Articles
Mubarak's Departure Deals Blow to Saudis
Angus McDowall * - « The Wall Street Journal » - 12 / 2 / 2011 - 3:11 pm

For Saudi Arabia, the departure of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak represents a diplomatic setback that could complicate its foreign policy across the Middle East, with repercussions stretching from Iraq to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Domestically, however, the kingdom appears largely insulated from the upheavals that have toppled regimes in Tunis and now Cairo. Though Saudi Arabia has seen small demonstrations, its ruling elite has headed off potential instability with carrots—including cash for poor families—and sticks waved sternly in protesters' direction.

As of late Friday, Saudi Arabia's leaders offered no official response to Mr. Mubarak's exit following more than two weeks of protests. But in public statements and conversations with U.S. President Barack Obama, King Abdullah had offered full-throated support to the longtime Egyptian strongman, who has been an important regional partner for the kingdom.

On Thursday, the kingdom's veteran foreign minister, Prince Saud Al Faisal, spoke sharply about "interference" in Egyptian affairs in what was interpreted as a rare attack on U.S. policy.

Mr. Obama's administration has sent mixed messages about its support of anti-Mubarak protesters but has repeatedly said significant political reform needed to started right away. Across the Mideast, that was interpreted as a withdrawal of public support for Mr. Mubarak.

"We are astonished at what we see as interference in the internal affairs of Egypt by some countries," the Saudi foreign minister said Thursday in Morocco. "We are shocked to see that there are countries pre-empting even the will of the Egyptian people."

Egypt and Saudi Arabia have worked together on attempts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord and to counter what they see as growing Iranian influence in Lebanon and Iraq. They have also cooperated in the fight against al Qaeda.

"Saudi Arabia has lost a loyal ally today," said Madawi al-Rasheed, professor of social anthropology of Kings College, London, and author of "A History of Saudi Arabia." "They have worked together on negotiations between Israel and Palestine and allying against Iran. But their response reflects a paralysis at the top caused by the illness of the king and other top princes."

King Abdullah is recuperating from a back operation in Morocco, while the country's crown prince was absent for much of the past two years for medical treatment.

One worry is that the protests of the past few weeks could spread to some of the region's big oil producers. On Friday, Saudi dissidents were quick to jump on the news of Mr. Mubarak's departure. "Now we can tell the Saudi regime it has two choices: establish a constitutional monarchy or we will work towards a republic," said Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, head of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association.

In the past month, the Saudi kingdom has seen street protests in Jeddah over inadequate flood defenses, small demonstrations in Riyadh for increased women's rights and social networking posts demanding more democracy. On Thursday, a group of Islamists and human-rights activists announced they had formed a political party—a move that appears mostly a political gesture in a country with no elections.

The ruling family has sent would-be protesters a veiled warning by speaking harshly about the unrest in Egypt. Last week, the king described Egyptian protesters as "meddling in the security and stability of Arab and Muslim Egypt…to inject their destructive hatred."

Saudi security services briefly arrested up to 50 protesters in Jeddah after noon prayers on Jan. 28, three days after the Egyptian protests erupted, according to Human Rights Watch. The kingdom's grand mufti, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, was quoted by official media as saying the protests were plots by the enemies of Islam.

At the same time, the ruling Al Saud family has appeared to use the oil-rich country's financial resources to head off discontent. King Abdullah on Sunday waived repayment of state housing loans to the families of people who died in debt, and said the government would disburse $250 million to needy families.

The ruling family has also embarked on an unusually effusive public-relations mission in Jeddah, where flood victims were visited last week by Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, the interior minister considered by many analysts to be second-in-line to the throne.

Despite Saudi Arabia's high level of graduate unemployment and near-total lack of democracy—two factors that have weighed heavily in Egypt and Tunisia—the kingdom has no sustained history of opposition politics. The royal family is backed by both conservative clerics and political reformers, and Saudis enjoy higher average incomes than most other Arabs.

Even the kingdom's geography works against any putative protest movement. Population centers are spread out across a large country, and there are few densely crowded suburbs where a mass of demonstrators could defy the authorities.

"The Saudi street is a six-lane highway, not the narrow alleyways of Cairo," said a former Western diplomat in Riyadh. "Overall, the suffering of the Saudi people is far less than it is for Egypt's teeming masses."

Saudi foreign reserves are 101% of gross domestic product, said John Sfakianakis, chief economist of Banque Saudi Fransi, compared with just 15% for Egypt. The kingdom has embarked on an $800 billion investment program running from 2008 to 2014 that could help create jobs.

"There are opportunities here that give young Saudis hope of building a future," Mr. Sfakianakis said. "Lots of Egyptians migrate abroad. Saudis don't."

Bookmark with:
Angus McDowall is a British freelance reporter and lived in Tehran between 2003-07
Local News | General News | Articles
129194