The new president of Tunisia has again offered asylum to embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in an effort to end the year-long revolt in that country which has cost at least 8,000 lives and shows no signs of abating.
Assad is running out of options and he has very few friends left.
Given that even Vladimir Putin of Russia (a long-time ally of Syria’s) has rejected the notion of providing a refuge for the Damascus strongman, Assad may find himself a former despot with no place to go.
The country that is perhaps most intimately connected with offering a haven for brutal (and unemployed) dictators is the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
In fact, the deposed dictator of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and his family, are reportedly cooling their heels somewhere near Jeddah, a sparkling city on the Red Sea coast.
At the time of Ben Ali’s arrival in Saudi Arabia last year, the government said it offered a home to the Tunisian despot out of concern for the exceptional circumstances facing the brotherly Tunisian people and in support of the security and stability of their country.”
However, rigidly conservative Saudi Arabia was a strange place for the very secular, westernized and fun-loving Ben Ali to land in – but he likely had no other options, since his favored choice and former ally, France, refused to allow him entry.
Riad Kahwaji, head of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, told reporters at the time of Ben Ali’s forced pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia: It [must] be ironic for a person who fought the hijab to end up being given asylum in an Islamic state. His wife will have to live veiled, under the law there.”
Moreover, Ben Ali also was not even an ally of Saudi Arabia.
This man [Ben Ali] asked for our protection. This custom is part of our life, Prince Turki of the Saudi Foreign Ministry, explained to media. You can't refuse if someone comes and asks for your assistance and protection.
Ben Ali reportedly had to agree to a lengthy list of demands by Saudi’s rulers before he was allowed to live in the desert kingdom -- among them, he had to stay out of politics and not speak to the media.
Perhaps the most famous (and notorious) dictator to be exiled to Saudi Arabia was none other than Idi Amin Dada, the bloody former ruler of the African nation of Uganda, who was deposed in 1979 and forced to flee to the kingdom (after a falling out with Libya).
Amin, one of the most brutal and eccentric heads of state in recorded history, must have liked Saudi Arabia, since he lived there peacefully for more than two decades until his death in 2003. The bombastic former general apparently changed his entire demeanor and dutifully agreed to stay out of politics and the media spotlight, while residing in a luxurious, gated villa.
Amin, who reportedly brought his 9 wives and 40 children to Saudi Arabia with him, often traditional wore Saudi clothes and led a quite mundane life (in stark contrast to his high-prolife role as Africa's most famous and quotable mass-killer).
However, why does Saudi Arabia offer sanctuary to deposed despots, many of whom the kingdom does not even like?
Jamie Chandler, a professor of political science at Hunter College in New York, explained: “Primarily because of the close business and cultural ‘special relationships’ these fallen leaders have with Saudi Arabia’s royal family. Amin was good friends with [Saudi] King Faisal and Ben Ali had close economic ties with several members of the royal family.”
Now it looks like Assad will soon be looking for a new home (unless his own troops or opponents kill him first). It is almost guaranteed, however, that the Saudis will not offer any invitation to him.
“Saudi Arabia won’t offer him haven,” said Chandler.
“There’s still a lot of enmity between the two countries over Assad’s connection to the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri. That, and Assad’s long support of Hezbollah do not put him in good graces with Al Saud.”
Dilshod Achilov, a professor of political science at East Tennessee State University at Johnson City, Tenn., suggested another reason the Saudis will cold-shoulder Assad.
“Assad is an Alawite (of the Shi'a sect) with blood on his hands of thousands of Sunni Arabs/Syrians,” he said. “He would not be welcome in any Sunni Arab country.”
Chandler suggested that Tunisia, Turkey, and possibly even Russia could be potential refuges for Assad.
“Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki offered Assad haven last month [and again this month], and Turkey's President Abdullah Gul said he'd consider a request,” Chandler stated.
“Russia’s hasn’t acknowledged discussions, but its deep relationship with Assad and protection from United Nations sanctions would indicate otherwise.”
Achilov believes Iran may also welcome Assad.
“Usually, personal networks and behind-the-curtain deals (past and future) play a big role in deciding whether or not a country will host a high profile political asylum-seeker,” he said.
“For a state to offer political asylum, the risks of prosecution should exceed the utility of future bilateral relations. Imagine, if Ben Ali had been prosecuted in Tunisia, the chances are high that all dirty laundry (i.e, the deals that Ben Ali made with other dictatorships) would come to light.”
Achilov conceded that by taking in Ben Ali, the Saudis have likely hurt their relations with Tunisia, at least for a while.
“Was the cost of taking Ben Ali higher than the future bilateral relations?” Achilov rhetorically asked.
“We don't know that. I theorize that had the Saudis known that the Tunisian revolution would instigate a large-scale Arab Spring uprising in the Middle East and North Africa, I don’t think Saudi Arabia would have been willing to host Ben Ali.”