Analysis: Saudi royals back certain Arab Spring revolts

There are disputes within the ranks on whether to take a back seat, disrupt, or support democratic upheavals in the region.

By REUTERS
July 13, 2011 09:28
3 minute read.
Saudi Arabian Defense Minister

Saudi 311 R. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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DUBAI - Saudi Arabia has helped damp down democracy movements sweeping the Arab world but is waiting now to see how events play out in places like Syria and Yemen for fear of overplaying its hand.

After witnessing the sudden collapse of rulers in Egypt and Tunisia this year, the Al Saud family that monopolizes power in Saudi Arabia orchestrated Gulf Arab moves to stop the unrest from spreading through the Gulf region.

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Saudi, United Arab Emirates and Kuwaiti forces went to Bahrain in March to help crush protests threatening to force the ruling family there to make democratic changes.

They offered money to Oman and Bahrain for more social spending, and Qatar's Al Jazeera TV toned down its hard-hitting Gulf coverage after meetings between Saudi and Qatari officials.

Riyadh was the prime mover behind a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) proposal to enhance relations with Jordan and Morocco in an apparent effort to boost other Arab dynastic systems. A Saudi official said Jordan was given $400 million last month.

In March and April it also brokered a peace deal in Yemen, a republic different in size and social make-up to the GCC countries, that was to see President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down one month after forming a cabinet.



Yet following that flurry of interventions, Saudi diplomacy has largely gone quiet, most notably on two fronts where Riyadh has major interests, Yemen and Syria. Its response also has been muted in Libya, a more distant concern for Riyadh.

Analysts and diplomats say there are disputes within the ranks of senior princes and officials on whether to take a back seat, intervene more forcefully to stop democratic changes or, in some cases, to back them.

Turki Al-Rasheed, a Saudi commentator who runs the Saudi In Focus web forum, said the kingdom's leaders had run out of ideas on how to challenge the movements amid internal disputes and given the lethargy of senior princes holding different briefs.

"They are quiet because they did something and it failed. Bahrain is still boiling. The only card now is to pay the Americans billions for their weapons," he said, referring to reports that $60 billion in arms purchases from the United States would rise to $90 billion.

The ruling Al Khalifa family has instituted a national dialogue in Bahrain, but protests continue in neighborhoods of the majority Shi'ite population, who dominated the protest movement. Demonstrations rekindled in Oman last week.

Saudi Arabia has seen only a small number of protests in Shi'ite areas of its Eastern Province. Stern government warnings and promises of massive social spending have helped hold back a protest movement taking off on its soil.

"There is no one single Saudi policy. Each issue is handled from a different point of view and they (the princes) are all very old and sick," Rasheed said.

Diplomats in Riyadh often say rigor mortis usually sets in with Saudi policy initiatives during the long summer recess.

One Saudi commentator who did not wish to be named said there has been division over how to proceed on Yemen. Interior Minister Prince Nayef backs Saleh while Crown Prince and Defense Minister Prince Sultan favor alternatives among tribes paid by the kingdom.

However, Sultan, in his 80s, left last month for treatment in New York and Nayef, in his late 70s, also has been abroad for rest and recreation.

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