by Jessica Forsythe

Uprisings continue to challenge the established balance of power in the Middle East. The protests represent a struggle against a lack of freedoms and opportunities for society, particularly the youth.

The protestors are challenging power structures in several Arab nations, and across the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - a group of conservative monarchies each facing social tensions to a varying degree - the call of the demonstrators strikes a worrying chord. The broad reaction across the six monarchies (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar) has been to tighten control over political debate and civil society, while stepping up the politics of patronage to placate their citizens. This has led many to note that the GCC is pulling together to tough out this tumultuous period, and is even considering expanding its membership, providing strength in numbers.

However, on closer analysis it is clear that behind this semblance of cohesion lie diverging domestic and foreign policy strategies, particularly evident when comparing GCC powerhouse Saudi Arabia and tiny neighbouring Qatar. The two countries have very different approaches to foreign policy, highlighted during the Arab uprisings. Saudi Arabian actions are more conservative, in general prioritising regime survival and the regional status quo over democratic reform (unless regime change serves their interests), whereas Qatar appears to be progressive in its approach, particularly in Libya. The recent death of Saudi Arabia's heir apparent Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, who was in his eighties, is unlikely to bring a change in Saudi Arabia's strategy, as his likely successor Prince Nayef will not signal a generational shift in Saudi Arabian leadership. Along with the long-term repercussions of their domestic responses to the unrest, these diverging agendas could reignite tensions between the two powers and ultimately affect the dynamics within the GCC.

Saudi Arabia: The Counter Revolutionary

Saudi Arabia is an influential conservative power that, in general, prefers to maintain the regional status quo and would favour forestalling a trend towards democratization in the region that might spread to their borders. Saudi Arabia was strongly opposed to the change in ruler in Tunisia and in Egypt, even offering refuge to Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. This stance does alter, however, if Saudi Arabia perceives the regime change as being in its favour, such as in Libya and Syria where the negatives of unbalancing regional power dynamics were outweighed by the positives of the removal of an unfriendly government. This tactic, along with its domestic responses to the insecurity, are potentially not sustainable in the long-term, given the changed political atmosphere in the region, and could return to trouble Saudi Arabia in the future.

Throughout the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia has acted to this end either unilaterally or by using its considerable political weight through the GCC. In reaction to the threat posed by the Arab Spring and its values, Saudi Arabia's - and thus the GCC's - counter-revolutionary strategy has had two prongs. Firstly, it has moved to support allies in the region. Saudi Arabia backed outgoing Tunisian and Egyptian dictators to the end and when this strategy failed, Saudi Arabia moved to secure its position in the new order with huge pledges of aid to the young government in Egypt.

Secondly, Saudi Arabia's main aim has been to provide a protective shield for its fellow monarchies. In most instances this shield has taken the form of financial and political assistance. Saudi Arabian King Abdullah pledged 1.4 billion dollars in aid to Jordan in order to offer the Jordanian King Abdullah a bargaining chip against any domestic unrest. The GCC's extension of an invitation to Jordan and Morocco to join what has now in effect been confirmed as the exclusive 'club of monarchies' was also widely believed to be a Saudi Arabian unilateral action to protect the region's monarchies and give the impression of unity against the new threats. This came as a blow to a conflict-ridden Yemen, which has been attempting to gain accession to the GCC for years. Oman and Bahrain, the least oil-rich GCC states, and the two that have witnessed substantial political unrest and a subsequent violent retaliatory crackdown in Bahrain, have been pledged a combined aid package of twenty billion dollars over the next ten years. Officially this money is meant to be pledged in equal proportions from the other four GCC states and rolled out over the coming years, but experts such as Steffen Hertog, lecturer in Comparative Politics in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics, claim Saudi Arabia will contribute the lion's share.

In the case of Bahrain, however, Saudi Arabia's protective shield has advanced to take on a physical form. In March, soldiers from Saudi Arabia and police forces from the UAE entered Bahrain under the banner of the GCC's joint Peninsula Shield Force, to protect the ruling Al Khalifa family against the threats posed by the pro-democracy protests gripping the country. The forces claimed to be protecting the country from 'external threats', meaning alleged Iranian expansionist intentions. As of yet, neither Bahrain nor Saudi Arabia have presented their international allies with any clear evidence indicating Iranian involvement in the protests. The case of Bahrain has been seen by many as an attempt by Saudi Arabia to shift the narrative of the conflict away from a domestic struggle for reform towards a regional power struggle, with Iran cast as the villain.

The troops were deployed through the GCC's Peninsula Shield Force, the region's collective defence agency, but the impetus behind the action appears to have come primarily from Saudi Arabia. Arriving at Manama airport, visitors are greeted by photos of the Bahraini King Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa, but a new photo has been added recently - that of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Bahrainis are clearly under no illusion as to who the driving force is behind the intervention. Some Bahrainis hail King Abdullah as a hero; for government supporters, Saudi Arabian soldiers were seen to have saved Bahrainis from what they deemed to be the risk of an Iranian sponsored sectarian civil war, whereas opposition leaders have called the intervention an "occupation". Saudi Arabia will not allow a neighbouring conservative Sunni monarchy to fall under its watch. Some 1600 Saudi Arabian forces will remain in Bahrain to safeguard the regime against further disturbances. In early spring of this year, perhaps as a symbolic declaration of this continued allegiance, Saudi Arabia announced the rare marriage of one of King Abdullah's daughters to one of King Hamad's sons.

