BY MADAWI AL-RASHEED | FEBRUARY 28, 2011
In the age of Arab revolutions, will Saudis dare to honor Facebook calls for anti-government demonstrations on March 11? Will they protest at one of Jeddah’s main roundabouts? Or will they start in Qatif, the eastern region where a substantial Shiite majority has had more experience in real protest? Will Riyadh remain cocooned in its cloak of pomp and power, hidden from public gaze in its mighty sand castles?
Saudi Arabia is ripe for change. Despite its image as a fabulously wealthy realm with a quiescent, apolitical population, it has similar economic, demographic, social, and political conditions as those prevailing in its neighboring Arab countries. There is no reason to believe Saudis are immune to the protest fever sweeping the region.
Saudi Arabia is indeed wealthy, but most of its young population cannot find jobs in either the public or private sector. The expansion of its $430 billion economy has benefited a substantial section of the entrepreneurial elite — particularly those well connected with the ruling family — but has failed to produce jobs for thousands of college graduates every year. This same elite has resisted employing expensive Saudis and contributed to the rise in local unemployment by hiring foreign labor. Rising oil prices since 2003 and the expansion of state investment in education, infrastructure, and welfare, meanwhile, have produced an explosive economy of desires.
Like their neighbors, Saudis want jobs, houses, and education, but they also desire something else. Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in 2003, they have expressed their political demands in their own way, through petitions that circulated and were signed by hundreds of activists and professionals, men and women, Sunnis, Shiites, and Ismailis. Reformers petitioned King Abdullah to establish an elected consultative assembly to replace the 120-member appointed Consultative Council Saudis inherited from King Fahd. Political organizers were jailed and some banned from travel to this day. The “Riyadh spring” that many reformers anticipated upon King Abdullah’s accession in 2005 was put on hold while torrential rain swept away decaying infrastructure and people in major cities. Rising unemployment pushed the youth toward antisocial behavior, marriages collapsed, the number of bachelors soared, and the number of people under the poverty line increased in one of the wealthiest states of the Arab world. Today, nearly 40 percent of Saudis ages 20 to 24 are unemployed.
Meanwhile, scandal after scandal exposed the level of corruption and nepotism in state institutions. Princes promised to establish investigative committees, yet culprits were left unpunished. Criticism of the king and top ruling princes remained taboo, and few crossed the red line surrounding the substantial sacrosanct clique that monopolizes government posts from defense to sports. The number of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience swelled Saudi prisons. Under the pretext of the war on terror, the Saudi regime enjoyed a free hand. The interior minister, Prince Nayef, and his son and deputy, Prince Mohammed, rounded up peaceful activists, bloggers, lawyers, and academics and jailed them for extended periods. Saudis watched in silence while the outside world either remained oblivious to abuses of human rights or turned a blind eye in the interests of oil, arms, and investment.
“We are not Tunisia,” “We are not Egypt,” “We are not Libya,” (and perhaps in a month’s time, “We are not the Arab world”) have become well-rehearsed refrains of official Saudi political rhetoric in recent weeks. There is some truth in this: Carrots are often the currency of loyalty in oil-rich countries, including its wealthiest kingdom. But the Saudi royal family uses plenty of sticks, too. Public relations firms in Riyadh, Washington, and London ensure that news of the carrots travels as far as possible, masking unpleasant realities in one of the least transparent and most authoritarian regimes in the Persian Gulf. What cannot be hidden anymore is the political, economic, and social problems that oil has so far failed to address.
When Saudis were poor and lagged behind the world in education, aspirations, and infrastructure, oil was the balm that healed all social wounds. The wave of coups d’état that swept the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s did not make much impression on Saudis, despite some agitation here and there. Few Saudis were impressed by the effervescence of Arab revolutionary or liberation movements. At the time, most Saudis lacked the education or inclination to question their government, apart from a handful of activists and agitators, including a couple of princes. By the 1970s, oil wealth was developing their taste for the consumer economy and the pleasures of cars, planes, running water, air-conditioning, and sunglasses. Political participation wasn’t part of the package.
Today, oil remains abundant, but Saudis are different. They enjoy more consumption and liquidity than others in the Arab world, but less than those in neighboring Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. Saudis are today looking for something else. They are young — youth under 30 account for two-thirds of the Saudi population — educated, connected, and articulate. Above all, they are familiar with the global discourse of democracy, freedom, entitlement, empowerment, transparency, accountability, and human rights that has exploded in the face of authoritarian regimes in the Arab world since January. They watch satellite channels like Al Jazeera and eagerly consume news from uprisings around the region.
So far young Saudis have occupied their own “Liberation Square” on a virtual map. In the 1990s their exiled Islamist opposition used the fax machine to bombard the country with messages denouncing the leadership and calling for a return to pristine Islam. Later, a wider circle of politicized and nonpoliticized young Saudis ventured into Internet discussion boards, chat rooms, blogs, and more recently Facebook and Twitter to express themselves, mobilize, and share grievances. These virtual spaces have become natural homes for both dissenting voices and government propaganda. Recently the king’s private secretary and chief of the royal court, Khaled al-Tuwaijri, launched his own Facebook page.
