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Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia’s opposition bloggers and Facebook users called for a “day of rage” to be held on Friday, March 11, modeled after those in neighboring Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen. There was no reason to think that Saudi Arabia would be immune to the protest contagion. After all, the problems facing Saudi Arabia are similar in kind (if not extent) to those of the other Arab states. Saudi Arabia has a demographic youth bulge. Like other Arab nations, it has a serious youth unemployment problem. It has an autocratic government that prevents serious political participation. It is a rich country but with low per capita income compared to its smaller Gulf neighbors. Even Bahrain, wracked with protests, has a higher per capita GDP, $40,400 compared to Saudi Arabia’s $24,200. And the positive response of thousands of Saudis to online petitions for political reform, especially on Dawlaty.info and Saudireform.com, indicates that plenty of people in the country want some kind of change.
But the calls for a “day of rage” met with almost no response except for a few relatively small protests in Shiite-majority areas of the Eastern Province. The Saudi media, which had studiously ignored the online calls, crowed on Saturday about the protests’ failure, mocking the “day of rage” as a “day of calm” and a “day of reassurance.”
Perhaps we should not have been so surprised. In late January, all of the elements for popular mobilization against the regime appeared to be in place. In Saudi Arabia’s second-largest city, Jeddah, there was devastating flooding, during which at least ten people died, many more were injured, and millions of dollars in property was damaged. This followed even more damaging flooding in late 2009. This manifest government failure occurred just as the rest of the Arab world was exploding: protesters in Tunisia had just driven their president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, from power (to exile in Jeddah, of all places), and Egyptians were mobilizing by the hundreds of thousands in Tahrir Square. But very little happened in Jeddah. There were a few protests, about 50 people arrested, and no ripple effects elsewhere in the country.
So what makes the Saudi case different from the others? First, the Saudi government has plenty of ready cash and has shown itself willing to spend it to deflect political mobilization. No other Arab regime has been able to throw money at its problems quite like the Saudi one. Three weeks ago, for example, the government announced a set of salary increases, unemployment benefits, loan forgiveness, consumer subsidies, and other measures totaling $36 billion. This package will not solve Saudi Arabia’s long-term economic problems, of course, but it certainly cushions the blow of rising inflation, a housing shortage, and youth unemployment.
Second, Saudi Arabia’s security forces are a strong deterrent. There are a number of Saudi security agencies tasked with maintaining order, but the National Guard ultimately guarantees domestic security and regime stability. Exclusively Sunni, it is largely comprised of recruits from the tribes of central and western Arabia and of nontribal recruits from the central Arabian heartland, the base of Al Saud power. There is no doubt that members of the guard would obey the regime’s orders to suppress demonstrations in the Shia towns of the Eastern Province (as they did in 1979 and 1980) and in the cities of western Saudi Arabia (Jeddah, Mecca, and Medina). Unlike the Egyptian and Tunisian armies, which felt kinship with the demonstrators in their capitals and refused to fire on them, Saudi security forces would likely view demonstrators anywhere outside of Riyadh and central Saudi Arabia as strangers. Whether they would be as reliable against protesters in Riyadh or central Arabia is an open question and not one that the regime has had to answer yet. Still, its security apparatuses were out in force on March 11, including in Riyadh, and they did not hesitate to use violence against small demonstrations in Shia towns the day before.
Third, the opposition is still too divided to offer a real threat. This stands in contrast to Tunisia and Egypt, where people from across classes, sects, and ideologies mobilized to oust Ben Ali and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. At the topmost level, Saudi political activists are beginning to bridge differences in sect, region, and ideology. Since 9/11, there has been more cross-sectarian and cross-ideological dialogue than in the past, some of it even sponsored by the government through its national dialogue initiative. But this is not the case throughout the population. It is instructive that there have been two major online petition movements rather than a single one representing the broad range of political currents. The two petitions share a number of points -- most notably their calls to give the elected legislature real oversight of government ministries -- but one was more reflective of the Wahhabi intellectual current, and the other of a more liberal (in the Saudi context) current. Wahhabi sheikhs might occasionally visit Shia discussion groups, but the chance that a single street protest could bring together large numbers of both groups is slim.
Finally, the Saudi regime has had weeks to digest the reasons for and consequences of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, something that Ben Ali entirely lacked and Mubarak was too set in his ways to appreciate. Despite the advanced age and infirmity of their top leaders, members of the Saudi elite have proved fairly nimble. They threatened punishment for any opposition (but not so much as to excite protesters), and they balanced their threats with promises of rewards for cooperation. They were also deft at getting the religious establishment to come to their aid, by issuing fatwas declaring street demonstrations to be in violation of Islam. It is unclear how many Saudis still pay attention to state-appointed arbiters of religion, but it certainly does not hurt the Saudi leadership to have them on its side.
Meanwhile, local regime officials engaged in fairly active outreach on behalf of their constituents. A government delegation from Qatif, the most important Shia city in the Eastern Province, met with the Saudi king a few days before the scheduled “day of rage,” although the purpose of the visit was not made public. Prince Muhammad bin Fahd bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the governor of the Eastern Province, spoke with local Shia leaders earlier last week and made a few gestures of good faith, including releasing a number of prisoners. Similarly, Prince Khalid al-Faisal, the governor of Mecca (who also has jurisdiction over Jeddah), met very publicly with activists and has since rolled out a high-profile campaign to show that the government is serious about fixing Jeddah’s water drainage infrastructure. It is possible that the local and national leadership could also announce some small steps on the political front: a cabinet shake-up, municipal council elections, perhaps even elections to the national shura (consultative) council.
Yet the Al Saud are certainly not out of the winter of Arab discontent. On March 13, hundreds demonstrated in front of the Interior Ministry in Riyadh to demand the release of prisoners captured during the government’s years-long fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. There were demonstrations of similar size in Shia towns that day as well. And having just deployed troops to support the monarchy in Bahrain, the Saudis have placed themselves in a tricky situation; as Saudi forces help suppress the Bahraini protesters, the vast majority of whom are Shia, they could provoke serious protests among Saudi Arabia’s own Shia population. But, at least so far, Saudi Arabia is among the ranks of Syria and Morocco -- the other major Arab states least affected by the wave of Arab upheaval.
For further expert analysis of the uprisings across the Arab world, please check out Foreign Affairs/CFR new ebook, The New Arab Revolt: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next. It is available for purchase in multiple formats including PDF, Kindle, and Nook.