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
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