The Arab Spring and the role of regional powers

July 5, 2011

The winds of Arab Spring blew and spread very quickly across the coasts of the Arabian Peninsula where the traditional unconstitutional monarchies have been ruling for decades and the monarchs imagined that they will remain safe against internal challenges. People in Bahrain and Yemen poured into the streets in early February immediately after Hosni Mubarak’s government was overthrown in Egypt. The same demands were repeated by the protesters in Bahrain and Yemen. They revolted against ruler-for-life autocrats, corruption, and prejudice. They also demanded democratic systems and free and fair elections.

There is a significant difference between the countries in the Arabian Peninsula and other Arab states, which are facing popular protests. The international community, especially the U.S. and other Western countries, showed less interest for close engagement in regard to uprisings in the Peninsula. The main reasons for this seem to be the balance of power between the regional powers and the West-Saudi common interests. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is not diplomatically able to cope with these complicated crises.
Iran and Turkey, the two other regional powers with long history and interests in the region, cannot sit by idly and just observe the wrong approaches. The fates of these two popular revolutions are now in the hands of the Saudis. More engagement is required from Iran and Turkey for a multilateral peaceful solution.
In Bahrain there is a great public demand for reforms. In March 2011, one month after widespread street protests, the internal players came closer for negotiation about the agenda of necessary reforms. But Saudi Arabia sent its troops to Bahrain to suppress the protests. Although this unilateral action sounded to be a Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (PGCC) initiative on the request of Bahrain, but there is no doubt that the king and the crown prince of Bahrain preferred a peaceful solution. However, the military forces intervened in the island nation just one day after the crown prince presented his solution package to the opposition, which contained positive proposals such as an elected government, free and fair election, and investigation of corruption cases.
Now three months after the Saudi military intervention there is no single sign of progress neither in terms of stability nor coexistence and understanding between the government and the people. The human rights situation is terrible: Hundreds of protesters are held in jail; prisoners are tortured, and many are facing unjust trials including tens of doctors and nurses who had given medical assistance to the injured protesters based on their professional and humanitarian duties. Some prisoners died under torture based on reports by human rights groups.
Riyadh wants no change in the political structure or balance of power in the Middle East and feels threatened by the potential emergence of democratic governments in its surroundings.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia has gone from supporting the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh to bringing him to Riyadh for medical treatment after a bomb attack on his presidential palace on June 3. After months of protests Saudi Arabia realized that Saleh's hold on power has become increasingly weak and untenable, and that Saleh has become a threat to stability rather than a protector of it.
In comparison to other countries on the Arabian Peninsula political actors in Yemen are more diverse, military-minded, autonomous, and fractious. Yemen cannot be stabilized by the sort of tactics that Riyadh has used elsewhere: A small show of force, the backing of one faction against another, raising the specter of sectarianism and Iranophobia, or simply distributing money. Bringing order to Yemen will require Saudi Arabia to find an acceptable alternative to Saleh -- a proposition that is easier said than done.
Saudi Arabia has historically tried to keep Yemen's central government weak and its political actors divided. The thought of a strong and united Yemen gives the Saudi royals pause: The most populous country on the peninsula (24 million people) coupled with a heavily armed people based on tribal system. To maintain its influence over the decades, Riyadh has cultivated discrete relationships with many of Yemen's political leaders (who serve in government) and tribal sheikhs (who form a counterweight to the central government).
It will be difficult to balance the Saudi interests with demands of the Yemeni people. Some of Riyadh's principal clients in Yemen, such as General Ali Muhsin (one of Saleh's relatives who recently joined the opposition) and the Ahmar sheikhs, are unacceptable to the majority of the Yemenis. Not only are they perceived to be deeply complicit in Saleh's corrupt and authoritarian system but they would also not allow the emergence of a political system that will be democratic, accountable, and representative. Most worrying for Riyadh is that Yemen would represent a successful model of republicanism in a region dominated by monarchism.
The Muslim Brotherhood has played an important role in the demonstrations and enjoys support among Yemen's opposition groups. Some observers have attributed the discipline and nonviolent tactics of the youth on the streets to the Brotherhood's effective leadership. However, it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia would prefer someone like Sheikh al-Zindani, a Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood leader, in a prominent position. From Riyadh's perspective, the Muslim Brotherhood -- whether in Yemen or elsewhere -- has proven unreliable and is a potential challenger to the Islamic legitimacy of the Saudi regime.
Like demonstrators in Tunisia and Egypt, those who have poured into the streets in Yemen over the past months want a new political order. They want a transitional government of national unity composed of technocrats until new parliamentary and presidential elections are held. This, in effect, means the establishment of a democratic order -- an outcome that Riyadh, for ideological and practical reasons, will be reluctant to accept. This leaves Saudi Arabia caught between two contradictory policy imperatives: maintaining its influence in Yemen and rendering the country sufficiently stable so as not to pose a threat. In Yemen, Riyadh is confronted with difficult choices and no easy solutions.
Iran and Turkey still did not exercise influences over the uprisings in the Arabian Peninsula despite expressing sympathy with the popular movements.
Iran has unspeakable though unused influence over the opposition factions in Bahrain. Just 4 decades ago Iran granted independence to the island state based on the desire of its inhabitants. The cultural and family relationship is still strong between the citizens of the two countries. So Iran can not be absent from any change in the island not only because of cultural and family relationship but because of its potential and its concerns for balance of power in the Persian Gulf region. Recently, Riyadh showed some tolerance toward Iran’s role in Bahrain but since Saudi troops were deployed in the island the Bahraini people have refused any kind of mediation.
Turkey’s new diplomacy in the Middle-East can not be ignored. Moreover, the Turkish government has spiritual relationship with brotherhood factions in the Arab world.
Turkey also can play a positive role in both Bahrain and Yemen. Regarding its relationship with the PGCC, the West, and its reputation among a wide range of young protesters who look at Turkey as a source of inspiration, Ankara can help find a peaceful solution to the Bahrain crisis and a peaceful transition of power in Yemen.