The Saudi trinity: oil, God and security
The Saudi trinity: oil, God and security
With the winds of the "Arab spring" still blowing across the region, internally Saudi Arabia seems to have put in place three safeguards against the turbulence. Lavish economic handouts worth more than $70 billion were promised in February to absorb discontent. A package of economic, social, health and educational benefits was meant to absorb immediate frustration at lack of housing, jobs, health facilities, and welfare services. The regime promised more employment opportunities in two relevant sectors: the religious bureaucracy and the security services. The first absorbs the increasing number of graduates who cannot be employed in the private sector. The second strengthens the increasing militarization of Saudi society.
But this was still not enough. Religiously-sanctioned obedience to rulers had to be re-invoked to remind the constituency of a godly obligation. From the minarets of mosques, religious functionaries of the regime preached sermons in which they reminded their audiences of the obligation to obey God, the Prophet and the al-Saud rulers. They warned against demonstrations, civil disobedience and open criticism of the leadership. They glorified the current leadership for its adherence to Islam, and warned against chaos. They vehemently denounced Shiites for their agitations in the Eastern Province, where oil is abundant. Any call for demonstrations was depicted as a Shiite Iranian conspiracy against a pious Sunni nation. They called on the believers to support the rulers, much needed at a turbulent moment. Increasing sectarianism within Saudi Arabia is a reflection of an on-going cold war with Iran.
With the fall of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Arabia lost a close ally against its enemy of three decades. The Arab spring is perceived by the Saudi leadership as an opportunity for Iran to increase its penetration of Arab countries and civil society. Agitation in Bahrain was definitely seen by the Saudis as yet another example of Iran's growing influence and ability to stir up trouble in a neighboring Gulf country with a Shiite majority. With the support of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Saudis sent troops to help the al-Khalifa rulers against the pro-democracy movement, allegedly an arm of the Iranian regime. The Saudis consider their intervention an important measure to roll back Iranian influence. In Bahrain, for the moment, they seem to have been the winners in their on-going confrontation with Iran. But in Syria, the situation is still unresolved. For the Saudis, the protest in Syria is another opportunity to win Syria back to the Arab fold, after President Bashar Assad increasingly drifted towards Iran. So sectarianism seems to work at two levels: repel Iranian influence and silence dissidence at home. Saudi conservative and anti-Shiite religious tradition is an effective policy against both internal dissidents and external foes.
Saudi Arabia's last step was to tighten security just in case oil and God failed to produce the desired acquiescence. A digital "Day of Rage" was announced on March 11. While Saudi opposition calls were gathering momentum in the virtual world, a different reality was unfolding on the ground. Saudi security forces were mobilized in the main cities. This amounted to a state of emergency with troops on the ground and helicopters flying low in the sky. An atmosphere of intimidation was soon established. The calls failed miserably to attract demonstrators. But hundreds of activists were arrested, including several Shiite and Sunni agitators. Two petitions calling for more political participation, constitutional rule, and social justice remained unanswered. The regime responded by introducing a new terrorism law that criminalizes any open criticism of the king and the grand mufti.
For the moment, these three Saudi regime strategies seem to have absorbed the wave of real turbulence made apparent as a result of the Arab spring. Digital activism never stopped, providing a great cathartic service to a population denied the basic principles of freedom. However, with internal protest crushed and apparent western silence over political reform, the Saudi regime seems to be comfortable in the short term. The regime deployed classical strategies to contain protest. Religious bans on demonstrations and sectarian discourse against the Shiites appealed to the Sunni majority and ensured a momentary truce between the regime and the multiple and disorganized voices calling for political reform. Heavy policing, together with tailored economic benefits rewarding those who had expressed strong support for the regime--mainly the religious establishment and the coercive forces--led to reluctance to engage in real protest.
But in an opaque country like Saudi Arabia, one is bound to believe that discontent among substantial sections in society that occasionally manifests itself through virtual activism and petitions is currently fermenting underground.
Despite revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, it seems that Saudi Arabia is still lagging behind in terms of the structural conditions for real mobilization leading to organization and protest. The conditions that triggered revolt elsewhere, for example economic and social deprivation, in addition to political oppression and corruption, are all present in Saudi Arabia. But these conditions are not sufficient to precipitate a revolt. Saudi Arabia does not have organized trade unions, a women's movement or an active student population. These were the three important structural factors that made it possible for the virtual Egyptian and Tunisian protests to move from the virtual world to the ground.
The Saudi case attests to the limits of cyber-utopianism, the euphoria surrounding the so-called Twitter and Facebook revolutions. In addition to the three regime strategies deployed to thwart protest, the failure of the Arab spring to reach Saudi Arabia is a function of energy, lack of experience with rudimentary forms of democracy and civil society, and the monarchy's unconditional support from western governments.
But sometimes when all appears to be quiet on the eastern front, fermenting discontent within society could erupt in violent ways. In Saudi Arabia's continuous climate of oppression and secrecy, violence practiced by both state and sections of society is often an indication of deep-rooted problems. The Arab spring may be delayed in Saudi Arabia but its winds could yet blow over one of the least democratic and most opaque countries in the Arab world. In the absence of a tradition of peaceful protest and with religiously-sanctioned bans on such protest, violence against the regime and society by disenchanted groups may again become the only option--as it had been over the last century.
The Arab spring has both deprived Saudi Arabia of loyal allies such as Mubarak and put the kingdom face-to-face with the rising Iranian challenge. The outcome of the Saudi-Iranian cold war will definitely be determined not in Bahrain but in Syria, a larger and more important strategic country. It remains to be seen whether Saudi Arabia can claim victory in a war of attrition that has been brewing for more than three decades. At least for the moment, the home front seems to be quiet
Welcome to the personal website of Professor Madawi Al-Rasheed. I hope that you will find the information published here of interest. The views expressed are my personal views and do not represent any organisation.
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- Salman al-Awdah: In the shadow of revolutions
- The Unpredictable Succession Plan Of Saudi Arabia
- Saudi Arabia: local and regional challenges
- New Texts Out Now: A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics, and Religion in Saudi Arabia
- Madawi Al-Rasheed: Gulf States Co-opt Women’s Mobilization and Replace it with State Feminism
- A Most Masculine State
- Demystifying the Caliphate
- Imagined Heroism of the Saudi ‘Nail Polish Girl’
- Saudi Arabia Turns Blind Eye To Rising Youth Suicide Rates
- Saudi Arabia and Syria: logic of dictators
- No Saudi Spring, Anatomy of a Failed Revolution
- Saudi Arabia and Russia: Settling old scores in Syria
- The meaning of rights for women
- The Saudi trinity: oil, God and security
- In the Time of Oil. Piety, Memory and Social Life in an Omani Town