Iran, Turkey, and Saudi: The Regional Race for the Arab Spring
A Lonely Revolution
The Arab Spring has successfully removed three autocrats from the stage, while others may be on their way out. But it has brought three regional powers face to face, each competing to shape the outcome of the revolts in pursuit of its own national interest. Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia are struggling either to contain the revolutions or model them in their image. All three seem to be competing in search of lebensraum, or a sphere of influence, where they aspire to create living spaces for ideologies, influence, capital, and military outreach.
For the last three decades, and despite serious efforts elsewhere, Iran stood as a lonely revolution in a “sea of Sunni Muslims.” Its regime looked comfortable after the removal of Saddam in 2003. Consequently, it has secured many clients in Iraq, some of whom command serious forces on the ground. Iran reached a modus vivendi with the remaining American troops, and continues to act in Iraq as the godfather of preachers and political parties. It can send its fighters to bomb Iraqi territory without any serious consequences. Iraq has thus become Iran’s lebensraum. Its enthusiasm for revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain where the uprisings stumbled badly, is in contrast with its unequivocal condemnation of the Syrian uprising. Tehran risks losing its influence in the Levant following the demise of the Syrian regime. While its leadership and media project the North African revolutions as an Islamic awakening, that of Syria is seen as the work of terrorists and agitators.
None of the current Arab revolutions will ever produce a replicate of Iran’s wilayat al-faqih [Rule of the Religious Jurist]. Yet serious political overtures are on their way: for example, the normalization of Egyptian-Iranian relations after three decades of sporadic antagonism. The passage of Iranian ships through the Suez Canal and the recent visit by Egyptian delegates to Tehran reflect a new era. But Iranian expansion in the Arab world may have reached its limits, not because of a lack of will and determination, but because of the limitations of Iranian Shiism and, in particular, its political doctrine. Iran’s expansion among Arabs had been founded on supporting resistance to Israel rather than historical affinities or religious proximity. Many Arabs would like to see Iran raising the flag of Palestine, but after their spring, none of the emancipated Arabs would look to Iran for political inspiration. They are more likely to look towards Turkey.
Turkey is another regional power looking for opportunities. Turkey is on its way to becoming even more important as a regional player in light of the ongoing Arab Spring. In Lebanon and Palestine, Turkey’s influence had already preceded the Arab Spring. Its recent patronage of Levantine politics is now boosted following the events in Syria. A defender of Palestinian rights, a friend of several Lebanese political players, and an former friend of Bashar Assad, Turkey is beginning to be seen as a model of an Islamic democracy, slightly different from the liberal version, but faithful to its most important principles. Its hosting of the Syrian opposition conferences, held on its territory, attests to a growing opportunity. Its Foreign Minister Ahmet Oglu, has put his weight behind serious political change in Syria. Turkey’s flourishing economy, its functioning marriage between Islam and democracy, and its energetic and impressive leadership have become the envy of many Arabs. In the eyes of Sunni Islamist forces like the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Palestine, and their more conservative Saudi and Gulf counterparts, Turkey has scored high. Many see it as a strong, autonomous country capable of pursuing its own agenda rather than that of the West, while continuing to build strong ties with Western countries. Its consumer goods flood Arab markets, while its entrepreneurs demonstrate the success of capitalism with an Islamic flavor. Its popular culture and television soap operas, dubbed in Syrian Arabic, make news across the region. Turkey, however, does not only appeal to Arab Islamists. Arab Nationalists may continue to see it as an old imperial power, but they cannot stop being impressed. The new youth of the Arab world are fascinated by its hip-hop Muslim girls with their colorful scarfs. All aspire to an Islamic cosmopolitanism al la Turque, an alternative to Western globalization with its contested social and moral foundation.
