Saudi Arabia’s response to the ‘Arab awakening’ has involved efforts to co-opt potential domestic movements for change, the funding of illiberal actors in transitional states and direct military intervention in Bahrain in an attempt to squash its movement for democratic reform.
But observers are now questioning whether the Saudi monarchy can escape the region’s political turmoil.
“Saudi security forces recently detained dozens of men, women and children after they staged a rare protest outside a human rights group’s office in Riyadh to demand the release of jailed relatives,” Reuters reported.
The Saudi strategy of containment and co-option is being strained by growing social tensions and demands for fundamental rights, not least from the country’s impoverished lower classes and the repressed Shia minority.
“Millions of Saudis live in poverty, struggling on the fringes of one of the world’s most powerful economies, where job-growth and welfare programs have failed to keep pace with a booming population that has soared from 6 million in 1970 to 28 million today,” The Washington Post’s Kevin Sullivan reports:
The Saudi government discloses little official data about its poorest citizens. But media reports and private estimates suggest that between 2 million and 4 million of the country’s native Saudis live on less than about $530 a month — about $17 a day — which analysts generally consider the poverty line in Saudi Arabia.
Forbes magazine estimates Abdullah’s personal fortune at $18 billion, making him the world’s third-richest royal, behind the rulers of Thailand and Brunei. He has spent government funds freely on high-profile projects, most recently a nearly $70 billion plan to build four gleaming new “economic cities,” where government literature says “up to five million residents will live, work and play.”
The king last year also announced plans to spend $37 billion on housing, wage increases, unemployment benefits and other programs, which was widely seen as an effort to placate middle-class Saudis and head off any Arab Spring-style discontent.
Such discontent is already brewing within the restive Shia minority, which comprises some 10 per cent of the country’s 28 million people.
“The death toll here – 14 civilians and two police officers since the beginning of last year – is small compared with recent rebellions in other Arab countries [and] unlike elsewhere, protesters here are not demanding the overthrow of their government,” notes one report:
They want long-denied basic rights: equal access to jobs, religious freedom, the release of political prisoners. But in the richest country in the Middle East, where even peaceful protests have long been banned, the clashes between police and demonstrators have become a big concern for King Abdullah and his ruling family…..But the government’s response has largely been to dismiss the protests as illegitimate.
Mansour al-Turki, a spokesman for the powerful Interior Ministry, said in an interview that the Saudi protesters “have connections to Hezbollah”, the Iran-backed Shia militia in Lebanon. Such assertions infuriate supporters of the protesters.
“Show me one person here who has any connection to Iran. Where is the evidence? There is none,” said Waleed Sulais of the Adala Centre for Human Rights, a group formed last year in Qatif to document abuses against Shia.
Shia have demanded an end to discrimination in employment – few top-level government jobs go to them. They want more freedom to build Shia mosques and religious community centres, which are banned in many areas. They want more development in towns that appear run-down and neglected. And they want the release of Shia political prisoners, many of whom have been held without charge or trial for months or years.
“If the government would answer some of these demands, people would calm down,” said Ahmed al-Meshaikhes of the Adala Centre.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been compared to North Korea as a place “where everything that is not absolutely compulsory is absolutely forbidden.”
Nevertheless, “For all their frustrations, most Saudis do not crave democracy,” writes Karen Elliott House in her new book, On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — and Future. “What unites conservatives and modernizers, and young and old, is a hunger not for freedom but for justice; for genuine rule of law, not rule by royal whim.”
Yet Saudi citizens are increasingly turning to social media networks to mobilize popular protests, notes one observer.
Studies show that 38% of the population use social networks, more than in any other Arab country, and that Saudis lead the list of the 100 most influential Arabs on Twitter, writes Y. Admon, an analyst with the Middle East Media Research Institute:
An example of the widespread use of Twitter in Saudi Arabia was apparent following a recent food crisis in the country and a drastic rise in the price of chicken. In response to the crisis, Saudi citizens organized a “Chicken Campaign” protest on Twitter which was so successful that the regime, sensing a possible threat, quickly curbed the price increase. The students who protested in the kingdom in March 2012 also made use of the social networks, mainly Facebook, to promote their cause. In addition, the Saudi media has recently been warning that the Muslim Brotherhood is using Twitter to incite against the regime. In light of this growing use of social networks, the regime increasingly fears that they could spark social or political unrest, and is consequently monitoring the material posted on them by Saudi citizens.
“The threat posed to the Al-Sa’ud regime by the social networks joins other threats it is facing,” says Admon, “including power struggles within the royal family; the Arab Spring uprisings; the Iranian threat, one of whose expressions is repeated protests by the Shi’ite minority in the eastern part of the kingdom; and mounting criticism of the regime’s policy – both by citizens and by Saudi princes – regarding institutional corruption, high unemployment and poverty rates, the lack of freedom of expression and of government transparency; the oppression of the Saudi woman; and more.”