The House of Saud strikes back
Saudi Arabia isn't taking this whole democracy thing lying down. It's putting down uprisings, beefing up alliances with fellow autocrats, and distancing itself from the US.
The Arab League observer mission in Syria is likely to fail
Egypt's military rulers crack down on democracy groups
Iran's threats over Strait of Hormuz? Understandable, but not easy
Eastern Libya poll indicates political Islam will closely follow democracy
Iraq's Maliki threatens, Sunnis grumble, and Baghdad goes boom
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In the process, it's working directly at cross purposes with the stated aims of President Obama, who has publicly put America in the camp of Middle Eastern democratic change – shaking up the longtime US-Saudi alliance.
For decades, US presidents and Saudi kings have worked to maintain the regional status quo under the old "autocracy equals stability" equation. That alliance was strengthened after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, with Saudi money and American muscle dedicated to containing the regional ambitions of the Shiite theocracy.
But when Hosni Mubarak, a junior partner in those efforts, ran into trouble at home, Saudi Arabia watched the United States abandon a man who'd been a stalwart. The Saudis were unhappy that the US helped install an Iran-friendly, Shiite-heavy government in Baghdad, but understood how Saddam Hussein ended up in American's sights.
Mr. Mubarak, by contrast, had reliably played ball for 30 years. Suddenly, he ran a "regime" that had to go. The House of Saud, wary of being "regime-ified" itself, has decided not to take chances.
The kingdom's measures have involved making mutual survival arrangements with fellow regional monarchies, sending troops to fellow Sunni monarchy Bahrain to bash the heads of Shiite democracy protesters, and spending massively at home. As with Saudi Arabia, the US has been largely silent about the crackdown in Bahrain, which hosts the US Navy's Fifth Fleet.
Unlike the US, whose selective encouragement of pro-democracy movements make it seem – in the language of pseudo-psychology – "conflicted," the Kingdom has a laser-like focus on its interests, which begin and end with regime survival. Since the US isn’t a wholehearted supporter of the status quo anymore, the Saudis are creating alternative networks to prevent regime change.
"We’re sending a message that monarchies are not where this is happening,” Prince Waleed bin Talal, the billionaire nephew of King Abdullah, told The New York Times. “We are not trying to get our way by force, but to safeguard our interests.”
Saudi model: Buy off citizens
Writing in Foreign Policy, economist Steffen Hertog points out that the Gulf monarchies, especially the Saudis, have successfully bought their subjects' acquiescence during past crises. But he says those transfers "pale in comparison" to the roughly $130 billion the Sauds have promised so far this year.
"The new spending measures ... include the creation of 60,000 new jobs in the Ministry of Interior – an agency that is already said to employ almost as many nationals as the whole Saudi private sector – the building of 500,000 houses, the setting of a minimum wage of 3,000 Saudi riyals ($800) in the public sector, one-time bonus payments for incumbent civil servants, the creation of a general unemployment assistance scheme, budget increases for various public credit agencies as well as supplementary funds for a number of religious organizations," he writes.