The Rise of the Non-Democratic Gulf

One of the notable trends in recent developments in the Middle East is surely the streak of strategic successes on the part of Saudi Arabia.

Consider this list. First Saudi Arabia managed to push Qatari-backed Islamists from their prominent position in Syria’s SNC in favor of its own candidates. Subsequently, Saudi Arabia gained (and Qatar lost) an ally in Egypt when the army conducted its coup against the Muslim Brotherhood. Cementing its new-found influence, Saudi Arabia immediately made sure to replace previous Qatari financial support with an even more generous grant of its own. Finally it has been reported that Saudi Arabia is close to breaking the alliance between Lebanese Christian leader Michel Aoun and Hezbollah, which would be another significant victory for the Middle Eastern Sunni axis lead by the Saudis.

One remarkable pattern here is clearly Saudi Arabia’s string of victories over Qatar in their intra-Gulf conflict for dominance in the Middle East. Qatar’s Islamists are on the back foot, while Saudi Arabia’s more moderate allies are on the rise.

But we may see a deeper trend here as well: the very fact that Qatar and Saudi Arabia are able to conduct their power struggles in such once proudly independent countries like Egypt and Syria. The shocking nature of this development should not be underestimated. While critical to the world of Islam, of course, Saudi Arabia (and certainly the Gulf countries) traditionally played a relatively marginal role in Middle East politics. Egypt, in contrast, has always been the very heart of the Middle East, being its largest country and its setter of trends. Syria, too, has always been a prime Middle East player as part of the Arab heartland, sometimes even joining force with Egypt, as under the United Arab Republic in the 60’s.

In this way, it is truly a sad story to see these pivotal Middle East powers having now become a playing ground for such previously peripheral players as Qatar and Saudi (another painful point here might be the Saudi-Egyptian war of the ’60s, though I’m not sure how this is currently felt.)

What is most cynical here is surely this:  countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which did not undergo democratic upheavals (in part because of American support, in part because of their make-up and economic position), are now manipulating countries that did make moves towards democracy, like Egypt and Syria. This surely is the most sour element of the current situation: democratizing movements have, thus far, brought mostly chaos and violence to their countries, which has allowed non-democratic countries to benefit. Clearly this need not be the trend on the long term: democratic regimes in Syria and Egypt may well arise and reassert their respective nations’ regional standing, and clearly Qatar and Saudi Arabia may come to rue their continued authoritarian political systems. But currently matters look tragic indeed.

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