[Read: The Saudi Counterrevolution].

Qatari Strategy: An Activist Approach?

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring we have seen Qatar redefine its role in the evolving political landscape of the region and seek to position itself as the champion of Arab public opinion. In contrast to Saudi Arabia's historical role as a definer of regional power dynamics, Qatar has traditionally played a very careful foreign policy. Eager not to be put in one camp, Qatar has generally preferred the role of mediator in regional affairs, for instance in mediating in Lebanon and Sudan. However, Qatar's actions in and towards conflict in Libya are where this shift is most notable. Qatar was the first Arab country to recognise the National Transitional Council as the government, providing aid and assisting the rebels in oil sales in order to avoid international sanctions. Crucially, Qatar was also the first Arab country to send fighter planes to Libya, and in a recent Foreign Affairs article, David Roberts claims that Qatari special forces were even on the ground. Diplomatically too, Qatar has played a more hands on role, hosting an international working group on the military intervention. Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite news channel hosted and funded by Qatar, has defined this era in Middle East history with opinion-forming - albeit at times contentious - analysis and reporting.

This activist foreign policy is likely to reflect an unusual degree of domestic political confidence. Qatar has seen little to no domestic unrest, and it appears that the emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, is held in high regard by most Qataris. Armed with this, as well as its status as one of the richest countries in the world, Qatar is not only positioning itself as the GCC state that recognises the Arab popular opinion, but also as a key player in international affairs, as a future interlocutor between the Arab and Islamic world and the west. This positioning, in many ways, places Qatar in direct competition with Saudi Arabia.

Domestic responses to the uncertainty caused by the Arab Spring have retained a similar flavour in the GCC, but the long term sustainability of these responses, particularly for Saudi Arabia, is a cause for concern. Superficial reforms paired with vast financial handouts have rippled across the region, even reaching Qatar. These have varied in form, but all have contained increased spending in the public sector, both though job creation and salary rises. In Bahrain and Oman, it can be argued that these are Saudi Arabian-sponsored.

However similar in nature, these financial contributions serve to further underline the existential differences between the GCC six, in what they are able to afford to placate their citizens, and the long term prognosis of such actions. Again, it is in Saudi Arabia and Qatar where this disparity is most stark. In March 2011, Saudi Arabia announced a welfare package worth an estimated 130 billion dollars. This included huge investment in the public sector, military and religious establishments through job creation and pay rises. In September, Qatar announced a welfare package worth 8.2 billion dollars and also targeted the civil service and military sector, with some military employees receiving up to 120 percent pay rises. Qatar has a national population of approximately three hundred thousand, whereas the Saudi Arabian national population is closer to twenty million, making Qatar's equivalent per national spend approximately four times higher than Saudi Arabia's.

It is not only in the sheer size of the financial handouts relative to the population that the differences between these two states are apparent, but also in the assessment of their long-term sustainability. Put simply, in the long term, Qatar can afford these pay outs, whereas Saudi Arabia cannot.

Both states are guilty of putting pressure on the patronage system and creating a swollen public sector. They are also creating an atmosphere of entitlement and raising expectations which, although easily raised, will be challenging to curtail. As Steffen Hertog recently commented, "the ranks of the youth are swelling and their aspirations rising". In Saudi Arabia's case, some of the handouts make sense, such as attempts to remedy the chronic housing shortage. However, the new unemployment assistance wage is high relative to private sector pay, and this, as well as the new minimum public sector wage (three times higher than the average private sector wage) does pose a problem for the Saudisation efforts. As such, nationals are being further priced out of the private sector.

The concern for Saudi Arabia lies in the long-term sustainability of its oil revenues. The breakeven price of a barrel of oil for Saudi Arabia is now eighty dollars, whereas only a decade ago it was twenty. And Saudi Arabia's domestic oil consumption is ever increasing. If Iraqi and Libyan oil leads to lower oil prices, Saudi Arabia will face the challenge of maintaining feverishly high public spending in order to continue to appease a growing youth with high expectations, high aspirations and no incentives to pursue either education or a job in the private sector. They are merely kicking the problem further down the road.

Experts such as Kristian Coates Ulrichsen and Steffen Hertog argue that this could lead to simmering political tensions boiling over in Saudi Arabia before the end of the next decade. This will undoubtedly have a spillover effect in the GCC countries whose regimes Saudi Arabia is helping to prop up, such as Bahrain.

With Saudi Arabia positioned front and centre, the GCC has battened down the hatches and formed a resistance front against political reform in the Gulf. Saudi Arabian actions are blatant and brash, an authoritarian government clearly focused on short-term regime survival. In contrast, Qatar appears to be positioning itself at the forefront of popular Arab opinion, with a youthful and ambitious leader, usurping Saudi Arabia as the west's regional interlocutor. There have been two significant military interventions by GCC states in 2011; in the first, Saudi Arabia acted as a repressive force sent to crush a non-violent protest in Bahrain and restore an authoritarian order, and in the second, Qataris acted to assist a rebel movement in rescuing power from a long-standing dictator in Libya. The differing foreign policy paths, combined with consequences of financial handouts could increase animosity between the two states and see the power dynamics within the GCC take on a new form.


Jessica Forsythe is the Programme Operations Manager with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House.



"Middle East: Buffeted by the Winds of Change"