May 18th, 2012
11:25 AM ET

What were the Saudis thinking?

By Fareed Zakaria

I couldn't help but notice a speech this week by a man who has all but disappeared from many of our radars.

In a rare public speech, former President George W. Bush said: "America does not get to choose if a freedom revolution should begin or end in the Middle East. It only gets to choose what side it is on ... America's message should ring clear and strong: We stand for freedom."

Over the years, and long before the start of the Arab Spring, Bush has been consistent in pressing his freedom agenda in Africa and the Middle East — in fact, the world over.

It's an optimistic conservatism that contrasts strongly with the pessimism of many other conservatives.

Take for example Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who last November called the Arab Spring an "Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli, undemocratic wave."

The irony is that in his deep suspicion about the Arab Spring, Bibi has a strange bedfellow — the Saudi monarchy.

It's not often that you see Israel and Saudi Arabia agree on policy, but the two share a general fear of the upheavals in the Arab world.

So much so, in the Saudis' case, that they recently hosted a conference to bolster the very opposite of modern democracy: monarchies.

Five Saudi neighbors were invited to Riyadh — Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Each is a monarchy, and each a member of the group known as the GCC, or the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The Saudis' hope is to turn that group into a more closely-knit federation — something like the European Union, they say. They feel a union of monarchies would serve as a bulwark against the region's turmoil and democracy.

But it turned out that for now, the GCC agreed to disagree. You see, many of the smaller members fear Saudi domination.

So what were the Saudis thinking?

Well, Riyadh has a complicated role in the Arab Spring.

On the one hand it is arming Syria's opposition. But one could argue that intervention is driven by sectarian concerns: it wants to support a Sunni opposition fighting an Alawite leader. The Saudis see the Alawites as basically Shia. And Syria's leader, Bashar al-Assad, is also supported by Iran, the great Persian, Shia rival to Saudi Arabia.

In most other instances, Riyadh has essentially used its deep pockets to try to contain the Arab Spring.

In Bahrain, it sent thousands of troops to help crush a rebellion. In Jordan and Morocco, there are reports it is bribing the kings to make fewer concessions to democracy, for fear of the example they would set to other monarchies.

At home, the Saudis dole out patronage to gain support. They have given tens of billions of dollars in assistance to the unemployed and they’ve increased salaries of soldiers and public servants. Gasoline costs some 50 cents a gallon there, an eighth of what Americans pay.

The Saudi story is, of course, more nuanced than a simple story of carrot and stick. The monarchy was popular; it was even before its latest round of largesse. And Saudi Arabia is perhaps unique in the Arab world in that the general population is more conservative than its leadership. So while Riyadh may be ridiculed in the West for not allowing women to drive, it must also weigh the potential backlash from its far right if it abruptly changes course on social policies.

But at some stage, demographic and economic changes in Saudi Arabia will force it to move with the times. Even oil wealth cannot insulate you from modernity forever.

Arab democracies will be messy, complex and even nasty at times. But they will have the legitimacy that comes with public participation, which is inevitable in today's world.

And that's why in the long run, Netanyahu is wrong ... and George Bush will probably be proven right.

soundoff (222 Responses)
  1. Genold

    The story lost me when Bush was quoted. NO ONE should report a thing this war criminal says.

    May 21, 2012 at 1:17 am | Reply
  2. miriam

    Fareed Zakaria knows full well that Netanyahu would never claim that freedom is undesirable, especially in the ME.

    The comment he attributes to Netanyahu was obviously an observation of what the Arab"Spring" has resulted in so far.
    Yes, the parties coming to power are anti-Israel, anti-West and Islamist .
    Yes, that is a concern to other non-Muslim countries in the region and to some Muslim ones too.

    But to claim that Netanyahu objects to freedom in the ME is a gross exaggeration and distortion.
    All it does is confirm Zakaria's virulent opposition to Israel's democracy and begs the question, why he respects the potential for democracy in the Arab world but rejects it in the Jewish state.

    May 21, 2012 at 7:46 am | Reply
  3. Sid Airfoil

    The age-old question: Should the U.S. support "Democracy" when it is clear that the people of another nation will freely choose a government that opposes our cultural values, and may even become our enemy?

