While Arab Spring reformers may be taking some of their inspiration from the likes of Vaclav Havel, Saudi Arabia and other monarchies seem to be taking theirs from Prince Metternich and the Concert of Europe of the early nineteenth century.
In 1814, Prince Metternich assembled the monarchs of Europe in the Congress of Vienna seeking, as graduate student Henry Kissinger wrote in his dissertation, “a world restored.” The Concert of Europe they created put aside traditional balance-of-power rivalries. While geopolitical ambitions remained, with Napoleon finally having been defeated there was a shared interest in avoiding any new round of wars. But it was even more the still-stirring cries of the French Revolution for “liberté, fraternité, egalité” that struck the Concert’s common chord. It was, as the historian F. H. Hinsley put it, “the defense of the social order and the determination to stamp out dissidence” that European monarchs saw as most crucial to their world being restored.
When that social order needed defending and dissidence needed stamping out, as in Spain in 1821 and the Kingdom of Two Sicilies (forerunner to Italy) in 1822, Metternich and colleagues intervened militarily to do so. Their Munchengratz agreement of 1830 recognized the right of any sovereign to call on others for aid against any revolution.
With Saudi King Abdullah as Metternich, the Persian Gulf monarchies are responding to their own political stirrings with their own efforts at a Concert of the Gulf. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Peninsula Shield intervention in fellow member Bahrain was said to be based on the “common responsibility” of helping with the “security and stability” of member states. The common chord is Sunni solidarity, both domestically against their own Shiite populations and regionally against Iran. In recognition of the Saudi role in organizing the intervention, including its forces being the largest contingent, Bahrain King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa presented King Abdullah with the historic "Ajrab" sword, never before presented to a foreigner in its 140-year history.
Abdullah has not minced words in criticizing the United States for not standing by Mubarak and for not sufficiently backing up the Bahraini royals. In the days following the Bahrain intervention, he refused to receive Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He later met with Gates as well as National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon, but these meetings reportedly had their own desert frostiness. One Saudi source dismissed President Obama’s May 19 speech as “meaningless drivel”. Prince Turki al-Faisal was even more direct and scathing in his criticism.
As to other GCC members, the UAE has been the Gulf Concert’s version of what Russian Czar Alexander I was to Metternich. While in Abu Dhabi in late February, post-Mubarak but pre-Bahrain intervention, I was told in no uncertain terms about the UAE royals’ anger and disappointment with US policy. It thus was no surprise when UAE troops joined in the GCC intervention force. The key sheiks from Abu Dhabi and Dubai went to Manama “to review their fraternal ties” and reiterate their “shared destiny.” And faced with their own unrest the regime has been increasingly oppressive including arrests of activists on such charges as insulting the ruling families.
While Kuwait did not join in sending troops, it has been expressing solidarity as with parliamentary pressure on the health minister not to hire Bahraini doctors and nurses who lost their jobs for involvement or even association with the political protests. It also is having its own political rumblings what with its seventh cabinet in five years.
Oman’s rumblings, while short of Bahrain’s, have been higher on the political Richter scale than UAE or Kuwait. Numerous demonstrations have been held. Activists have been arrested and roughed up.
Official Saudi claims are that the country “remains strong and stable.” While major unrest does not seem imminent, there are stirrings. Late last month Manal al-Sharif, leader of the campaign to get women the right to drive, was arrested for driving while female—although she did get her video posted to YouTube and generated some 30,000 comments on Twitter. A few weeks earlier a group of women trying to register to vote for the municipal elections scheduled for September, “to make our voices heard” as a businesswoman affirmed, were turned away “politely,” the head of the voter registration center assured.
With such Concert accompaniment, the Bahraini regime rejected serious reform and ratcheted up its crackdown. Arrests mounted. Shiite mosques destroyed. Workers sacked for attending protest rallies. Newspapers shut down. Trials with death penalties began. “No leniency,” the ostensibly reformist Crown Prince declared. It all will pass like a “summer cloud,” the King boasted.
Will it, in Bahrain and the rest of the GCC? They surely will keep playing the Iranian threat tune. It would be a huge mistake for the United States to sing along. There is an Iranian element, actual and potential, that has to be strategized against. But making it the dominant element would be to repeat the flawed Cold War era pattern of lumping together Third-World leaders, parties and movements seeking national political and socioeconomic change as part of the Soviet orbit that led to many U.S. foreign policy failures.
Statements in the Obama speech such as that “the way forward is for the [Bahraini] government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail” spoke to this differentiation. But the true test, as with so much else in the Obama Middle East policy, lies in making not just talking about the hard choices.
It’s hard to see how the political dynamism unleashed in the last few months across the Arab world gets turned off. Stomping it down is not the same as stomping it out. Even Metternich’s Concert could not indefinitely defend its social order. By 1848 when the “Springtime of the Peoples,” as Yale historian John Merriman called it, had arrived, Metternich was forced to resign and go into exile. Unless they opt more for reform and less for repression, Metternich of Arabia and his fellow monarchs risk similar fates in the coming years.