The new Iron Domino

Thursday, November 29, 2012

In the aftermath of South Vietnam's fall to communist North Vietnam in 1975, the Domino Theory -- that Saigon's collapse would lead to communist victories across the region -- proved semi-accurate. Two other states, Laos and Cambodia, also fell to communism. However, this was the end of the cascade as the Kingdom of Thailand defeated the red tide, becoming known for its resistance as the "Iron Domino."

The Middle East during the last two years has experienced another wave of political changes -- the Arab Spring -- that has toppled authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, and brought major upheavals to Syria, Bahrain and other states. Although far less nefarious than global communism, some observers, especially seeing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and its analogs in many states, are concerned that the region could be trading one type of tyranny for another.

There is one state that has proved immune to the Arab Spring, and the Islamist electoral victories that have followed: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Indeed, we might now consider this monarchy as the new Iron Domino; not only resistant to the ideas sweeping the Middle East, but positively organized against them.

It was, after all, Saudi Arabia that warned the United States -- to no avail -- that pushing aside President Mubarak of Egypt could lead to instability and a victory by the Muslim Brotherhood. It was Saudi Arabia, as well, that sent timely military aid to Bahrain in 2011 to prevent that kingdom's fall to protesters. The Saudi monarchy also provided refuge to deposed Tunisian president Ben Ali, the first leader toppled by the Arab Spring.

Under King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia has provided assistance to other conservative monarchies in the Gulf Cooperation Council, while playing a primary role in countering Iranian influence in Syria -- where Riyadh has supported the uprising -- Iraq, Lebanon, and among the Palestinians.

In the absence of a clear U.S. policy in the region, an approach that has confused and disappointed traditional American allies, the Saudi government has taken a leading role in fighting against radical Islamists of Shia and Sunni variants.

Domestically, Saudi Arabia has embraced modest political reforms, including introducing local elections, appointing the first woman to a cabinet-level position, formalizing the process of succession -- critical in a state that remains essentially an absolute monarchy -- and reining in the religious police, charged with ensuring religious and cultural conformity among the population.

Most dramatically, women will be able to run in the municipal elections scheduled for 2015, a major step in a state where females are still not allowed to drive. More than half of university students are women, and more economic opportunities are available to them than ever -- albeit within a society still characterized by wide-scale segregation by gender.

In the financial sphere, King Abdullah has implemented even greater changes, with major privatizations, encouraging foreign investment, and providing greater financial inducements to Saudi citizens to work, study abroad and contribute to an increasingly diverse economy.

The government, funded by oil and gas revenue, has augmented spending on its population by more than $100 billion to improve conditions and opportunities. Compared to Western nations, citizens of Saudi Arabia, especially women, face significant restrictions on their liberties and autonomy; laws and practices within the kingdom are unmistakably becoming more liberal and tolerant by Saudi standards.

The contrast between Saudi Arabia and Egypt since the beginning of the Arab Spring could not be more stark. While one could argue that Saudi reforms could be deeper, at least King Abdullah is moving his nation in the right direction, with modest increases in freedoms and promises of more. The growing Saudi economy -- averaging 5 percent annually -- and rising standard of living also are positive signs.

In Egypt, however, the Muslim Brotherhood now controls all levers of power, with a recent spate of decrees giving President Mohamed Morsi even more power than former president Hosni Mubarak, whose alleged tyrannical rule prompted a revolution.

Indeed, Freedom House, a leading international human rights organization, classifies Egypt and Saudi Arabia as "Not Free," showing no progress for Egypt since the Arab Spring "success" in Cairo. At the same time, human suffering has greatly increased in Egypt, with the nation on the verge of economic ruin.

Tourism and trade with Israel, once contributors to the economy, have collapsed as a result of actions by Egypt's new rulers. International loans, necessary so Egypt can import food, seem doubtful in the face of President Morsi's recent authoritarian moves.

The United States should continue to develop its alliance with the Iron Domino, showing Saudi Arabia at least as much understanding as it has toward the new Egyptian regime. Indeed, should the Muslim Brotherhood move Egypt toward a more openly hostile position, we might perhaps revisit the advice provided by Saudi Arabia at the beginning of the Arab Spring.

Without a doubt, the movement to overturn dictatorships in the Middle East has succeeded in some nations, but if the experiences of Libya and Egypt show anything, it is that change does not necessarily bring an improvement in the lives of everyday citizens, nor for the national interests of the United States.

Wayne Bowen received his Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University, and is also an Army veteran.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: