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Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

Gulf Arab Monarchs and the Unfinished Arab Spring


By Dr. Mohammed Nuruzzaman

The Arab Spring is not a success story, nor is it a complete failure. Out of 22 Arab states in the Middle East and North Africa, pro-democracy movements kicked off only in six – Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen. Except Tunisia, where democratization is making progress at a slow but steady pace, the Arab Spring has stumbled down a slippery slope. The region where it did fail to penetrate and leave any traceable footprint is the Gulf Arab region – the entire west coast of the Persian Gulf. Other than Bahrain where pro-democracy violence keeps rattling the government, the five other authoritarian Gulf Arab monarchies, all grouped under the banner of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), have managed to outlast the pro-democracy movements.

And two of the Gulf monarchies – Qatar and Saudi Arabia have played active roles to swerve the Arab Spring to stave off threats to their hereditary rules and where possible to promote their perceived interests. While Qatari role is viewed more as oversized, Saudi Arabia’s actions to quell pro-democracy forces are clearly labeled counterrevolutionary.

Qatar plays an oversized role

The tiny emirate of Qatar, known for its big punches in regional and global diplomacy and a foreign policy of balancing relations with all sides – friends and foes alike - has played an oversized role to influence Arab Spring developments. Doha’s role in the Libyan and Syrian civil wars has often produced global news headlines. This was a big surprise, given Qatar’s territorial size (roughly equivalent to US Connecticut state) and demographic strength (fewer than 250,000 citizens). Still, the former Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who abdicated in favor of his fourth son Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on 25 June 2013, found himself at the forefront of the Arab march towards democracy.

Defying conventional military and strategic calculations, Sheikh Hamad steered his emirate into the NATO-led military assault on Libya to oust the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Qatar had sent six mirage fighter jets to enforce the ‘no-fly zone’ in Libya, trained and equipped the rebel fighters, sold Libyan oil on behalf of the rebels united under the umbrella organization NTC (National Transitional Council) and spent a total of US $2 billion to advance the rebels’ cause. The Al Thanis-owned Al Jazeera channel successfully fought the media war on behalf of the rebels and aroused the common Libyans against their dictator. The Libyan episode came to an end with the capture and killing of Gaddafi on 20 October 2011. The rebels, out of their deep sense of gratitude to Doha, hoisted the Qatari national flag at key events and renamed Tripoli’s Algeria Square the Qatar Square.

In Syria, Qatar attempted to play a similar role to dislodge the Bashar Al-Assad government. As in Libya, Doha has used both soft and hard power tools – Al Jazeera channel, diplomatic support for and financial aid to the anti-Assad rebels and the threats of use of force against Damascus. Backed by the West, Qatar played its trump card to expel Syria’s Arab League representative, closed the Syrian embassy in Doha in June 2011 and finally allowed the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) to open a diplomatic post in Doha in March 2013 but to no avail. Unlike success in Libya, a different set of geopolitical factors, particularly active Iranian and Russian backing for the Al-Assad government, has undercut joint Qatari and Western efforts to change the regime in Damascus. Sheikh Hamad’s retirement from politics, in fact, epitomized Qatar’s defeat in Syria. The new emir Sheikh Tamim decidedly opted for a low-profile Syria policy, though not a complete winding down of the course.

The big question is: Why did tiny Qatar embark on such an oversized role to pursue regime change in Libya and Syria while being anti-democratic out and out? Doha’s involvements in the Arab Spring, despite official justification to aid the democratic forces, were driven by some hidden objectives, as they became clear later. With security guarantees provided by US military presence on their soil, Qatari rulers have exploited the Arab Spring as a way to paint their progressive image, boost their regional diplomatic profile and capture the leadership role in the Arab world which Egypt, Iraq or Libya tried in the past but failed. Secondly, Doha’s bigger strategic design appears to float and sustain an alliance of Sunni Islamist forces across the Middle East and North Africa, an objective that suffered a major setback after the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)-supported Islamist President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt in July 2013. The alliance of Sunni Islamist forces could provide Qatar a great political and diplomatic leverage to ride clear of its two giant neighbors – Iran and Saudi Arabia plus the benefits of a formidable regional leadership.

Qatar has traditionally played host to MB leaders like Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi of Egypt and Ali al-Sallabi of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group that eventually caused political and diplomatic rifts with Saudi Arabia, a conservative monarchy that views MB as serious ideological and even existential threats and has recently designated it as a terrorist group, al-Qaeda and Hezbollah being the other two organizations on Saudi terrorist list. But Riyadh’s anti-Arab Spring role has openly taken a virulent sectarian tone – actions to contain the rise of the Shi’ites in and outside the Gulf region.

Saudi Arabia goes counterrevolutionary

Saudi Arabia, the Gulf’s Sunni Islamic leviathan, has had a strong feeling of repugnance towards the Arab pro-democracy movements soon after they had broken out in Tunisia in December 2010. Prince Turki Al-Faisal, an influential member of the royal family, castigated the Arab Spring as ‘a cause of ruin and destruction’ while Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal justified Saudi involvement in the Syrian conflict as a ‘duty’ to ‘lift injustices’ against the Syrian people (read Sunni Syrian people). Clearly then, Saudi Arabia’s role in the Arab Spring, in contrast to Qatar’s, was defined by two counterrevolutionary objectives –to maintain the status quo in the Gulf neighborhood threatened by the pro-democracy movements and to prevent Shi’ite majority Iran from making any gains to buttress its regional status.

