JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia—Where once there were gilded gates and sweeping views, now there are parking lots, hospital ceilings, and object lessons for the Arab Spring's new dictators-in-exile to contemplate.
For the routed presidents of Tunisia and Yemen, the latest additions to Saudi Arabia's guest list of leaders no longer wanted by unappreciative homelands, exile after their people pulled the plugs on their presidencies-for-life is appearing gloomy and isolated. Their Saudi hosts are forbearing but not especially thrilled, either.
From King Abdul Aziz, the founder of the modern Saudi state, on down, the ruling al-Sauds have followed Arab tradition by offering asylum even to some toppled leaders they haven't particularly liked, Prince Turki bin Mohammed bin Saud al-Kabeer, undersecretary of the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told me in Riyadh this week.
In the case of Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the Saudis offered refuge to a leader who wasn't even an ally; who had failed, like Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh, to support the U.S.- and Saudi-backed Gulf War after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Prince Turki said.
"This man asked for our protection. This custom is part of our life," Prince Turki, who is the Foreign Ministry's official in charge of multilateral relations, said. "You can't refuse if someone comes and asks for your assistance and protection."
Commentators and news reports have painted the conservative monarchy as the leader of a "counterrevolution" nearly as sweeping and intense as the winds of change blowing across the region. But by giving the dictators an escape hatch, the minister argued, Saudi Arabia also has often helped avoid further carnage. In the Saudis' estimation, Ben Ali's flight to Saudi Arabia effectively ended a vicious rear-guard guerrilla campaign by his militia against Tunisia's demonstrators.
In Yemen, fighting in the capital Sanaa has eased since the Saudis helped medevac Saleh and a number of his wounded aides after a deadly June 3 blast in the private mosque of Yemen's embattled and stubborn leader.
This year's trickle of ex-dictators follows the path of other once-powerful asylum-seekers to Saudi Arabia in decades past, from the cannibalistic Idi Amin of Uganda to all-but-forgotten prime ministers, presidents, and heirs-to-the-imamate.
The influx of ousted leaders exposes Saudi Arabia, which is solemnly mindful of its role as the protector of Islam's two holiest cities, to some resentment and chaff.