Saudi Arabia’s enthusiastic support for the year-old Syrian uprising contrasts starkly with its condemnation of those in Tunisia and Egypt, its tepid support for revolution in Libya, and its counter-revolutionary role in Bahrain and Yemen. Its calls for the fall of Bashar al-Assad stem from two concerns: one internal and one external.
First, the Saudi regime seeks to contain internal dissent by demonstrating its Sunni credentials against an Alawite (and thus in its eyes heretical) Syrian regime. It is with relish that it watches its own hardline Islamists praying, tweeting and even sobbing on television in support of their Syrian Sunni brethren, who suffer under the iron fist of a Alawite order and a loyal ally of Shi'a Iran. It has tolerated its Wahhabi clerics calling on satellite television for jihad in Syria while bewailing the plight of Syrian women and children. For the Saudi authorities, Syria is a god-sent distraction for its radical Islamists, driven by hatred towards the Shi'a in general and Iran in particular.
The Syrian uprising thus diverts attention from serious internal Saudi challenges. Saudi society is polarised and agitated about corruption, unemployment and the continuous cycle of repression and arrests. Even if the frustrations, anger, deprivation and ideological and tribal schisms have yet to reach boiling-point, the cause of Syria allows Saudis a welcome opportunity to let off steam. At the same time, official support for its Sunni brothers in Syria allows the regime to demonstrate its religious credentials to its own domestic audience.
Second, Saudi Arabia would like to see a pro-Saudi regime in Damascus, in order to promote its role in the region. A crucial aim is to counter the inexorable loss of Iraq and Lebanon, where Iranian influence has grown; most recently, with the Saudi protégé in Beirut, Saad Hariri, losing the premiership. In addition to losing its client leaders in both Tunisia and Egypt, the Saudis have also lost out to Qatar in reconciling Palestinian factions. Consequently, Saudi interest in Syria represents nothing less than drawing a line in the sand against its declining regional influence.
The Syrian uprising is therefore an opportunity for the Saudis to kill two birds with one stone. The more the Saudi Sunni majority feel agitated by delayed reforms, economic problems, and increasing repression and arrests, the more the Saudi government wants to absorb these challenges through aggressive regional politics against an external "Shi'a Safavid enemy" and its local Arab allies. The underreported Shi'a revolt in Qatif, in the oil-rich eastern province, started in March 2011 and continues to pose a serious challenge. The regime attributes Shi'a agitations to Iranian support. The battle between security forces and local Qatif Shi'a has at the time of writing led to seven deaths and hundreds of arrests. From A suadi regime perspective, getting rid of Bashar al-Assad can only erode Iranian influence both in the Arab Mediterranean region and in the Gulf itself.
The wrong instrument
With this dual motivation of internal distraction and external reassertion, Saudi Arabia has progressively raised the stakes in its challenge to one time friend Bashar al-Assad.
The Saudis, under the banner of the Arab League, agreed to send Arab observers to Syria. The delegation failed to stop bloodshed. The Syria file moved to the United Nation Security Council, a step that equally failed to end the Syrian crisis.
Saudi Arabia was initially hesitant to recognising the Syrian National Council, to arm the Fee Syrian Army, or to support calls (made by the likes of religious scholar Aidh al-Qarni) for jihad in Syria. But the Saudi position against Bashar became notably stronger in the wake of the "Friends of the Syrian People" international conference, attended by sixty countries in Tunis late in February 2012; Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal declared then that arming the Syrian rebels was an excellent idea.
Saudi Arabia also rejected the suggestion of Tunisia's president, Munsif al-Marzouqi, that the Syrian crisis could be ended by negotiation, and offering of a safe exit to Bashar, and the formation of a transitional government along the lines of the Saudi-backed agreement in Yemen. Saud al-Faisal walked out of the conference upon hearing these proposals.
Al-Faisal's comment can be interpreted as a diplomatic statement that conceals Saudi Arabia’s current and future plan to arm the Syrian rebels, despite a lack of international consensus. To this end, long-standing links with the Hariri dynasty across the border in Lebanon will undoubtedly prove useful, not least because of the family's deep-rooted animosity towards the Syrian regime. The most likely transit-point for arms and jihadis alike is the deprived Akkar area of northern Lebanon, with its neglected Sunni population.
In the same way that its intervention in Afghanistan precipitated a global jihadi movement, Saudi sponsorship of a Syrian jihad may cause both the Levant and the Arabian peninsula to descend into long civil wars. Bashar must leave now, but arming jihadi brigades may not be the best option to achieve this goal. Negotiations and sanctions may prove to be better strategies that spare the region more bloodshed and turmoil.
Perhaps the greatest shame of all is that the promise of the Arab spring has become hostage to the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It seems unlikely that either of these religious theocracies will bring about democratic change in Syria or indeed anywhere else in the Arab world.