Think about it: only a year ago, the Western press was filled with articles declaring the rise of Qatari power: article upon article was devoted to the news of the power of Qatar in the Arab world and how its government and al-Jazeera are now the voice of the “Arab Spring.” Hamad bin Jasim basically led meetings of the Arab League while other ministers sat silently or nodded their heads. Al-Jazeera, during the Egyptian uprising of 2011, was declared the voice of the Arab youth. How much things have changed in the course of a year or two.
The emir of Qatar has now stepped down in favor of his son. Al-Jazeera is now one of many insignificant regimes’ propaganda channels in the Arab world, while Hamad bin Jasim holds no government position anymore. This does not indicate that the picture has shifted – and it has – but that the Arab world is in a state of flux, and that while no revolution has taken hold in any Arab country, we now live in Arab revolutionary times. Analogies are being made with Europe in 1848, but one hopes for better results, and Mohmmad al-Baradei is no Karl Marx.
But the Western media changed their minds: those who only a year ago declared the rise of Qatari power and who spoke glowingly about Qatari political leadership in the region are now declaring the rise of Saudi political power. What is their evidence? The overthrow of Morsi and the shift of power in Qatar, which may indicate a desire by GCC countries to close ranks behind the banner of the House of Saud. But the picture is more complicated and Saudi supremacy faces many obstacles:
1.) While the Muslim Brotherhood (favored by the Qatari royal family) is on the defensive or in retreat across the region (or on the run in Egypt), their era is not over. The Brotherhood may have ironically gained some momentum due to the manner in which power was usurped from them.
2.) Yes, the Brotherhood has been discredited in several Arab countries, but so are the Salafis (the chosen favored by the Saudi royal family. The Salafis in Egypt, for example, came across as unprincipled opportunists who are willing to sell their allies in return for financial or political gain.
3.) The abdication of power by Hamad bin Khalifa has not ended feuds and conflicts between GCC countries. Saudi Arabia still has conflicts with Oman and UAE, and certainly with Qatar itself (members of the royal family there have not forgiven House of Saud for their intervention in the royal family’s affairs).
4.) Egyptian (and Arab) public opinion has never been favorable toward the Saudi royal family. Among all the issues that Arab youth care about (from domestic issues to issues of foreign policy to even issues of image), the Saudi government is on the wrong side. The overthrow of Mubarak unleashed a torrent of public anger at the Saudi King and it took the joint forces of the Ikhwan and the Army to suppress it. It is unlikely that Arab public opinion would turn overnight in favor of the House of Saud, especially that Saudi domestic and foreign policies run counter to the goals of young Arab protesters (secular and religious alike).
5.) Saudi Arabia is a prisoner of its international alliances: its close alliance with the US and its coordination (public or private) with Israeli regional policies places it squarely against the free policy preferences of young Arabs.
6.) Saudi Arabia can’t be a champion by definition even as it poses as the sponsor of the Egyptian coup: it is the rigid protector of the old political tyrannical order, of which Mubarak was a key member. It is trying in Egypt to buy time and influence but that can only work among the ranks of the army command (which is corrupt and can easily be bought by money).
7.) Saudi Arabia has been so focused on its policy of sectarian agitation and mobilization that it has (as it did back in the 1980s in Afghanistan, in full cooperation with the US and Pakistan) unleashed the fanatical forces that may eventually hasten the demise of its policies and allies in the region.
8.) Saudi Arabia does not stand for change, and can’t stand for change: so how will the Saudi government adjust to the process of change without suffering in terms of influence and even stability?
9.) Saudi policies in Syria and Lebanon are reversing decades-long Saudi policies of underhanded schemes and covert operations. The rise of the influence of Prince Bandar (who already raises the ire of many in the royal family for his aggressive and adventurist streaks) may put Saudi interests in the region at risk. Saudi Arabia is pushing its agenda against Hezbollah in a manner unknown in the past history of Saudi policies, which may eventually trigger a fierce response.
10.) The Shiite minority question has been exacerbated by the intense sectarianism of Saudi media and political agenda. This will affect the stability of more than one GCC country.
11.)Saudi Arabia is uncharacteristically embarking on a risky gamble: it is pursuing aggressive and daring policies in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere in the region, while its succession problems have not been resolved, and it faces acute political challenges when its current king or his crown prince dies.
12.) Just as Al-Jazeera suffered immensely because it changed its coverage and policies, in order to reflect a desperate attempt by the Qatari royal family to fashion change in its own image in the region, Saudi media are even more discredited. They, unlike Al-Jazeera, were never seen as anything other than crude and vulgar propaganda outlets reflecting the idiosyncrasies of the various owning Saudi princes.
13.) Saudi plots and policies are not proceeding smoothly in many countries: to be sure, the Bahrain protest movement has been violently suppressed, but the House of Saud could not win the support of key elements within the Syrian exile opposition and was finally able to appoint a tribalist polygamist as a figurehead at the helm of the Syrian National Coalition. And Saudi plans for the isolation and marginalization of Hezbollah in Lebanon are only met with more determination and stubbornness by Hezbollah and its allies.
In sum, the region has just begun a historic process of change. The shape and features of such a change have not been completed. But no matter what outcome the Arab uprisings produce, it is unlikely that the House of Saud will be a beneficiary from this revolutionary season.