After Egypt

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It’s too early to say whether the uprisings in Egypt, Yemen and other places will be remembered as brief rebellions or an historic turning point for the Arab world. Which is why Obama administration is struggling to find the right words for a which pits our natural sympathy for democratic reform against the fairly reliable partnerships Washington now enjoys with Cairo and Sana’a.

Still, for all the unpredictable consequences, it seems unlikely that a change of regime in either country would be a true Iran-1979 style fiasco for the U.S. (Certainly no one here would mind terribly if, say, Mohamed ElBaredei were to take over Egypt, although that seems quite unlikely at the moment.)

It could be a different story, however, if this anti-authoritarian people power should spread to Saudi Arabia. Unlike Egypt, the Saudi kingdom is a breeding ground for the brand of Wahhabi fundamentalism that fuels (philosophically and financially) al Qaeda. Remember that 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were Saudi nationals. And the Saudi royals, for all the unproductive things they do, are essential strategic partners for the U.S. on a wide range of issues. There’s terrorism, for instance: It was the Saudi intelligence service that tipped us off to the cargo bombs headed to Chicago from Yemen last October. And then of course there’s the country’s vast oil reserves, vital enough to the American economy that they’re a prime reason we fought the 1991 Gulf War. It’s little surprise, then, that oil prices are already surging; you can expect them to hit record levels should the house of Saudi begin to crumble.

The good news is that a friend who works in Riyadh reports no sign of unrest there, and notes that–unlike Hosni Mubarak in Egypt–Saudi King Abdullah has deftly presented himself as a liberal reformer at home. And yet there are reports today that dozens of protesters have been arrested in Jeddah–after a demonstration reportedly organized via text message–to express outrage about flooding in Jeddah for which poor infrastructure has been blamed. That’s still a far cry from what we’re seeing in the streets of Egypt. But any significant protests in Saudi Arabia are rare, making this one very much worth our close attention.

P.S. Al Jazeera is now reporting street protests in Jordan. Which is a whole other can of worms, perhaps one for another post.