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In Search of Stability: Saudi Arabia and the Arab Spring

Author: René Rieger

Paper | July 10th, 2014

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This paper challenges the widespread assertion that the Saudi reaction to the developments related to the Arab Spring has been purely counterrevolutionary in nature. While it is true that Riyadh has been supporting the monarchical regimes in Bahrain and Oman and backed the Mubarak regime in Egypt right until its fall, the Kingdom supported the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya and, after initial hesitation, also became a strong supporter of the anti-regime forces in Syria.

The Saudi reaction to the Arab Spring has been dynamic in nature and differed from one state to another. The Saudi bolstering of the political status quo and regime stability in some states, support of revolutionary forces in others, and interference in post-revolutionary processes yet elsewhere, may ostensibly be a contradiction but is in fact the result of a coherent strategy.

Riyadh’s reaction to protests, revolts, and revolutions in the Arab states has been strategic keeping in view the perceived challenges and opportunities these developments posed to its main policy interests: regime security; regional stability; and the containment, and ideally the rollback, of Iranian regional influence. In this context, the decisive factors are geographic proximity, the nature of the concerned state’s political system, and the quality of the particular regime’s relations with Saudi Arabia and its main opponent, Iran.
On the domestic level, Riyadh reacted to popular protests by using its traditional strategy of buying domestic peace; however, it did not conduct any meaningful political reforms and took tough action against protests in the Eastern Province. However, as the majority of protesters did not seek regime change, Riyadh’s reaction cannot be labeled counterrevolutionary.

WITH THE GENEROUS SUPPORT OF