JEDDAH/DUBAI (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has taken in Tunisia’s fallen strong man, but the oil wealth of the kingdom and its neighbours should ensure the poverty-driven unrest which ousted Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali does not follow him to the Gulf.
Though the Saudi monarchy infuriated some critics for giving refuge to a deposed autocrat whom many Arabs see as typical of their own authoritarian rulers, it has swiftly moved Ben Ali out of sight, hoping that a quick — and quiet — resolution of his fate may calm popular anger, both in Tunis and closer to home.
Analysts say Gulf Arab rulers have struck a golden bargain with their people to trade political quiescence for relative affluence. While Gulf media have splashed headlines of the Tunisian revolt over police repression and poverty, the events there feel politically distant for many in the region.
“I know there is a lot of talk about the ripple effect. I think the epicentre is still very much Tunisia and in the immediate region in north Africa I would say,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Centre.
“With regard to the Gulf leaderships directly, to be fair they are focused on a vision ... which is about developing their societies,” he added.
The Gulf Arab states’ massive oil wealth fuelled a development boom that lifted much of the region into prosperity even as other Arab countries struggle to raise living standards.
“I think the Gulf states are a little bit more secure than some of the other states that have been mentioned such as Egypt and Jordan and Algeria. So I don’t see it spreading to here,” Dubai-based security analyst Theodore Karasik said.
Asked about Tunisia in an Abu Dhabi mall, some young Emiratis were unaware of the crisis unfolding. In Kuwait, among the most politically vibrant Gulf states, the al-Watan daily described the situation as both “welcoming and threatening”.
On a UAE-based Internet forum, one user suggested that Emiratis “don’t share the same real motive” for a popular rebellion as the Tunisians, citing a higher standard of living.
But Riyadh’s move to host Ben Ali sparked the ire of some activist bloggers from Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter and a key U.S. ally, even as some Saudis said they held no ill will toward the Tunisian former leader.
“Very happy for the Tunisian people,” Saudi blogger Ahmed Al Omran posted to Facebook. “The only thing that annoyed me was that Saudi Arabia welcomed the ousted dictator to find refuge in our homeland. But for now, let’s just live this historical moment. Here’s to a domino effect all over the Middle East.”
Another Saudi blogger, writing from the United States, said Saudis were “very upset” about the decision to host him.
“Most of the Arab countries ... refused to provide him the political asylum, not that they don’t like him but because of the fear of public reaction,” he wrote on his blog, Saudi Alchemist.
“Saudi Arabia is always different than any other country. They welcomed him,” he added.
Saudi Arabia, whose stewardship of Islam’s holy sites gives it a particular role in the Muslim world, has previously hosted other ousted Muslim leaders, among them Uganda’s Idi Amin.
But diplomats say the decision to host a deposed Arab ruler in the shape of Ben Ali has been more sensitive, as it highlights the lack of democracy in the kingdom itself. Riyadh is keen to avoid any hint of political parallels with Tunisia.
Diplomats said some Saudi leaders appeared to hope to benefit from hosting him because it has demonstrated a Saudi diplomatic role in helping defuse an international crisis.
Prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who is close to key princes, said: “I myself was not happy about it and I’m sure most Saudis are not happy about it.
“We would not like our country to be the destination for dictators but again we are trapped by traditions.”
But Jeddah resident Ali Banawi disagreed: “Saudi takes in people who want refuge. He is an Arab and he once had a diplomatic relationship with Saudi Arabia. As far as we are concerned he can come and chill here.
“He did nothing to harm our country.”
Saudi Arabia, in a possible sign of the sensitivity over his presence, has shunted Ben Ali off from a Jeddah palace where he initially stayed to the distant provincial town of Abha near impoverished Yemen, far from the kingdom’s political centre.
“Here is an Arab autocrat who is forced from power. Where else is he going to go. Saudi Arabia has strategic interests in north Africa. The guy has to go somewhere so they will bring him in ... in the spirit of brotherhood,” Karasik said.
Dubai-based political analyst Mustafa Alani said the Saudis may have initially hesitated to take him but ultimately felt bound by tradition and did not want to exacerbate the situation in Tunisia. Should Ben Ali want to continue in politics, however, he will have to leave Saudi Arabia, Alani said.
“So it is not a political asylum. It is a humanitarian asylum. So they have no right to practice politics, no right to leave the country without permission, no right to meet anybody,” said Alani, who is close to Saudi thinking, on Saudi Arabia’s traditional conditions for granting refuge.
Several analysts said religiously strict Saudi Arabia was unlikely to feel a comfortable long-term home for the secular, French-educated Ben Ali, who may feel more at home in Europe.
But finding another country willing to host him could be a tricky proposition, and Ben Ali could wind up stuck there, as few other nations may be willing to provide a welcome.
“I don’t see Ben Ali has any future back in Tunisia. But, at the same time, would you like to take on somebody like this when probably there are many in Tunisia who would want to put pressure on Ben Ali to achieve justive in terms of what are perceived as the wrongful acts of his presidency?” said Shaikh.
“I think at this point in time, especially with the crisis unfolding, he’s probably more trouble than he is worth.”