The rulers of Saudi Arabia trembled when the Arab Spring revolts broke out four years ago.
But far from undermining the Saudi dynasty, the ensuing chaos across the region appears instead to have lifted the monarchy to unrivaled power and influence. As a new king assumes the throne in Riyadh, the stability-first authoritarianism that the Saudis have long favored is resurgent from Tunis to Cairo to Manama. The election-minded Islamists that the Saudis once feared are on the run. Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the interior minister who spearheaded the push against them, was rewarded last week with his elevation to deputy crown prince, the first in his generation in the line of succession.
The catch, analysts and diplomats say, is that the ascendance of the Saudis is largely a byproduct of the feebleness or near-collapse of so many of the states around them, including Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Bahrainand Tunisia. And the perseverance of the old order is largely dependent on a steady flow of Saudi resources, so their influence may be costly.
The Saudis are propping up the Kingdom of Bahrain, and are fighting alongside the United States to support the government in Baghdad. Billions of dollars from Saudi coffers are sustaining friendly governments in Egypt and Jordan. Saudi-backed militias are fighting in Libya, and Saudi-owned news media provide critical support for the monarchy’s favored factions in Tunisia and elsewhere.
The kingdom can claim limited victories, including the military-installed government in Cairo and the elected government in Tunis. But the same troubles facing its neighbors may also give Saudi Arabia’s rulers reason to worry. Its efforts have not yielded any sign of stability in Syria, Iraq or Libya. A Saudi-backed transition plan in neighboring Yemen has collapsed, leaving rebels supported by Iran in charge of the capital.
“A point of strength could be interpreted as a point of weakness,” one senior Arab diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid alienating the Saudis. “If everybody around you is going wrong, then your influence around your borders is decreased,” the diplomat said, adding: “Frankly, everybody’s influence in the Middle East has decreased. It is just a complete mess.”
For an absolute monarchy tracing its dynastic roots back three hundred years, Saudi Arabia’s taking a leading role in the struggle to reshape that mess is an unexpected outcome of the Arab Spring, which once stirred hopes for the rule of law and modern democracy.
“It is ironic or anachronistic if viewed from outside,” said Gamal Abdel Gawad, a researcher at the state-funded Al Ahram Center for Strategic and International Studies in Cairo, and especially if one believes “the region is in urgent need of democracy.”
“But the last four years have testified against that,” he said, “and if the region is most in need of stability, effective governance and resources — all of which Saudi Arabia has — then it makes sense that it would play a leadership role, whatever the characteristics of its political system.”
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died last week with a sense of vindication, analysts and diplomats say. Robert W. Jordan, a former United States ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said that at a social visit to the royal court a few years ago, he had thanked King Abdullah “for not saying, ‘I told you so.’ ”
The king merely chuckled. “Because the truth is he has said ‘I told you so’ many times, and he continued to tell current administration officials that we were really wrong,” said Mr. Jordan, who was appointed by President George W. Bush.
Among the king’s complaints, Mr. Jordan said: the urgency of the Bush administration’s promotion of democracy, the vacuum left when the Americans withdrew from Iraq, the Obama administration’s embrace of the Arab Spring revolts, and particularly the failure to fulfill threats of military action against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
(Mr. Assad, a client of Iran, is one strongman the Saudis want to be rid of, but some analysts argue that the United States is now following the broader logic of the Saudi preference for stability over democracy by softening its demands for Mr. Assad’s exit.)
“The Saudis don’t want to show weakness. They don’t want to show vulnerability to the winds of change in a way that might invite those changes,” Mr. Jordan said, sympathizing somewhat with the Saudi desire to “manage the change rather than have it forced upon them.”
“What would Saudi Arabia look like without the royal family? It would look like Libya, or Syria without Assad,” Mr. Jordan said.
Like Libya under Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, Saudi Arabia is controlled by a ruling family without the benefit of durable institutions in government or civil society. And like Syria, the Saudis — now led by King Salman — have kept a tight lid on simmering sectarian tensions between the kingdom’s minority of Shiite Muslims and its Sunni rulers.
Indeed, some historians argue that Saudi Arabia often projects its domestic anxieties onto the region. Worries about tensions with Shiites at home feed its rivalry with Shiite Iran, or fears about a domestic challenge from political Islamists fuel the kingdom’s hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood abroad, said Toby Jones, a historian at Rutgers University who studies Saudi Arabia.
“The Saudis say, ‘These are things that need to be mastered’ in the region, because they are also things that need to be mastered inside the kingdom,” Professor Jones said.
As the most populous Arab state, Egypt was long considered the de facto Arab leader, the convener of the Arab League, overseer of the Israeli-Palestinian talks and main military counterweight to Iranian power. But when the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 plunged Egypt into turmoil, Saudi Arabia “assumed its responsibilities” as regional captain, said Mr. Abdel Gawad of Egypt’s Al Ahram Center.
King Abdullah also let it be known behind the scenes that he disapproved of Mr. Mubarak’s ouster, castigating American officials for abandoning him. And the Saudi rulers quietly rued the subsequent election of Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood.
When Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, then a general and a former military attaché to Saudi Arabia, led a military takeover in Cairo in the summer of 2013, Saudi Arabia became his most important sponsor, quickly providing more than $12 billion in financial assistance.
Last week, Mr. Sisi, who is now president, decreed an unusual seven days of national mourning for King Abdullah. That included canceling celebrations scheduled for Sunday to mark the fourth anniversary of the Arab Spring — a step activists here took as recognition of King Abdullah’s role in the revolt’s undoing.
Nabil Fahmy, the foreign minister in Egypt’s transitional government after the takeover, said the Saudis were only a “complementary player” to the domestic backlash against the Brotherhood.
“The Saudis came out very quickly and said they supported us, sure,” he said. “But frankly this was going to happen.”
Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates, is now committed to sustaining Mr. Sisi’s government with billions of dollars in aid, probably for years to come. Egypt burned through about $20 billion from Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf allies in just the first year after the military takeover without much change to the government’s balance sheet, and Egypt’s currency is at a new low against the dollar.
“Yes, it is a burden, undoubtedly, especially with the drop in the price of oil,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center who is close to the Saudi government. “But they are ready to stand behind the Egyptian economy for quite a long time, because the strategic cost of the failure would be even more of a burden if Egypt collapses.”
In addition to Saudi Arabia’s role in Bahrain and Iraq, it is taking a role in hosting American efforts to train rebels fighting Mr. Assad’s forces in Syria.
The Saudis’ Al Arabiya satellite network and other regional media outlets provide sympathetic coverage of the law-and-order, anti-Brotherhood factions in every country in the region. And Riyadh is providing indirectsupport for the anti-Islamist faction fighting for power in Libya, through its client, Egypt, and its allies, the Emirates.
In Tunisia, the Saudis contributed financial aid to help stabilize the government and lent public “moral support” to the anti-Islamist leaders, Mr. Alani said, helping the security-first political faction remove the Islamist party from power through democratic elections.
“Tunisia did not need a lot,” Mr. Alani said, “but the Saudis have done what they needed to do.”
Saudi Arabia has emerged as the regional leader because “they were able to stand the storm,” he said. “So now they feel that, ‘yes, you survived, great, but you need to stabilize the environment around you if you want to survive longer.’ ”
Still, Mr. Jones, the historian, said it was too soon to judge. “They are backing the same cast of characters that landed them in a vulnerable position in the first place,” when the Arab Spring shook the region in 2011, he said. “This just turns back the clock.”
It is the weakness of the existing order, he said, “that has produced the effect of making the Saudis look even more powerful, because they are the only ones left with enough power and resources to prop it up.”