Saudi Arabia and the Illusory Counterrevolution

The House of Saud has reason to be satisfied that 2½ years after the Arab awakening began toppling dictators from Tunisia to Yemen, its policies have helped counter the revolutionary tsunami and brought a return to autocracy across much of the Arab world. But the kingdom’s pursuit of the counterrevolution may prove to be illusory, since the roots of Arab revolution run deep.

The Saudis offered the first fallen dictator, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a safe exile. The Saudis were appalled at the downfall of Hosni Mubarak weeks later in 2011; Mubarak, a longtime friend of the Saudis, sent two divisions of troops to defend the kingdom in 1990 from Saddam Hussein. The royals were even more dismayed when President Barack Obama called for Mubarak to step down, which they saw as a betrayal of an American ally with ominous implications for themselves. They were shocked that the Egyptian revolution set in motion revolutions across the Arab world calling for democracy, including next door in Yemen and Bahrain. At home, King Abdullah responded with more than $100 billion in payoffs to the Saudi people to ensure stability at home. For the Saudi royals, the region seemed to be spinning dangerously out of control in 2011.

Now the picture looks different from the royal palaces. The coup in Cairo in June was enthusiastically welcomed in Riyadh. King Abdullah issued a public endorsement of the coup just two hours after Gen.Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced President Mohammed Morsi had been deposed and the Constitution suspended. The Saudis were the first foreign government to back the takeover publicly. The king followed the message up with a warm phone call to Sisi which the kingdom also made public. Since then, the kingdom and its two gulf allies, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, have promised $12 billion in aid to Egypt, with no conditions attached about restoring democracy.

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