It was delusional to expect the so-called Arab Spring to foster democracy; the uprisings occurred because Chinese pigs will eat before the Arab poor, as I wrote last February. Dictators who deliver basic necessities of life might be tolerated, but not dictators who don’t. Far from strengthening democratic movements, the spiraling economic collapse of the non-oil-producing Arab countries has strengthened the position of Saudi Arabia.
It has been clear for some time that Riyadh regards the Obama administration with hostility and contempt, if only for its incompetent handling of Iran; that much was clear from Wikileaks reports of Saudi-American consultations after 2009. Because the Saudis do not trust the clown show on the Potomac, the usual American sources are out of the loop, so it is harder to work out what Riyadh is up to than ever before. Nonetheless, a few straws in the wind are worth special attention.
MEMRI reported on Thursday that a prominent Saudi academic and newspaper columnist, Amal ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz Al-Hazzani, “called on the Arab rulers to learn from Israel’s handling of the social protests there, contrasting the swift measures taken by the Israeli government and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s use of military force against his own people.” The translation is eye-popping:
If only some of the Arab leaders would emulate Israel’s leaders in their precision in defining and dealing with their enemies. The Israelis see anyone who tries to revoke their right to the land as an enemy, and treat them as an enemy in speech and in deed – but they consider the rights of the Israeli citizen to be a red line.
In contrast, Syria’s leaders see as an enemy anyone who poses a threat to their remaining in power, even if he is a Syrian citizen – while the lands of the Golan, sadly, are a green line.
Grudging admiration for one’s enemy shouldn’t be confused with sympathy, to be sure, but it is hard to remember anything quite like this. Saudi Arabia never will reconcile itself to a permanent Jewish presence in the Land of Israel, but the fact is that Iran represents a clear and present danger to the Kingdom while Israel represents no danger at all. If Iran exploits the hopelessness of the Arab poor, the Saudi monarchy will be at risk. And that makes Israel a strange sort of ally of convenience.
It is instructive to watch what the Saudis actually are doing. For one thing, they are delaying payments to the Palestinian Authority, which cannot meet its payroll. They also appear to be bankrolling Egypt, which turned down the International Monetary Fund’s offer of urgently-need loans. They are offering Pakistan whatever economic aid it might require — what some Pakistani sources reporting on the prime minister’s recent visit to Riyadh call a “blank check.”
The Saudis suddenly have enormous leverage over Muslim states that can’t pay their bills. Turkey is in serious financial trouble, with a current-account deficit equal to 10% of GDP, the same level as Greece or Portugal. Turkey is in no danger of national bankruptcy, but it is in danger of a sever austerity program to correct the imbalance which might expose Tayyip Erdogan as a borrow-and-bully Third World populist tyrant. Is Saudi influence at work in the collapse of Turkey’s romance with Iran? That’s hard to confirm, but the fact is that the Turks (who financed 85% of their currnet account deficit on short-term money markets) need the Saudis more than ever.
As Tony Badran observes in Foreign Affairs, the Obama administration’s hope of outsourcing Levant policy to Turkey has sunk (we might say that the Good Ship Obama has lost its Ankara). It is hard to make sense of what Erdogan is up to; his latest bombing campaign against Kurds in Iraq suggests fear that the Syrian problem might spill over into Turkey itself. But I hesitate to guess at this juncture. Erdogan is a shrewd Anatolian peasant whose response to pressure is to confuse pursuers by contradictory actions.
We do not know what role the Saudis are playing in Turkish politics, but it seems clear that whatever Riyadh does is directed towards closing Sunni ranks against Iran. The good news is that Iran faces serious opposition; the bad news is that the feckless gang in Washington is barely a spectator in these events.