should Shiites come to power.
Domestically, Saudi authorities were very firm and decisive that no dissent would be tolerated. Shiite demonstrators in the Eastern Province have been dealt with harshly. Others, such as the activist Islamists, have been silenced through a variety of soft and hard measures. Very importantly, however, the regime decided to go on a massive spending spree totaling over $130 billion over five years to co-opt the population through higher government salaries, new jobs and housing units and other pecuniary promises. At the same time, official religious authorities issued strong opinions that all forms of organized public protest are deemed un-Islamic and loyalty to the ruler is a religious obligation. Prince Nayef, the crown prince and interior minister, has led this effort, and thus far quite effectively.
With Bahrain stabilized and the domestic situation under control, the regime realized that the domino theory does not apply to the Arab spring. Regimes are actually resilient, especially monarchies, which have fared better than the Arab republics. Riyadh could relax for a bit and be less decisive about the other uprisings in the region.
In Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33-year rule (although not his influence) has come to an end, the Saudis brokered the deal that led to his resignation in February 2012. But the problem for the Saudis in Yemen is that there is no clear policy solution to the country's myriad problems. There is no obvious strongman who can take Saleh's place and the old regime's elites are still present and jockeying for power. There are also relatively new political actors (like the demonstrating youth, al-Qaeda, Houthis, and Southerners) who want their share of power and wish to make a clean break with the misrule of the past. Yemen will remain a very unstable country, threatening to become a failed state, and because of this the Saudis will have to expend money and influence to prevent this from happening.
In Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, the Saudis so far have not adopted clear policies. There is no evidence that they are supporting Salafis in these countries, although this cannot be discounted. It is not obvious, however, that Salafis would be natural allies of Riyadh just because of shared religious affinities. The Saudis are unsettled by strong Turkish and Qatari influence in Tunisia, are happy that Libya's Muammar Gaddafi is dead and his regime gone, but are not sure what to do about Egypt. They desire the regime in Cairo to be a subservient ally and for the country to be stable. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood is unsettling because since at least 1990 relations with this organization have been tense and any Islamist force coming to power can compete with the Saudis more effectively in the "culture wars" of Islam. The main influence the Saudis will have in Cairo is financial because Egypt is unlikely to emerge from its dire economic problems without the help of the Gulf countries.
At present, Syria occupies the center of Riyadh's attention. Initially the Saudis were uncertain what to do about the uprising in Syria. They disliked Bashar Assad but if chaos was to be the alternative, then maybe it was best for him to stay on in Damascus. However, the wanton killing and brutalization of large numbers of Sunnis has become politically untenable for the kingdom. More important still was the realization that if Assad is toppled, then Iran's influence in the Arab world would be diminished and confined to Iraq. The Saudis have become convinced that Iran represents a real menace and should be dealt with. Syria has therefore become a stage for a proxy war between Tehran and Riyadh. The problem, however, is that Riyadh has very few real policy options beyond spending money on the Syrian opposition, which is weak, divided and unable to confront militarily the regime's forces. It is in Syria that Saudi Arabia's influence will be put to the test, and Riyadh now no longer views all change as bad, particularly if it vitiates one's rivals and opponents.