By the time the Arab Spring broke out, Saudi Arabia was internally on a secure footing. The al-Qaeda threats, posed from 2003–2006, were eliminated; there was the American security guarantee for the Saudi royal family; the relationship between the Al-Saud rulers and the Wahhabi religious establishment was much more solidified; and, above all, the Saudi young people were less hostile towards their government and more interested to see their country, compared to Dubai’s or Doha’s eye-popping economic prosperity, did not fare poorly. On top of that, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud declared a financial bonanza of US $127 billion as extra benefits to dissuade Saudi citizens from organizing or joining any pro-democracy movements.

Relatively free of internal constraints, the Al-Saud rulers looked beyond their national borders to kill the Arab Spring before it could land on their own territory. They clued the Shi’ites-led pro-democracy movements in Bahrain to an Iranian conspiracy to topple the minority Sunni Al-Khalifa monarchy, though no evidence proved Iran’s involvement in the Bahraini uprisings. With support from the GCC, King Abdullah sent troops to Bahrain in early March 2011 to suppress the pro-democracy forces and stop the majority Shi’ites from taking over political power, a development that could encourage the Saudi Shi’ites concentrated in the Eastern Province bordering the Persian Gulf to follow suit. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait aided the Saudi intervention by contributing ground troops and naval forces. Iran condemned Saudi actions in Bahrain, to which the US acquiesced. That was the first Saudi nail in the coffin of the Arab Spring.

It is in Syria where Saudi role has proved terribly sectarian and devastating. In their self-styled responsibility to protect the Sunni Syrians, the Al-Saud rulers have extended all-out diplomatic, financial and military support to the Sunni rebels. Riyadh has also reportedly sent Salafist fighters to Syria and united other Sunni jihadist groups under the banner of Islamic Front to topple the Assad government and eliminate the al-Qaeda-linked forces. Shi’ites from Iran, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries responded in kind. The centuries-old divide between the two Islamic sects was thus rekindled amidst an ongoing gruesome sectarian rivalry in Iraq since 2006.

The resort to sectarianism was driven by Riyadh’s primary strategic objectives to delink Iran from Syria, Tehran’s only Arab strategic partner and a conduit for Iranian aid to the Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, and put Iran’s regional influence under effective check. Unexpectedly though, the outcomes have been counterproductive: troops loyal to Assad are winning the civil war, Iran stands more emboldened, especially after the interim nuclear deal with the West struck on 24 November 2013. After three years of fighting, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the West stand to lose; the recent fall of the rebels’ last stronghold –Yabroud, a Syrian strategic town close to the Lebanese border, to government troops is quite indicative of that.

The Consequences

The outcomes Saudi counter-revolutionary role and Qatari support for the Islamist rebels have produced are a mixed bag of successes and failures. Riyadh has successfully sustained the status quo in the Gulf area, curbed the tide of the Arab people’s aspirations for democratic rights and freedoms in Syria by adding fuel to sectarian fire, reversed the course of the Arab Spring in Egypt by propping up the post-Morsi military-led government with US $32 billion (with contributions from Kuwait and the UAE). It provided Bahrain and the Sultanate of Oman with multi-billion petrodollars to pacify their citizens and not to join the Arab Spring-sparked protest movements. Muslim Brotherhood is also down in Jordan, Syria, and Tunisia. Qatar’s military adventurisms in Libya and Syria have culminated in a NATO-led victory against Gaddafi but a military misstep in Syria. Overall, the Arab Spring, as it looks like, is caught in a quagmire and has lost the way to get out of it.

An additional development stemming from Saudi role in the Arab Spring is the recent simmering tensions in Qatar – Saudi relations that threaten GCC solidarity. The Al-Saud rulers despise Qatar’s relations with the MB and have threatened land, air and naval blockade to force Doha to cut off its ties with MB, shut down the Al Jazeera news channel blamed for anti-Saudi propaganda that once resulted in a diplomatic rupture from 2002 to 2007. Earlier, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Doha over Qatar’s refusal to comply with Saudi demands while Oman and Kuwait fell short of following the Saudi lead. Qatari brand of independent foreign policy, pursued since 1995 – the year Doha rebelled against living under a Saudi shadow, is now at serious risk. That may well push Qatar to the court of Iran and Turkey who are supporting Doha in its showdown with Riyadh. At the 2013 GCC summit meeting in Kuwait, Oman also rejected the Saudi proposal to turn GCC into a confederation to face the Iranian challenge collectively. Riyadh now stands isolated in its own neighborhood, but after seriously derailing the march toward Arab democracy.

Dr. Mohammed Nuruzzaman is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Gulf University for Science and Technology, Kuwait. He specializes in international relations, security studies, political economy, and politics and international relations of the Middle East.

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