Over the past three years, the Arab uprisings have sown a land of feast and famine in the Middle East.· Across the region, the downfall of old regimes and power structures has unhinged traditional geopolitical relationships and has allowed for the emergence of new players and strategic cooperation. For some, like al-Qaeda and the Kurdish populations, the general deterioration of regional security has allowed for greater autonomy, mobility, and access to resources in conflict areas.· For others, like the old regimes of Yemen, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt—as well as the struggling Syrian and Bahraini governments—the previous three “lean” years have only brought about political dissolution, overthrow, and crisis.
For most, however, the Arab uprisings have offered nothing more than a tumultuous experience of uncertainty and fluidity, with a perpetually shuffled deck of winners and losers. A year ago, Qatar was at the forefront of regional diplomacy making headlines as a revisionist state from a corner in the Persian Gulf. Now, amidst a national transition of leadership, it is struggling to recalibrate its foreign policy due to sour political investments in Egypt, criticisms against Al-Jazeera, and defeats within the Syrian opposition political scene. Turkey, too, faces a new kind of regional marginalization as it fights to contain the damage done to its overzealous anti-Assad position staked in 2011; while Hamas struggles against irrelevance due to the recent fall of the Brotherhood in Egypt, severed relationships with Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, and the abrupt reconciliation between its ally, Turkey, and its enemy, Israel.
So as the card continues to shuffle, who is now positioned to win big?
Generally speaking, the Arab uprisings have not been kind to Saudi Arabia. Immediately placed on the defensive against the tide of protest, the Saudi monarchy worked tirelessly as a counterrevolutionary force against regional change. It employed tactful diplomacy, financial resources, sectarian rhetoric, and military force as means to shield against foreign unrest, and stunt domestic democratic reform. Hesitant to back Morsi in Egypt, and unassuming in its support for the Syrian rebels behind Qatari showmanship, the Saudi leadership was careful in placing its bets abroad ahead of regional chaos.
But with chaos comes opportunity; and as circumstances across the Middle East continue to evolve, Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical calculus has offered it a new window of opportunity to assert itself within the region, step beyond its defensive posture, and possess the initiative to determine desirable outcomes. It has already successfully positioned itself as an indispensable partner for international players; and with budding relationship with leaders and various parties around across the Middle East, it figures to be play a crucial role in ongoing discussions regarding regional crises.
The fall of the Brotherhood in Egypt was nothing less than a blessing to the Saudi gerontocrats and their Gulf allies. As an ideological and strategic rival, the Muslim Brotherhood was no friend to Saudi Arabia. The $5 billion of pledged aid that poured from the Saudis to the Egyptian transitional government shortly after Morsi’s removal was only the tip of the iceberg. Going forward, the Kingdom has positioned itself to exploit the Brotherhood’s fall and to empower friendly military rule. Meanwhile Saudi support for Egyptian Salafist political groups since the ousting of Mubarak has finally produced results. Acting as a Trojan horse for the Saudis against Brotherhood rule, these groups have risen to unprecedented relevance in the post-Morsi world. And as the Muslim Brotherhood continues to protest against Morsi’s removal, the Salafists remain as the major Islamist force, emerging, by some estimates, as the “power brokers” in post-Morsi Egyptian politics.
Elsewhere, the Saudis have made moves to expand their reach into Lebanon, and engage in rapprochement with Iraqi leadership. But perhaps most important of all has been Syria, where the Saudis have trumped the Qataris for power over the Syrian opposition. The recent election of Ahmad Jarba as the new president of the Syrian National Coalition—which remains the focal point for international endeavors to reach a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Syria—was a major victory for the Saudis. Jarba, a dual citizen of Saudi Arabia and Syria, is seen as having close links to the ruling al-Saud. He has already met with Crown Prince Salman, and has announced the expected delivery of heavy weapons from the Saudis to Syrian rebels. Furthermore, it has been reported that the Saudis have long supported fighters on the ground in Syria, and in some cases, jihadists groups, whose ranks are filled with hundreds of Saudis. As the rift between the more extreme and more moderate opposition fighters grows on the ground, the need for a go-between to mediate and resolve conflict between them will only increase in suit. The Saudis have thus positioned themselves uniquely. Like in Egypt, they have not only forged a relationship with the figures of broad political import in the Syria crisis, but with other groups of significant local authority.
The Saudi upswing, however, is not only of strategic value, but also of domestic existential significance. Serious economic, political, and social issues plague Saudi Arabia. The protest movement in the Eastern Province persists, and the recent defections of a· Saudi diplomat and a Saudi prince highlight a growing discontent, even within the royal family. Yet as the Saudis continue to play regional and international politics,· they have not only been able to successfully deflect attention away from the economic, social, and political issues of the kingdom, but they have all but assured their own security from international criticism of Saudi reform (or lack thereof) in the wake of the Arab uprisings. Since the Saudis are primed to become a power broker in the region, the current value of democratic change in Saudi Arabia is not only negligible from the perspective of the U.S. and its allies, but perhaps detrimental. Once again, the Saudi monarchy has demonstrated its unparalleled value as a partner to international actors; and once more, Saudi people will be left to fight their uphill battle, alone.
Despite the challenges posed by turbulence since 2011, the monarchy has stood its ground against democratic change, bided its time, and absorbed the punches delivered by regional tumult. Now, the torrent of the Arab Spring has blossomed into a “Saudi Summer” for the al-Saud. The monarchy not only enjoys newfound authority on regional issues, and central relevance to international players, but also an enhanced legitimacy on the domestic stage.
Nevertheless, Saudi leadership must be careful. They must be cautious not to overreach. Recent reports suggest that the Saudis have begun to target Hezbollah in Lebanon. This represents a dangerous escalation between regional rivals, and risks exacerbating already heightened tensions across the region, with unintended consequences. Moreover, if Morsi’s abrupt removal reveals one thing, it is that the regional geopolitical paradigm remains fragile. Forces may change on a dime, and present ascendance does not guarantee future influence. The region remains mired in upheaval, and the deck will continue to shuffle. While the Saudis have successfully weathered the past three years, and stand to gain from its current position, the Middle East remains a land tangled in unknowns.
Across this land, these unknowns span far and wide. Nevertheless, the monarchy would be wise to turn its gaze back home, and address the concerns of its citizens. The greatest unknown may very well be the Saudi people. Because in the end, it won’t be the al-Saud, but the Saudi citizens who will have the final say on Saudi Arabia’s final destination in the “fat” years to come.
Eliot Sackler is a policy analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs