Wealthy, ambitious and emboldened by US acquiescence, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have emerged as key protagonists in thwarting popular movements.
In April 2019, a wave of popular uprisings in Sudan against rising costs of living and a lack of political freedoms ended the 30-year rule of President Omar al-Bashir. Demonstrators also took to the streets this year in Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria, Jordan and Egypt to demand systemic change, while Tunisia made uneven strides toward democracy and stability throughout 2018 and 2019.
As happened in the 2011 Arab uprisings, however, external political actors have sought to sabotage some of these movements, notably in Sudan, but also elsewhere in the region. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in particular, have attempted to shape Sudan’s political transition to halt progress toward the civilian and democratic polities protesters demand. This interference seeks to secure their regional dominance and crush any positive democratic transition that could inspire reformers within their own or other states. Saudi Arabia and the UAE also seek to undercut the potential emergence of a stronger Islamist presence in regional governments, particularly of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Watching the events of 2011 with growing alarm, the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE embarked upon a regional counterrevolution. They helped stamp out an uprising in Bahrain, intervened in Yemen’s post-uprising transition and undercut Egypt’s revolution in 2013 by backing the military coup that led to the ascent of Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi as Egypt’s newest president for life. Not only did their intervention in Egypt help overthrow an elected Muslim Brotherhood government supported by regional rivals Qatar and Turkey, but it also ensured the failure of Egypt’s democratic transition. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have showered Egypt’s military regime with billions of dollars of aid in order to secure their desired vision of regional order that places severe limits on political opposition. Although small protests in September 2019 challenged Egypt’s military rule, the “Sisi model” effectively serves as the template that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sought to impose across the region.
Wealthy, ambitious and emboldened by US acquiescence (which has only increased with the election of President Donald Trump), Saudi Arabia and the UAE have emerged as key protagonists in both thwarting popular movements and in shaping the political and economic policies of regional states in favor of liberalizing economies, hardening authoritarianism and repressing social protest. They have adopted closely aligned foreign policies, often backing the same counterrevolutionary actors while sharing regional ambitions. Although they have important differences regarding the forces they support in their ongoing military intervention in Yemen—with the UAE increasingly supporting southern Yemeni secessionists against the Saudi-backed government—their mutual counterrevolutionary alliance has remained strong elsewhere in the region, as can be seen in those they support in Sudan, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Tunisia.
At the same time, however, the expansive efforts of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to shape the regional order in their image, along with their ongoing confrontation with Iran and the unresolved Yemen crisis, may be stretching their capacities for regional intervention to its limits. For example, they have yet to take a directly interventionist stance in Algeria, despite the popular uprising’s success in deposing its president and the possibility for a democratic transition. Moreover, while their efforts have been relatively successful in certain cases, they have not always succeeded in imposing their will. Even where they have succeeded in Egypt and Libya, there remain major challenges to their long-term visions. Despite their seemingly unlimited reservoir of financial and military support for regional counterrevolution, it is unclear whether they will ultimately be able to impose their vision on a region where poverty, corruption, authoritarianism and sectarianism continue to inspire widespread protest—and for which neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE are offering any real long-term solutions.
Mixed Results in Sudan
Similar to events in Egypt in 2011, the military in Sudan immediately stepped in to manage the transition after ousting al-Bashir in 2019. Protesters, who learned from Egypt’s experience, raised alarms about the military’s control over the revolution and the possibility that the transitional agreement would not reflect the people’s wishes. As was the case in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE took major steps to shore up the Transitional Military Council (TMC) in an effort to replicate the Sisi model of restoring order on terms favorable to their interests. Under al-Bashir, Sudan had taken part in the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen, providing troops and fighter jets for use against the Houthi rebels. While Sudan’s participation in the Yemen war was not uniformly supported by Sudanese citizens, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi saw Sudan as a useful ally and hoped to retain its support. The two Gulf states vied to keep Sudan within their sphere of influence and also to prevent it from aligning further with Qatar and Turkey—who became involved in Sudan’s transition after al-Bashir was removed. Saudi and Emirati support for the military increased during the protests, which enabled Khartoum to move away from Qatar, reportedly to improve its political and economic security, but also under pressure to join the anti-Qatar camp.
Prior to al-Bashir’s ousting, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi assessed potential alternative leaders. Salah Gosh, who was appointed Sudan’s intelligence chief in 2018, had favorable ties with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Gosh had even met with a Mossad official in Berlin in an effort to plan how to elevate him to power on behalf of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, according to a Sudanese military source cited in Middle East Eye. Yet as Gosh was forced to resign along with the rest of al-Bashir’s government, both Gulf states looked elsewhere.
Soon after the revolution, the military arrested several Muslim Brotherhood figures tied to the Sudanese regime, a move welcomed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Backing Sudan’s military was also a means to prevent Islamist politicians from gaining power. Despite their behind the scenes maneuvering, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sparked controversy after promising to donate $3 billion to the TMC, which protesters soundly rejected. While Riyadh and Abu Dhabi presented this support as a stabilizing measure, many viewed it as an attempt to shore up military rule against protesters. Furthermore, both states had supported General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo—also known as Hemedti—commander of the Rapid Special Forces and former deputy head of the TMC. Not only were Hemedti’s forces responsible for the bloody conflict in Darfur in the early 2000s, but they had viciously cracked down on protesters in 2019. (Hemedti has since served as a useful tool for Saudi and Emirati interests in Sudan.)
By August 2019, in the face of continuing protests, the TMC was forced to support a more representative arrangement that led to shared civilian rule. While the terms are still not secure, civilians have gained more influence. Despite Saudi and Emirati efforts to shore up the TMC, the will of the protesters has so far outmatched their counterrevolutionary machinations.
It remains to be seen whether counterrevolutionary actors will mobilize their forces to push back in Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon or Iraq.
Libya has become another important arena for the efforts of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to undermine potentially democratic transitions and to ensure the dominance of anti-Islamist, authoritarian rulers. In the midst of an ongoing civil war and United Nations-led negotiations, they have thrown their support behind the military general Khalifa Haftar, who opposes any democratic transition and the involvement of Islamist factions, thus jeopardizing the UN-backed peace process.
On March 27, 2019, Haftar visited King Salman and received Riyadh’s support “for the security and stability of Libya.” Just days later, Haftar launched an offensive on the Libyan capital of Tripoli, which he sought to seize from the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). Previously, Saudi Arabia and the UAE had played a covert role in supporting Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army and in this meeting the Saudi rulers promised tens of millions of dollars for his forces. Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt, had also lobbied the United States to support Haftar, leading to Trump’s eventual support for his campaign despite earlier condemnations of Haftar’s attacks. While Saudi Arabia has focused on financial support, the UAE has provided essential military technology to Haftar, before and after his Tripoli offensive. The UAE also drained around $10 billion worth of Libyan frozen funds and delivered them to Haftar.
Such external support has enabled Haftar to become a significant player in Libya, with whom the international community must now contend in any future peace settlement. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s influence with the Trump administration has secured Washington’s support for Haftar. Though GNA forces repelled Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli, his war has disrupted Libya’s UN-led peace process seeking to unify rival factions and create the framework for a stable, democratic transition.
Soft Power in Tunisia
Despite being the 2011 uprisings’ major democratic success story, Tunisia has also at times been vulnerable to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s attempts to empower reactionary and pre-revolutionary political forces in Tunis. Their interventions have aimed to not only weaken the coalition-governing Islamist Ennahda party—widely seen as a pragmatic Tunisian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood—but also to upset the country’s transition towards democracy.
While the UAE has played a more proactive role in countering Ennahda, which following its electoral victory in September 2011 initially drifted closer to Qatar and Turkey, Saudi Arabia has also adopted a similar goal. Both sought to shore up the Nidaa Tounes political party, which ran on a secular, nationalist and anti-Islamist agenda. They helped finance Nidaa Tounes and gifted vehicles to leading party figures before the 2014 presidential elections. Nidaa Tounes’ electoral success in 2014, forming a coalition government with Ennahda, was seen as a small victory in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and a somewhat successful undermining of their Tunisian opponents. The UAE has also reportedly tried unsuccessfully to persuade subsequent Nidaa Tounes president Beji Caid Essebsi to undertake a Sisi-style coup and seize power from Ennahda.
The potential for Saudi and UAE-backed counterrevolutionary activity in Tunisia is more limited than in Egypt or Sudan primarily because the military does not play a major role in dominating government affairs and there are fewer post-Arab-uprising reactionary forces to support. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have resorted to influencing Tunisia by financing democratic parties that represent the ancien regime from the pre-2011 era of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Nevertheless, they have increasingly attempted to use media operations to undermine Tunisia’s democratic transition. In 2012, Saudi Arabia attempted to secure a deal to establish more media outlets in Tunisia, suggesting it was looking for a platform for further influence. More recently, a week before the 2019 presidential election, a broadcast by the Saudi state-owned Al Arabiya channel blamed the killing of two Tunisian politicians on Ennahda.
Despite efforts to hinder Tunisia’s progress as an emerging independent democracy, the recent presidential elections of 2019 highlight that the country has largely withstood such counterrevolutionary activities. The victory of the populist independent former professor Kais Saied, not beholden to Gulf interests, illustrates the limits of their influence operations.
