Viewing the Arab Spring as an existential threat, Saudi Arabia has emerged as the bastion of authoritarianism in a region beset by political turmoil. The most visible sign of its hostility to the democratic movements sweeping the region is its military intervention in Bahrain in support of the Sunni monarchy’s suppression of the island’s reform movement.
But reports suggest that it is also playing a more covert role – from funding Salafi and other Islamist groups in Egypt and elsewhere to orchestrating a settlement in Yemen that effects a change at the top but preserves much of the status quo while marginalizing the youth-led protest movement.
In short, the kingdom is not simply a conservative force for stability and the status quo, it is an actively countervailing power to the democratizing pressures evident across the region. The question is whether the Saudis can subvert the democratic wave in much the same way that Prussia and Russia suffocated Europe’s liberal upsurge in 1848 and its Shia counterpart Iran reversed the Arab Spring of 2005.
Its ability to do so will depend in large part on the monarchy’s ability to deflect and resist home-grown demands for democratic reform. This insightful piece from Der Spiegel suggests that drowning dissent with subsidies and handouts is not a sustainable strategy for averting change:
Until now, the government has simply had to reach into its coffers to keep the people happy whenever there has been a problem. King Abdullah recently promised his people $129 billion in new benefits. He approved low-interest mortgages, forgave the debts of the families of deceased farmers and ruled that students no longer had to repay the government for their foreign tuition. He also raised the salaries of civil servants by 15 percent and introduced unemployment insurance. Medical care is already free for Saudi citizens. Under these circumstances, who would rebel against the government?
“It still won’t work,” says Jamal Khashoggi. “We can’t just spend another 100 trillion riyal tomorrow to keep everyone happy. What do we do when the oil runs out?” Khashoggi speaks quietly and quickly, as if with his words he were trying to accelerate developments in his country. “Everyone wants modernity,” he says, “but no one wants the side effects which go with it.”