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Iran and Saudi Arabia: Who won the Arab Spring?

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring we have witnessed things we haven't seen in decades. A popular storm swept public squares expressing the failure of states to meet the demands of their citizens. Borders have dissolved and social ties have disintegrated. In light of the oppression and tyranny, sectarianism has spread in a hideous manner, on the verge of changing the entire political map of the region, after it was divided between "moderates" and "the resistance".

There have also been changes in countries which did not experience Arab Spring uprisings. Iran (although not an Arab country) and Saudi Arabia were not isolated from the effects of the revolutions; they were at the centre of the action with prominent roles. Today, we need to ask ourselves who won in the Arab Spring following its relapse due to the weakness of the national revolutionary groups and the strength of the region's more influential countries. Even though the victory is incomplete and the results are not final, it is a question which still needs an answer.

At first glance, Iran could be seen to be on the verge of announcing its landslide victory after winning the new Iraq and taking control of the popular uprising in Tehran in 2009, as they no longer posed a threat to Iran. After the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Tehran was openly happy and recognised the Muslim Brotherhood government, seeking to establish and strengthen ties at the expense of the old regime which had been allied with the Gulf States. Tehran also promoted an Islamic revolution in the region as an extension of its own revolution in the hope of gaining a foothold in Egypt; it wanted to convince the country that Iran would be the best alternative to Mubarak's oppressive regime.

In Syria, Iran lost a lot of its power to the other axis now managed directly by Saudi Arabia on the ground. It was exhausted financially as, unlike Saudi Arabia, which gained a $700 billion reserve when oil prices rose, Iran did not benefit much due to Western economic sanctions. It also lost on an ideological level, as Tehran always presented itself to the Arabs and Muslims as a defender of the oppressed and the rights of the people to speak freely about their leaders; this image cracked with Iran's support of the Syrian regime and alienated Sunni Muslims. Iran gained with its nuclear programme and opened up to the West, which now recognises the country; this is Tehran's priority.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia did not originally have a revolutionary ideology; it has always been conservative and remained aloof, but Syria was the exception. Riyadh also provided sanctuary for the deposed Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and expressed its position on revolutions openly when it continued to support its allies to ensure that they would remain in power. The Peninsula Shield Force crossed the causeway between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in order to back up its allies in the Manama government, and also began to organise the new Yemeni government in a manner that would preserve its influence there. Externally, Saudi policy became more independent from America; Riyadh only seems to have lost in Egypt but the latter is returning to its old allies with the military back in charge with support from the Gulf.

Most importantly for Saudi Arabia, in the midst of this it did experience some effects of the Arab Spring, which had a significant domestic impact. With the exception of some factional actions that were controlled, the Arab Spring warned Riyadh about the need to strengthen itself internally and promote stability, so it invested in many changes in economic, social and security structures, rightly or wrongly. Social organisations were funded to the tune of billions of Saudi riyals, in addition to the government filtering the labour market to address unemployment. It also hastened to implement housing projects and enhanced the presence of women in the public domain.

In terms of security, Saudi Arabia made several arms deals, buying 72 Typhoon fighters, 100 navy vessels and 245 F-15s to enhance its defensive and offensive capabilities, as demonstrated during the Saif Abdullah ("Abdullah's sword") military exercise, the first of its kind in the Kingdom's history. The Saudi armed forces unveiled, also for the first time, their estimated 120 ballistic missiles. This was confirmed by a visiting Saudi researcher at Harvard University, Nawaf Obaid, in his study titled "Saudi Arabian Defence Doctrine". In addition to this, the government in Riyadh also accepted the decline in its legitimacy based on Wahabi Salafism and decreased its dependency on it for the sake of security, which foretells a change in Saudi mentality. There were several changes in powerful positions, replacing the first generation with the second generation of princes; this seems to have been an attempt to make the largest and fastest transfer of power since the establishment of the Kingdom.

In the end, Saudi Arabia has emerged stronger than it was before the Arab Spring, while enhancing the presence of its rival Iran regionally and internationally. Al-Assad's remaining in power and Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi's "election" as Egyptian president both suggest that the policy of "no winner and no loser" is predominant on the scene today, and that the hands of the clock have indeed stopped at the "resistance" and "moderation" axes. However, observers of the situation are aware that both sides are standing in political quicksand and that the areas over which these axes have influence are full of surprises.

Translated from Al Araby Al Jadeed 10 June, 2014


The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

ArticleIranMiddle EastSaudi Arabia
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