Saudi Arabia’s dangerous alliance with Salafi forces against the Arab Spring

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By Brian M Downing

The uprisings of the Arab Spring have been supported in the West and many other countries as well.  The tide is seen as welcome, inevitable, and essential to placing the region on a proper political and economic track.

Al-Ahram's Arabic website reported the arrest on Dec. 19 of Ahmed Arafa, a supporter of Egypt's Salafist leader Hazem Abu-Ismail.

That view, however, is not shared in Saudi Arabia. The view from Riyadh is that the uprisings are a threat to the principle of royal authority, incompatible with a well-ordered society, and a danger to Saudi national security, especially in regard to its opposition to Shiism and Iran.

The House of Saud sees the tide of democracy as neither good nor inevitable nor irreversible. Riyadh will use its influence and wealth to roll back democracy. Failure to do so, in Riyadh’s view, will weaken its rule and strengthen Shia power in the Gulf and beyond. Halting democracy, then, is a moral and strategic imperative. The campaign is likely already underway.

The Saudis will find many allies inside the frail new democracies. Figures of the old regimes are still ensconced in key parts of the state and economy.

The new regimes face the painstaking task of removing them from these commanding positions, but what the old regimes accomplished through fiat and purges, the new ones must try to do within legal restraints. This, of course, gives old regime judges considerable influence in the transition as recent events in Egypt have shown.

Many generals too were key parts of the old regimes. They wield tremendous power and enjoy the respect of large parts of the public. They may be especially attuned to Saudi overtures of restored power and future greatness.

Riyadh can win support from religious groups as well.  Many clerics see democracy as part of the baleful process of modernization and secularization that breaks down sacred norms and spreads western outlooks.

Rural-dwellers are more pious than city-dwellers and they do not look favorably on the openness and turbulence set loose in recent months. The past of them retains a patina of tradition and propriety compared to the uncertainty of the future.

The militantly anti-western sects known as Salafists represent Saudi Arabia’s most passionate potential allies. They have definite affinities with the Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia; their clerics and adherents attend Saudi schools. Salafi militancy is chiefly ideological in nature, but it has formed armed groups.

Salafi forces were central to the anti-coalition insurgency in Iraq and continue to oppose Shia rule. They are also parts of the Syrian rebellion which is on the verge of ousting the Assad government.

Egyptian Salafis hurriedly patched together a political movement after President Mubarak’s ouster last year and won 25 percent of the popular vote in recent elections.

Observers noted their generous gifts to the poor in the weeks before the vote but were at a loss to determine how they afforded such largesse. Suspicion naturally fell on Riyadh.

Efforts to stifle democracy will have adverse consequences that the Saudis would be unwise to ignore.  Large swathes of the new Middle East, from Morocco to Iraq, will add counterrevolution to the faults of the House of Saud, which already include decadence, impiety, and only intermittent attention to the Palestinian cause.

The U.S. and EU will resent Saudi attempts to halt democratization.  Reform-minded youth in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the Emirates will be deeply annoyed by Riyadh’s counterrevolutionary program and their own governments’ complicity in it. They may be emboldened to take firmer steps to end autocracy in their countries.

Further, supporting armed Salafi groups in Syria and in Sunni parts of Iraq can burden the region with violent, destabilizing forces for years to come. Saudi Arabia seeks to channel their zeal and talent toward its ends, but such groups may prove unmanageable and their allegiance to Riyadh may be short-lived.

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at

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