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Saudi Arabia’s Profound Failure in the Middle East

As Algeria shows, Saudi efforts to spread a counterrevolution throughout the Middle East are coming up empty.

Credit: Robert Hale


  • Saudi efforts to spread a counterrevolution throughout the Middle East are coming up empty.
  • Middle Eastern autocrats wanted to emulate China’s leadership. But they lack the shrewdness to recreate the China model in their own lands.
  • Whether Algeria’s regime is able to retain power may depend on what conclusions protesters draw from the experience of the 2011 revolts.

This week’s successful toppling of ailing Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika make one thing abidingly clear.

Saudi efforts to roll back the achievements of the 2011 popular Arab revolts are faltering. They have not resulted in pre-empting further uprisings.

Things aren’t looking any better for them in countries where they wanted to achieve regime change.

In Syria — where rivals Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar had been backing rival rebel forces during Syria’s eight-year long devastating civil war – these nations are back to square one.

The man they wanted to remove from office, President Bashar al-Assad, has once again gained the upper hand, relying on the support of Russia and Iran.

The protests in Algeria, as well as in Sudan, suggest that the social, economic and political grievances that fueled the 2011 protests in much of the Arab world continue to hover around, even if they are just below the surface in some countries.

The Algerian and Sudanese protests come on the back of a wave of smaller, political and socio-economic protests since 2011.

Tensions remain

These events suggest that the Middle Eastern counterrevolution amounted to nothing else than putting a lid on a pot that could boil over at any moment. Protests have erupted in recent years in a host of countries, including Iraq, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia.

The protests also suggest the fragility of hopes of Middle Eastern autocrats. Their ambition had been to emulate China’s leadership.

However, they lack either the shrewdness or simply the capacity to recreate in their own lands China’s model of successfully growing the economy, creating jobs and opportunity, and delivering public goods coupled with increased political control and suppression of rights.

If the Middle Eastern leaders had been able to deliver on that promise, they would very likely have had a sustainable political and economic model in their own backyard.

No Xis in the Middle East

Mr. Xi’s hopes to promote “core socialist values” such as patriotism, harmony and civility amount to an effort to counter individualism, materialism and hedonism.

Mind you, China’s campaign involves blurring piercings and jewelry worn by male pop stars during performances on television and the Internet.

It also obliges soccer players to wear long sleeves to cover their tattoos, as well as ensuring that women conference hosts raise their necklines. Rappers restrict their lyrics to promotion of peace and harmony.

Algeria in the balance

Whether Algeria’s regime is able to retain power after Bouteflika may well depend on what conclusions protesters draw from the experience of the 2011 revolts.

Like the protesters then, Algerian demonstrators need to decide whether Mr. Bouteflika’s resignation is a sufficient enough a success to justify surrender of their street power and return to a structured political process.

Indications are that the protesters have learnt their lesson. Algeria scholar Dalia Ghanem said:

Algerians are very realistic. This is a beautiful victory, a tangible first step but they know that more has to be done. They are not satisfied entirely … they want all of them to be gone.

Ms. Ghanem added that:

Algerians are calling for radical change, a change in leadership. They didn’t want Bouteflika, they don’t want Bouteflika’s family, or Bouteflika’s clan — and they don’t want the old guard to stay in power.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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