Counter-Revolutionary Saudi Arabia
There remains the most politically repressive, economically powerful, and dangerous counter-revolutionary regime of Saudi Arabia. The fall of the Mubarak regime has removed, for the time being, the largest and most important Arab country from regional politics. Egypt’s absence has created a void that Saudi Arabia is desperately trying to occupy as the vanguard of Sunni Islam. This will be the second time the Saudis try to do so — the first was after the 1967 Egyptian defeat by Israel. Without a revolution in ‘The Land of the Two Holy Mosques,’ the authoritarian Saudi regime was compelled to take pre-emptive counter-revolutionary measures in anticipation of the domino effect of the Arab Spring. Internally, in addition to classical Saudi strategies to appease the population with economic benefits and intimidate potential protesters with security measures, the state succeeded in fragmenting protests and dividing protesters using the sectarian Sunni-Shia religious rhetoric of its own religious establishment. The regime activated sectarian discourse against the very politically active Shia minority in order to abort the development of ‘national politics’ that cross regional, ideological, sectarian, and tribal boundaries. By depicting calls for protest as a Shia conspiracy against the Sunni majority, with the objective of spreading Iran’s influence in the Sunni homeland, the kingdom deepened sectarian tension and undermined efforts to stage minor protests in various cities, including those where Shias live.
Saudi Arabia is desperately trying to contain two Arab Spring challenges. First, the regime is on alert lest contagious revolutionary winds reach its heartland. The regime mobilizes its religious militia to condemn potential protesters and activists while security forces pick them up in their offices and homes. But Saudi sectarianism proved to be the most successful strategy to thwart mobilization. Even women calling to lift the ban on driving are depicted as Shia agents, determined to westernize the country and corrupt its pious society. Preachers praise their regime of oppression as a defender of Sunnis not only in the Arab world but also across the globe. The princes enjoy the flattery. They let the preachers propagate sectarian and conservative messages in return for the preachers efforts to keep the population under control and away from ‘blasphemous’ democracy talk.
The second challenge for the Saudis is external, in countries where revolutions did take place. In Bahrain, the suppression of the pro-democracy movement with the help of Saudi troops allowed the regime to contain a truly threatening revolution. Riyadh sent strong signals not only to its own agitated Shia minority but also, more importantly, to its Sunni majority. The regime compelled its subjects to support it against Shia foreign agents, allegedly acting in the name of Iran. For the moment, and under the pressures of tense regional and internal dynamics, it seems that the Saudi regime has succeeded in suppressing its own minor protest and created a volatile situation in Bahrain that may explode any time in the near future.
In Yemen, the Saudis struggled to push a Gulf Co-operation Council agenda that guarantees the safe delayed exit of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but found themselves nursing an injured president. Riyadh does not deal with Yemen as a matter of foreign policy. It has always considered the country a security concern, first handled by Prince Sultan, Minister of Defence, and more recently by Muhammad ibn Nayif, Deputy Minister of the Interior. Both men are not associated with diplomacy. After it pushed its own Jihadis into Yemen, the regime fears Yemen becoming even more of a safe haven for al-Qaeda. There is also the problem of arms smuggling and illegal immigration. While Bahrain was a temporary quick fix, Yemen may yet prove to be a more complex bee hive full of aggressive hornets. In a country where three revolutions take place in one, the Saudis may have reached a dead end with their previous policies of patronage, divide and rule, and export of Salafi teachings. The struggle between the Yemeni notable families of al-Salehs and the al-Ahmars, between the regime and the old opposition parties, and between the revolutionary youth and the President’s men, not to mention two separatist groups in the north and south, may prove to be too much to handle for the ageing Saudi leadership. The latter will try to find a puppet, but Yemen is definitely not Bahrain. The Saudi regime may once again play the sectarian and separatist card as a pre-emptive counter-revolutionary strategy that exaggerates religious differences and hatred and mitigates against the consolidation of national politics in Yemen.
While the Saudi regime dreams about becoming the sole fixer and protector of the world of Sunni Arab Islam, its political system is not one that many Arabs aspire to emulate after their Arab Spring. Arabs will welcome Saudi economic largess but may well challenge the patron-client relations that the Saudi regime has always deployed to silence regional Arab competitors. With Iran losing its appeal, the new confrontation may well be with Turkey. The Saudis think that Iran can be defeated with anti-Shia sectarian hatred. To confront Turkish regional ambitions, they may find their old Wahhabi manuals that denounce the Sufi Turks and a reinvented Arab nationalism handy. They have already purified The Land of the Two Holy Mosques from signs of a historical legacy, when the country was under nominal Ottoman suzerainty.
But despite the exhaustion of Arabs following their spring rebirth, regional powers may not find in them this time the easy clients they are looking for.
Madawi al-Rasheed is professor of anthropology of religion at King’s College, University of London and a political commentator on Middle East Affairs.
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