Saudi Arabia's message to Syria, decoded


“Saudi Arabia has no interest in promoting democracy or human rights in Syria; it does have an interest in promoting Sunni Muslim influence and combating Shia influence (as embodied at the international level by Iran).” Shoah

It is Iranian influence, not the killing of civilians, that Saudi Arabia is concerned about as it recalls its ambassador in Syria.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has announced that he is recalling the kingdom’s ambassador from Syria for ‘consultations’. Photograph: Tannen Maury/EPA

Saudi Arabia has become the first Arab country to take a firm stand against the Syrian regime’s killing of civilians. In a statement issued late on Sunday night, King Abdullah demanded an end to the bloodshed and announced that the kingdom was recalling its ambassador from Damascus.

There are only two options for Syria, the king said: “Either it chooses wisdom willingly, or drifts into the depths of chaos and loss.” He called for “quick and comprehensive reforms” – “reforms that are not entwined with promises, but actually achieved so that our brothers the citizens in Syria can feel them in their lives”.

These are the strongest comments made so far by any Arab leader, and on that basis we should probably welcome them – especially if they encourage other countries in the region to take a stand. But, as one Twitter user noted, the king’s denunciation of the Assad regime does make him sound a bit like Al Capone condemning the Kray twins.

Back home, King Abdullah has shown no inclination towards the “quick and comprehensive reforms” that he is now urging upon Syria; Saudi Arabia has nothing to teach Syria about democracy, and protest demonstrations in the kingdom are totally banned. So the king’s message to Syria betrays more than a little irony.

Perhaps more troubling, though, is the negative role that Saudi Arabia has been playing during the “Arab spring” – a role that now it seems to be extending to include Syria.

The tone was set in February when Saudi Arabia gave refuge to Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the ousted Tunisian dictator. The Saudi government last week seemed unhappy when Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak, was actually put on trial, with one official describing it as “a humiliating spectacle for everyone”.

The Saudi-dominated Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) has also sought to bolster the status quo in Jordan and Morocco by inviting them into the rich men’s club. Since neither country is a significant oil producer and neither is located anywhere near the Gulf, GCC membership for Jordan and Morocco only makes sense in terms of bringing all the Arab monarchs under a single umbrella for their collective protection.

We saw this monarchical insurance scheme operating at a practical level in March when Saudi troops entered Bahrain (under the auspices of the GCC’s military arm, Peninsula Shield) to save the king from protesters. Considering how much criticism there has been of Nato’s intervention in Libya, Saudi Arabia’s neo-imperialist adventure in Bahrain has attracted remarkably little attention – and it didn’t even have the cover of the UN security council resolution.

Saudi Arabia has long been the hegemonic power in Yemen, too, and its role there since the Yemeni uprising began has been more unhelpful than helpful. While recognising that Ali Abdullah Saleh is no longer a viable option as president, the Saudis are looking for a solution that would keep Yemen’s current political establishment intact – the last thing they want is a revolution of the kind favoured by protesters on the streets.

King Abdullah perhaps deserves some gratitude for detaining Saleh in Riyadh, as a “guest” locked up in luxury, now that he has beendischarged from hospital – since his return to Yemen would certainly result in more bloodshed. But no one should have illusions about that: the Saudis are looking after their own perceived interests, not those of the Yemenis who are trying to change the system. The GCC-mediated “transition plan” for Yemen was meant to prevent a genuine revolution, not help to accomplish it.

Which brings us to Syria and the question of Saudi intentions there. King Abdullah’s call for swift reform and an end to the killings is unlikely to be heeded, but perhaps it is not meant to be. Perhaps it’s meant to do nothing more than distance Saudi Arabia from the Assad regime, in preparation for its fall.

Saudi Arabia has no interest in promoting democracy or human rights in Syria; it does have an interest in promoting Sunni Muslim influence and combating Shia influence (as embodied at the international level by Iran). Considering the Assad regime’s ties with Iran, this suggests a motive for Saudi Arabia to become involved now – in the hope of driving a wedge between Iran and a post-Assad Syria.

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