Webcast Recap

David Ottaway, Wilson Center Senior Scholar and former Washington Post Cairo Bureau Chief, gave his insights regarding the current situation in Saudi Arabia in light of the recent protests and the ways in which the Saudi regime is attempting to deal with new challenges.

On April 13, the Middle East Program hosted a meeting on "Saudi Arabia: The Kingdom Strikes Back," with Ottaway. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program, moderated the event.

Ottaway said that since the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, there have been petitions circulating in Saudi Arabia calling for elections and a constitutional monarchy. Ottaway recalled that despite such enthusiasm and the 17,000 people who followed the "Day of Rage" Facebook page, only one protester actually appeared to protest on March 11 in Riyadh. Ottaway stated that despite nervousness within the ruling family about the unrest, they have maintained confidence in being able to overcome challenges arising from pro-democracy forces.

Ottaway noted that the Saudi regime pledged billions of dollars to help the middle class and thus quell dissent, but political reforms were taking place very slowly. He observed that the Saudi royal family was looking to demonstrate its strength in the face of both internal and external challenges by encouraging Saudi nationalism, espousing an anti-Iranian campaign, and reinforcing the potency of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Ottaway recalled that the Saudi regime's confidence comes from its ability to weather challenges in the past, such as the Nasserism of the 1950's and 1960's, the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and the threat of Al Qaeda in the early 2000's. Furthermore, he mentioned that the Saudi religious establishment has served as a pillar of strength for the regime; for example, it issued a fatwa that stated that protesting was un-Islamic. Ottaway posited that the combination of religious pressure, the imminent threat of arrest, and the fear of the "Libya model" (i.e., stalemate, civil war) ultimately deterred protesters on March 11. Although Saudi Arabia is "simmering," Ottaway said, it is not yet "boiling" because the government can afford to tap its reserves of billions of dollars and appease the majority of dissidents.

With regard to foreign policy, Ottaway mentioned that Saudi Arabia would assert itself with more vigor now that Egypt is preoccupied with a shattered economy and a host of internal problems having to do with democratization. Saudi Arabia's strong position in the GCC, Ottaway stated, allowed the GCC to take more assertive positions, such as taking the lead for the no-fly zone over Libya as well as calling for the ouster of Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Ottaway also explained that U.S.-Saudi relations have been strained recently after what the Saudis see as the U.S. "abandonment" of former Egyptian president Mubarak, prompting Saudi uncertainty over U.S. intentions in the region. Ottaway spoke of the pro-Iranian Shi'a government that now governs Iraq, something the Saudi regime feels has shifted the balance of power against them.

Ottaway concluded with mention of the emergence of Saudi "redlines," things the Saudis would use their power to prevent, such as a pro-Shi'a government in Bahrain. He remarked that this is a different approach because the Saudi regime typically maintained fluid relations and policies in order to respond to often-changing factors in the region. Ottaway also contended that U.S.-Saudi relations would be tense but ongoing because of some common interests regarding Yemen, Iran, Lebanon, the Al-Qaeda threat, and the U.S. deal to sell $60 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia.

By Sara Girgis, Middle East Program