Saudis thought that they were safe in their virtual world, but the regime has been determined to trace each and every word and whisper that challenges its version of reality. Young bloggers, writers, and essayists have been jailed for asking simple questions like: Who is going to be king after Abdullah? Where is oil wealth going? Who is responsible for corruption scandals associated with arms deals? Why do the king and crown prince take turns leaving the country? Why are Abdullah’s so-called reforms thwarted by his brother Prince Nayef? And who is the real ruler of Saudi Arabia? All unanswered taboo questions.
On Feb. 23, King Abdullah, 87 and frail, having spent three months abroad undergoing from two operations in New York and recuperating in Morocco, was brought back to Riyadh amid a package of welfare promises worth $36 billion. These were for the most part a rather transparent attempt to appease the burgeoning youth population and deflect it from the lure of revolution — public-sector salary increases, unemployment benefits, and subsidies for housing, education, and culture.
In years past, such handouts have been welcomed by a population that has grown used to royal largesse, but now the economy of unmet desires is raising the bar. The king, too old and too weak, may have misread the level of disappointment among many Saudis of all political persuasions, who are voicing their complaints on the Internet. The common thread is a demand for genuine political reform. All signs suggest that Saudis are in a rush to seize this unprecedented opportunity to press for serious political change. The response to King Abdullah’s handouts on Saudi Facebook sites is the refrain “Man cannot live by bread alone.”
Of course, it’s not just liberals who are demanding change. A couple of weeks before the king’s return, a group of Saudi academics and professionals announced the establishment of a Salafi Islamic Ummah Party and launched a web site. Reformist Salafists are calling for democracy, elections, and respect for human rights. Five of the founding members were immediately put in jail. The king’s brother, Prince Talal, disenchanted and politically marginalized but extremely wealthy, went on BBC Arabic television to praise the king and criticize other powerful royal players, the so-called Sudairi Seven (including Crown Prince Sultan, the defense minister; Prince Nayef, the interior minister; and Prince Salman, the governor of Riyadh) without naming them. He revived his 1960s call for constitutional monarchy, which is now being endorsed by some Saudi activists. To date, 119 activists have signed the petition calling for constitutional monarchy. More petitions signed by a cross section of Saudi professionals, academics, and journalists are circulating on the Internet. A broad swatch of Saudi society is now demanding political change.
If Saudis do respond to calls for demonstrations and rise above the old petition syndrome, the majority will be young freethinkers who have had enough of the polarization of Saudi Arabia into two camps: a liberal and an Islamist one, with the Al-Saud family presiding over the widening gap between the two. They want political representation and economic opportunities. An elected parliament is demanded by all.
So far, Saudi Shiites have remained relatively silent, with only minor protests in the Eastern Province. Having watched the Feb. 14 massacre in Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout, they may hesitate to act alone. If they do, it would be quite easy for the regime to mobilize the Sunni majority and crush their protest, exactly as it did in 1979. In fact, the Shiites would do the regime a great favor at a critical moment when its legitimacy among the majority of Sunnis in the country cannot be taken for granted.
The Shiites may have to wait until they form solid coalitions with mainstream Saudi society to remove any sectarian dimension to their demands. The Hijazis along the western coast would be natural allies, as their complaints about the poor infrastructure of their main city Jeddah may act as a catalyst to push for more political rights and autonomy. A liberal constituency there would be more receptive to overtures from the Shiites of the Eastern Province. If Jeddah and Qatif were to unite in their demands, Riyadh would look more isolated than at any other time. It has many supporters among its historical Najdi constituency, but even they are flirting with the global discourse of freedom. And now some Salafists, the puritanical literal interpreters of Islam, are calling for a real shura, in other words democracy.
It seems that the kingdom is at a crossroads. It must either formulate a serious political reform agenda that will assuage an agitated young population or face serious upheavals over the coming months. To respond to public demands, the agenda should above all start with a written constitution, limit the rule of the multiple royal circles of power within the state, regulate royal succession, inaugurate an elected parliament, and open up the political sphere to civil society organizations. Hiding behind Islamic rhetoric such as “Our constitution is the Quran” is no longer a viable escape route. Many Saudis are disenchanted with both official and dissident Islam. They want a new political system that matches their aspirations, education, and abilities, while meeting their basic human, civil, and political rights.
Like other falling Arab regimes before them, the ruling Al-Saud will inevitably seek to scare the population by raising the spectre of al Qaeda and warning against tribal, regional, and sectarian disintegration. They will try to thwart political change before it starts. Saudis may not believe the scaremongers. The command centers of the Arab revolutions today are not the caves of Tora Bora or Riyadh’s shabby al-Suwaidi neighborhood, where jihadists shot BBC journalist Frank Gardner and his cameraman in 2004. They are the laptops of a young, connected, knowledgeable, but frustrated generation that is rising against the authoritarian public and private families that have been crushing the individual in the pursuit of illusions and control.
Yes, Egypt was key to the coming change, but when Saudis rise they will change the face of the Arab world and its relations with the West forever. Now is the time for the United States and its allies to understand that the future does not lie with the old clique that they have tolerated, supported, and indulged in return for oil, security, and investment. At a time of shifting Arabian sands, it is in the interest of America and the rest of the world to side with the future not the past.
Madawi Al-Rasheed is a professor of social anthropology at King’s College, University of London, and author of Contesting the Saudi State: Islamic Voices from a New Generation and A History of Saudi Arabia.