Stability Trumps Religion in Saudi Arabia's Arab Spring Policies

When the Arab Spring reached Egypt after blossoming in Tunisia, Saudi Arabia’s first reaction was to support then-President Hosni Mubarak and lobby President Barack Obama to do the same. Even when the U.S. started to pressure Mubarak to leave, Saudi King Abdullah continued supporting the old regime and described the protesters as “infiltrators” whose aim was to “destabilize [Egypt’s] security and stability.” He even warned that Saudi Arabia would finance Mubarak’s Egypt if the U.S. decided to withdraw their aid. However, after the revolution, Saudi Arabia decided to allocate monetary aid to the country and jettisoned the religious aspect of its foreign policy in order to ensure Egypt’s stability and, consequently, its own stability.

During the revolution, Abdullah clung to Mubarak because of Saudi Arabia’s interests in regional, gulf, and national areas. In its Middle Eastern policy, Saudi Arabia has always sought regional stability. Traditionally, having close relationships with pro-western rulers stopped confrontation with regimes like Libya. Thus, ties with long-term rulers in the Arab Gulf, Yemen, Jordan, and especially Egypt were a crucial part of Saudi Arabia’s strategy to maintain regional stability.

Saudi Arabia feared the Arab Spring spreading to the Gulf States, as it did in Bahrain. More than the economic, political, or social demands, the Saudis were concerned about the Shi’a character of the demonstrations. In Bahrain, the Shi’a community led a majority of the protests because they are underrepresented in government. Saudi Arabia’s alarm can be easily measured by its decision to send troops to Bahrain in order to curtail the revolution in the neighboring kingdom.

At the national level, there are increasing demands for minority rights. There is also increasing national pressure for political reform, which the kingdom tried to quell with initiatives such as the 2005 municipal elections. However, neither the elections not the promised reforms brought any structural change to the country.

For these reasons, Abdullah tried to limit Egypt’s revolution and repeatedly expressed his support for Mubarak’s regime. However, in the period after Mubarak, Saudi Arabia needs a strong Egypt. With growing internal security threats since the 2003 terrorist attacks and debates over the king’s succession, Saudi Arabia needs stability. A strong post-revolution Egypt is crucial to Middle Eastern stability and, consequently, to Saudi Arabia’s stability.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has always been comprised of financial support and religious influence. In Egypt’s case, this financial support was clear from the beginning. A week after Mubarak stepped down, Saudi Arabia announced the establishment of a development bank in Egypt to help the economy recover and orient it towards long-term investments. One month later, Saudi Arabia agreed to lend $4 billion in emergency funding, including a $1 billion deposit at Egypt’s Central Bank.

However, Saudi Arabia has left the religious aspect of its foreign policy aside for now. Instead, Saudi Arabia is engaging in an active diplomatic exchange with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The Saudi Foreign Minister met his Egyptian counterpart three times in three months, and Abdullah held a meeting with the Egyptian prime minister. Saudi Arabia realized that playing the religious card right away could be counterproductive, not only because of the growing inter-religious tension, but also because of the current debate on the role of religion in politics. Therefore, the country will probably continue this system of financial aid and diplomatic exchanges while the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces leads Egypt.

Egypt’s presidential election could be the turning point in this foreign policy plan. With new political parties and presidential candidates popping up in Egypt from all sides of the political spectrum, the result of the election could determine if Saudi Arabia starts using its religious power. The country, which seeks stability above all, will only use its religious weight if it is in line with Egypt’s new government policies. The House of Saud religion is secondary; what matters now is a stable Egypt and, hence, a stable Saudi Arabia.

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