    Answer: Yes. Supporting freedom is OUR cultural value. It should not matter to us (at least not initially. See below) WHAT people do with their freedom. People MUST be free to work out their own differences without the coercion of a tyrant. This is not to say that democracy ALWAYS increases freedom. Far from it. The majority can be just as tyrannical as a dictator. In fact, it can be MORE tyrannical since, as the majority, it has little to fear on any level from the smaller minority. Nevertheless, they must first be freed from tyranny before than can settle those differences and potentially choose a rational path to prosperity. The transition from tyranny to freedom will be UGLY, both for them and for us, but the transition MUST be allowed to play out.

    Moreover, even if the people of another nation freely chose to be our enemy, at least then we can deal with them directly rather than trying to manage their internal affairs clandestinely. The U.S. is pretty good at fighting straight, stand-up wars. But are pretty bad at quietly supporting dictators against their own people on the principle of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". Plus, supporting dictators for pragmatic reasons deeply violates our principles.

    We should support the freedom of people across the world to choose to be our enemies. Hopefully they choose otherwise. But in either case, we can then deal with them honestly and openly, knowing that their government truly represents the will of the people.


    May 21, 2012 at 8:24 am | Reply
  4. IndyNC

    Of course middle eastern monarchies (especially the Saudis) are afraid of a democratic government, like many of the more remote parts of eastern europe, the middle east is built up of many tribes of people and most of them are fairly predictable due to their customs and religion. Many of them are also quite repressive, especially against those of other groups.

    Democracy would remove that... Saudi Arabia isn't ready to consider a women as equal to a man, much less that a Saudi man and a Shia man are equal, or a Muslim and a Christian or jew. The ruling elite are perfectly happy (and wealthy) as they are and they will go to extrordinay measure to ensure that they remain so.

    May 21, 2012 at 8:39 am | Reply
  5. Ivanhoe

    For more info read novel - king of Bat'ha - and sequel due out by summer 2012 - Tales from the East by Ivanhoe.

    May 21, 2012 at 11:56 am | Reply
  6. Sam - Zakaria make sure before you write!!

    I want to correct for you that "In Bahrain, it sent thousands of troops to help crush a rebellion "

    the troop that sent to Bahrain is Peninsula Shield : a mix of all GCC troops

    May 21, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Reply
  7. George Washington

    former President George W. Bush said: "America does not get to choose if a freedom revolution should begin or end in the Middle East. It only gets to choose what side it is on ... America's message should ring clear and strong: We stand for freedom."

    But when he was in office it was all about forcing regime change in the Middle East.

    May 21, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Reply
  8. Mirza

    Dear Mr. fareed,

    I see your programs and the analysis you make some of them are good and some I dont agree with. In this case the country of Saudi Arab basically a salafist ruled state, whereas this should not be the case because its the land of Makkah and Medina.

    In my view the Saudis have shoot themselves in the foot already by supporting the Syrian revolution specifically arming them, why because these will in turn go into the hand of the people who no one want to have the weapons and then it will go to countries like saudio Arabia and other GCC areas because that's where the next move will come for democracy. If you see UAE and surrounding countries people need freedom and they are being forced to accept the kings and the monarchs by way of hook or crook, carrot or stick. There have been reports that several people have disappeared in Saudia Arabia who tried to go towards the democratic way because they were tired of the kings and the way they are spending the country wealth.

    Saudis what ever they think and do will not be able to stop the flood of Arab Spring because they are the next stop in any case, people from with in that country want it. How much can you spend and give away to stop the change, no one have been successful to stop the change. The land of Saudi Arab is the land of Change which had changed from a backward place to the place where the civilization again took new life. I hope democracy gets the hold it needs to get and show door to these corrupt rulers of the holy land of Islam.

    May 21, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Reply
    • riadh

      Saudi arabia already destroyed (by funding terrorists) Soudan, Somalia, afghanistan, Pakistan, Yémen. Now it is funding salafis in Egypt and Tunisia in order to stop the revolutions there.
      when Saudi arabia changes, you will see the end of islamist terrorism that was born in the 70' saudi arabia you best oil frind in the US...

      May 22, 2012 at 11:08 am | Reply
  9. tommy burke

    Are you kidding me?? All this same old crapp has been going on for thousands of years...a bunch of parasites fighting over an ant hill that no one really owns. Yeah people the human race is so intellegent that they wipe each other out for selfish stupidity and unmoral reasonings. How about we all get pass all this self deprecating life everyone is living and realize that without eachother no matter what race we are (which is only one race-HUMAN) we all fail and all this war propaganda that world powers have is all a way to keep us all at eachothers throats for a profit. Man is so stupid and people fall for all this stuff like it's candy which by the way also rots the smile off anyones face just like wars.

    May 24, 2012 at 10:55 am | Reply
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