Last year things seemed to be going so well for the democratic and popular movements in the Middle East known as the Arab Spring. The self-immolation of the Tunisian fruit seller started a revolutionary blaze that extended from the Western Sahara to Turkmenistan. Tunisian and Egyptian governments fell in rapid order, and massive civilian resistance quickly broke out in Libya and Syria.
And yet today the Arab Spring looks to be as much of a failed revolution as the European Revolution of 1848. And like 1848, it appears that much of the popular and democratic movements were crushed by reactionary and monarchical forces. I would contend that the influence of Saudi Arabia has been underestimated. It's certainly been under reported by the western media. And yet like the Sherlock Holmes story of the dog that didn't bark -- it appears that Riyadh and Mecca were at least partly responsible for the overall failure of the Arab Spring.
In any complex multiparty environment, an important player can exert five or ten degrees of spin on a movement to his advantage. And it certainly appears to me as if the Saudis have played their cards very well. From the earliest days of the Arab Spring when King Faisal was regularly calling Barack Obama on the telephone to read him the riot act regarding American policies advocating the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, it would be logical to assume that the Saudis exerted every influence and moved ever lever to put a damper on things in the region overall.
There are several pieces of evidence lying in plain sight. First, we have the Saudi and other oil rich countries of the Arabian Peninsula calling for the overthrow of Mohammed Qadaffi in Libya. While the British, French, and Americans were more deeply involved militarily, one could ask whether there was a chicken and egg relation between Saudi pressure and Nicholas Sarkozy's eagerness to intervene.
Then there are more indirect pieces of evidence. In Tunisia, for example, while there is a newly elected president, he is beholden to the Tunisian parliament which is controllled by Salafist elements. Salafists are also prominent in the Western Sahara, Algeria, Morocco, and Lebanon among other countries. And these Salafists get direct material support and indoctrination from Saudi religious authorities.
In Egypt, no doubt the military is the dominating force in the country independent of much Saudi religious or other influence. However, in the recent presidential election much care was taken to paint the Muslim Brotherhood candidate as a puppet of the PLO or Hamas rather than of the Saudis. The Egyptian military was evidently not afraid of alienating Israel, but they did not want to alienate the Saudis. Saudi power relations with Egypt were an integral part of the political calculations in Cairo.
More obviously the Syrian situation shows Saudi influence. They are after all, one of the leading countries calling for active military intervention there, and they are pressing much stronger than the Americans or Europeans. Given the relations between Syria and Lebanon, the Saudis have a much freer hand to work their influence in the suburbs of Beirut than they do in Damascus. And once again, Beirut is a center of intrigue betweeen Sunni and Shiite factions. In both countries it could be said that there is a proxy war going on between the Saudis and the Iranians.
Closer to Mecca, the hand of Saudi influence is evident. The power relations between the Saudis and other countries on the Arabian Peninsula is much the same as that between America and the banana republics. The Saudi Peninsula Shield Force is an occupying army in Bahrain, repressing the Shiite majority for the benefit of the Sunni royalty there. The Arab Spring in Kuwait was deftly played to Saudi advantage as well as in Oman. And in Yemen, we can see the Saudi tail wag the American dog as the CIA concentrates much of its drone operations in that country.
At home, while the death of ultra-conservative Crown Prince Nayef could be seen as a positive development in Riyadh, it might also be seen as a warning sign. Like the tampering down of the Occupy movement in America, while the powers that be may have been successful in forcing any insurgency into a state of dormancy, they have not succeeded in changing any of the conditions that led to citizen revolt in the first place. Both domestically and abroad, interventions to neuter protest have been successful. But this also sets up conditions for a future flare up if economic conditions get substantially worse.
The powers that be are caught in the dilemna of either doing not enough or too much to correct the injustices that led to Occupy and the Arab Spring in the first place. Doing nothing may mean greater repression. At the same time, any reforms that take place may set in motion the revolutions of rising expectations, leading to greater unrest.
For all the people in charge, be it the Saudi princes or the American 1% -- it will be interesting to see what happens next.