A version of Arab Spring impacts Saudis
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
If Saudi Arabia is seeking “serious” political and social reform, it may be an indication that the Arab Spring is still active. For those who may have forgotten about the serial street uprisings, it is fair to say that the 2011 and 2012 events have left a lasting alert to Mideast dictators. John B. Alterman, of the Center of Strategic Studies, observes in this summer’s Middle East Notes and Comments that the region is “at a tipping point” as it was in 1967.
He adds: A younger generation of leaders, unscarred by the rivalries of the past and stung by the uncertainties of the present, are likely to continue to strike out in new ways.
Admittedly the Arab uprisings were overambitious and shallow in planning; they should have targeted not only the ruler but also the oppressive social order.
Yes, Arab despots are to blame first, but the social structures serving these unpopular rulers are accountable too.
The Arab uprisings have caused much turmoil and achieved limited returns. Massive public protest dislodged four unpopular rulers in a short period of time- in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. But the revolts have failed to replace dysfunctional regimes with ones worth keeping, except in the case of Tunisia. Even Tunisia is having a hard time with a fragile recovery.
The cost of expressing discontent was high. Political vacuum of failed rebellions provided swamp conditions for the birth of the calamitous Islamic State and reinforced the tension between Sunni and Shiite leadership throughout the region.
The spread of public unrest in the region threatens today the stability of all Arab countries, from Morocco in northwest Africa to the Gulf States in eastern Arabia. The leadership of Arab states has changed and power alliances within the region have shifted. At the present, it is Saudi Arabia, rather than Egypt, who initiates new ideas for pressing problems in the region, such as Palestine’s future, Syria’s and Yemen’s.
The focus of rebellion was narrow. The uprisings were not prepared to deal with co-opted military establishments that have no interest in change or in reform. The leaders of the movement of protest ignored religious institutions which are equally afraid of reform. They did not express new ideas to address sterile educational systems. The marchers of the public square did not propose ways to engage the youth in jobs and to empower women- both in the labor force and in politics. The protesters marched in parallel groups, engaged in parallel talk and held contradictory ideas about what is needed for building a modern state.
If the Arab Spring is to generate desired regime change, as it did in Tunisia,- albeit with two steps forward and one backward- the military establishment, religious leadership, civic society groups and political parties must work together to find common ground for reform.
Peaceful public protests have subsided in very different ways. In Egypt the Arab spring has been diverted by self-serving military leaders. In Syria the army reflexively sided with the regime by crushing an initially peaceful protest. In Libya the deposition of leadership was assisted by a bloody and self-serving international intervention. After the president was deposed in Yemen political transition was largely masterminded by the US and Saudi Arabia. As a result, President Ali Abdallah Saleh was replaced by the co-opted Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The mishandling of the transition led to the current devastating war in Yemen.
As for the exceptional Tunisia, its relatively homogeneous population and its active civic groups helped the revolution move from the protest to subsequent stages of free election and constitutional reform.
The future of the Arab Spring depends partially on the pace of social change and seriousness of political reform. It is amusing to see Riyadh coming up with simplistic ideas for resolving complex economic, social and political issues at home and for the region. If Saudi Arabia is to have any chance in playing a constructive role in political reform, the oil Kingdom has to listen carefully to the message of the Arab street. Saudi Arabia cannot simultaneously do war in Yemen and peace in Palestine. It is also urgent for the Saudi leadership to realize that the first order of priority in the Middle East today is control of crippling sectarian policies. Regardless of how difficult this change of direction might be, improving relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is very crucial, if democracy is to have a chance. Sunni-Shiite reconciliation would naturally help end the war in Yemen, resolve the Syrian crisis, control disproportionate defense spending, create a social climate for religious freedom, and encourage industrialization for active employment of youth and women. Finally, a reconciled Islamic world would strengthen the Arab card in the search for a just resolution of the Arab Israeli conflict. The “reconciliation button” connects well with the wellbeing of the entire region.
The Arab Spring has not disappeared; imagine, it has alerted the excessively proud Saudis to seek significant reform.