A Lost Cause in Bahrain
Although the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries generally remained untouched by the Arab uprisings of 2011, the greatest threat to the Gulf’s status quo came on February 14, 2011 when popular protests erupted across Bahrain. Protesters from the country’s Shi’i majority demanded reforms and redress for their poverty and disenfranchisement caused by the Sunni royal family’s discriminatory policies. Many protesters sought significant reform, while others pushed for regime change. Bahrain’s ruling elite tightened their grip on society during and especially after the uprisings when the state security apparatus struggled to contain the protests and resisted making concessions. The regime and its Saudi and Emirati allies were particularly wary of giving any ground to the protesters that would invite Iranian interference. Regardless of Iran’s role in Bahrain’s society, Saudi Arabia feared that any drastic transformation in their backyard could threaten its own regional influence as the GCC’s kingpin.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi therefore quickly moved to shore up the Bahraini government, providing essential security support and sending in a large number of troops. Their intervention effectively silenced Bahrain’s Arab Spring when thousands were arrested. Rather than address some of the protester’s calls, Bahrain forcefully crushed the uprisings. It has continuously repressed sporadic calls for reforms ever since, and in July 2016 the government outlawed the main opposition party Wafeq. Since 2016, according to Amnesty International, Bahrain has increased its repression of civil society in an effort to stop any form of dissent.
Where is the Counterrevolution Now?
The new round of popular uprisings across the region in 2019 once again seeks to combat authoritarianism, poverty and corruption—indicating the great need for major regional reforms. While these uprisings face numerous obstacles within their respective countries, as in 2011 they will also likely confront powerful external actors such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, among others, that seek to contain and even roll back progress.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE were successful in their efforts to disrupt democratic transitions when they were united in their goals and could find willing partners among local leaders or the region’s military elites. In 2012, when Muhammad Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood was democratically elected president of Egypt, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi stepped in to undermine it. Their success in supporting the military coup and later election of Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi to the presidency came early in the counterrevolution. The Sisi model has provided a template for interventions to follow. Though current Saudi and UAE efforts to support Khalifa Haftar in Libya have not led to a full regime change, they have still empowered their preferred candidate as a significant political player in the divided country.
Yet growing awareness of their counterrevolutionary interference has triggered increasing opposition to their efforts, even in countries where they had successfully prevented progress. Sudan is arguably moving in a more positive direction toward a post-authoritarian transition, and Tunisia’s second free presidential election show it has been able to withstand Saudi and Emirati interference. Such a trend is likely to continue, as Tunisia further progresses in its democratic transition. Even in Egypt, a brief renewal of protests could spark the beginning of new efforts to push for some reforms or transformation within the system.
It remains to be seen whether counterrevolutionary actors will mobilize their forces to push back in Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon or Iraq. They may be tempted to intervene if protestors are able to make inroads toward major democratic transitions or if new political actors arise that challenge regional regimes. Meanwhile, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are currently focused on extracting themselves from the quagmire of their intervention in Yemen, where they are increasingly at odds over whom to support and how to proceed, and from ongoing tensions with Iran, which pose a threat to their regional influence and the stability of Gulf states. The severity of both these challenges may be temporarily diverting Saudi and Emirati attention away from developing a comprehensive counterrevolutionary approach to the new uprisings and hindering their ability to forge a unified program to exert their leverage in the way they succeeded in doing after 2011.
 See Adam Hanieh, “Ambitions of a Global Gulf,” Middle East Report 289 (Winter 2018).
 David Hearst, Simon Hooper, Mustafa Abu Sneineh, “Sudanese Spy Chief ‘Met Head of Mossad to Discuss Bashir Succession Plan’,” Middle East Eye, March 1, 2019.
 Reuters, “Saudi King Salman Meets Libya’s General Haftar,” March 27, 2019.
 Jared Malsin, Summer Said, “Saudi Arabia Promised Support to Libyan Warlord in Push to Seize Tripoli,” Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2019.
 Vivian Salama, Jared Malsin, Summer Said, “Trump Backed Libyan Warlord After Saudi Arabia and Egypt Lobbied Him,” Wall Street Journal, May 12, 2019.
 “UAE Provided Military Support to Haftar,” Middle East Eye, April 27, 2017.
 “Row in Tunisia over Claims that UAE is Buying Political Influence,” Middle East Eye, May 25, 2015.
 Babnet Tunisia, “Black Rooms: Documentary on Al-Arabia Channel About The “Secret Apparatus,” September 28, 2019.
 Ethan Bronner, Michael Slackman, “Saudi Troops Enter Bahrain to Put Down Unrest,” New York Times, March 14, 2011.
 Ian Black, “Bahrain: A Special Case Among the Arab Spring Uprisings,” The Guardian, June 19, 2012.
 Beth McKernan, “The Middle Eastern Kingdom of Bahrain is Quietly Heading Towards a ‘Total Suppression of Human Rights’,” The Independent, June 3, 2017.
 Amnesty International, “Bahrain: Grim Human Rights Violations Behind the Glamour of the Grand Prix,” (March 2019).