If the Saudis Take Their Toys and Go Home, Have They Still Won the Arab Spring?

David Ignatius adds something to the reporting on the Saudis’ snit that has been missing: situating it in America’s decision in 2011 to let Hosni Mubarak fall.

The bad feeling that developed after Mubarak’s ouster deepened month by month: The U.S. supported Morsi’s election as president; opposed a crackdown by the monarchy in Bahrain against Shiites protesters; cut aid to the Egyptian military after it toppled Morsi and crushed the Brotherhood; promised covert aid to the Syrian rebels it never delivered; threatened to bomb Syria and then allied with Russia, instead; and finally embarked on a diplomatic opening to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s deadly rival in the Gulf.

Of course, Ignatius depicts the Saudi version here, not reality. US condemnation of Bahrain’s crackdown has been muted, and the US has started shipping arms again. This litany doesn’t mention the Saudi-favored policies the US supported: overthrowing long-time Saudi annoyance Muammar Qaddafi, resolving the Yemeni uprising in such a way that largely maintained the status quo. And it’s not the Brotherhood so much troubles the Saudis (indeed, they’re supporting Islamic extremists elsewhere), but the notion of popular legitimacy (which is not to say Morsi had that when he was overthrown).

But it does reflect what I think is genuinely behind Saudi disengagement. After some setbacks in 2011 — notably, Mubarak’s ouster, but also the need to increase its bribes to its own people to ensure stability — the Saudis found a way to use the rhetoric of popular uprising selectively to pursue their own hegemonic interests. They believed they were on their way to do so in Syria, as well.

With the coup in Egypt and Obama’s tepid response to it, however, the cost of popular legitimacy started to rise again. And with the US backing out of its efforts to use “rebels” (including foreign fighters) to oust Assad, Saudi’s feigned support for popular legitimacy disappeared. That notion reverted to being just another force that might endanger the throne. And as the US gets closer to a deal with Iran — a development that significantly threatens Saudi leverage in our “special relationship” in any case — I suspect the Saudis decided a temper tantrum was necessary. More importantly, I worry they disengaged from the UN because they are considering alternative means of pursuing their interests, means that would be loudly condemned in that body.

The Saudis are running out of money and oil to ensure their own stability, and asserting greater hegemony over the Middle East presented a way to retain it. I assume they intend to keep pursuing that greater hegemony with us or against us.

6 replies
  1. Phil Perspective says:

    More importantly, I worry they disengaged from the UN because they are considering alternative means of pursuing their interests, means that would be loudly condemned in that body.

    Sounds like you’re saying Saudi Arabia will be behind more terrorist attacks in the near future.

  2. Jeff Kaye says:

    Guess what? All this correlates closely with the fact that the US is much less dependent upon Saudi oli than in the past. Leaving aside the environmental depradations of fracking, the fact the US is getting much more oil from fracking shale (both domestically and from Canada) has made the Saudis an ever-smaller player in our market. Conservation and reduced demand because of weak economy also play a role.

    US oil production has increased by nearly 1/3, adding over 50 million barrels of oil monthly compared to production in the 1990s, or even the early 2000s. That’s over an additional 1/2 billion barrels in 2012 compared with just 2008.


    That’s what’s embolding some in Washington.

    Nothing is forever, not even Saudi oil fields. But they still have a lot of oil and a lot of weapons.

  3. emptywheel says:

    @Jeff Kaye: Yes, and I meant to include that so thanks for pointing it out.

    We pulled a switch from Iran to Saudi Arabia in the 1970s which was possible bc Saudi oil was so much more readily accessible. A switch back now — which may be where we’re headed — is not going to be the same. But we can do it bc we’ve got domestic production and bc there are sufficient other supplies outside of the Persian Gulf that we think we can do it.

    Though it likely means our attention on the Bolivarist states will continue to heat up.

  4. Jeff Kaye says:

    @emptywheel: I think there are a lot of reasons for U.S. intervention in the Southern Cone, and oil is one of the major ones. Agreed.

    For readers interest, from the same gov website linked by me above:

    Top sources of net crude oil and petroleum product imports:

    Canada (28%)
    Saudi Arabia (13%)
    Mexico (10%)
    Venezuela (9%)
    Russia (5%)

    If you put Saudi Arabia with other Gulf states, the oil imports amount to about 1/3, or just above Canada.

    Btw, don’t forget the oil to come (someday) from Libya and/or Iraq. The invasions and overthrow of those countries was largely, if not solely, about securing future oil reserves.

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