The wave of popular protests roiling the Arab world has thus far spared Saudi Arabia. In an attempt to bring change to the country, activists in Saudi Arabia have set a “day of rage” for March 11 to demand a series of political reforms, including the creation of a constitutional monarchy.
But of all the states in the region, Saudi Arabia is among the best equipped to handle the current unrest. The kingdom is utilizing multiple approaches—cooptation, religious persuasion, and implied threats of coercion—to neutralize potential disturbances. These tactics are designed to short-circuit the calls for protests among varied audiences. And as a result, it is extremely unlikely that Saudi Arabia will experience the turmoil seen elsewhere in the Arab world.
March 11 is a powerful date in Saudi Arabia and the day of protests was undoubtedly chosen for its resonance and symbolism. On the same day in 2002, fifteen young girls burned to death in a fire at a girls’ school in Mecca. Overzealous members of the mutawwa, the religious police, beat back the school girls attempting to escape the fire, refusing to let them out because they were uncovered. This horrific tragedy drew worldwide condemnation and led to serious introspection inside the kingdom that continues to this day.
Inspired by events around the region, activists are using Facebook and petitions to call a host of political and social reforms, including action against corruption, greater financial transparency, limits on royal power, and increased civil liberties. (There are at least two competing petitions currently circulating and, according to recent media reports, several Facebook pages have been blocked.)
It is important to note, however, that no one is calling for a revolution or the overthrow of the royal family. During my last visit to the kingdom in December, I heard over and over again that what people want is a more responsive government. Many Saudis want a government that will address issues impacting average citizens, such as unemployment and the rising cost of living expenses. Unlike the populist anti-regime demands in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Bahrain, activists in Saudi Arabia are not calling for King Abdullah to step down. To the contrary, the king remains a popular figure among most of the population, regardless of a person’s opinion of the overall government.
To defuse the situation, Riyadh is attacking the problem from multiple angles. After spending three months recuperating from surgery abroad, King Abdullah returned to Saudi Arabia last month and announced a $36 billion package on social welfare. The package includes more assistance for unemployment, housing, and finding new employment, and makes a 15 percent cost-of-living increase for state employees permanent. While people expected the king to announce some sort of public spending project upon his return, the scope and scale of the package was increased in light of developments in Tunisia and Egypt.
The social welfare package will be funded out of Saudi Arabia’s vast foreign currency holdings. According to the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency, the $36 billion package equates to just slightly over 8 percent of the kingdom’s total foreign currency reserves. In other words, despite the very large size of the spending package, it is a manageable cost that won’t dramatically impact the kingdom’s finances.
Changes in the government are also likely to occur with a cabinet reshuffle being announced in the coming days. The current cabinet’s four-year term expired and the king is required to announce a new government. One of the activists’ demands is for the king to name a younger cabinet—the average age of the current government is approximately 65 and several cabinet members are rumored to frequent the hospital on a regular basis. The challenge for the royal court will be to announce a new cabinet without giving the impression that the ministers were named as a concession to the demands of protestors. There has also been more frequent discussion about the introduction of a separate prime minister, although such a development is unlikely in the immediate future.
The government is also advancing religious arguments to quell calls for demonstrations and mobilizing the official clerical establishment to condemn protests. These approaches are not uncommon in Saudi Arabia and are frequently employed as an effective method of social control. The Senior Council of Ulema—the country’s highest religious body, all of whose members are all appointed by the king—has come out against protests and petitions and refers to both as un-Islamic. This body clearly reflects the state’s interests and it frequently aligns itself with state policies. Several leading imams have similarly used Friday sermons to speak out against demonstrating and denounce the unrest taking place elsewhere in the region. In addition, the Saudi press has recently noted that the late scholars Shaykh Abdul Aziz bin Baz and Shaykh Muhammed al-Uthaymeen both opposed protests, and their widely respected positions deliver a powerful message to the faithful.
Implied and not-so-subtle messages of possible state coercion have also been delivered by the government. All demonstrations, protests, and political organizing are forbidden in Saudi Arabia. Last week, the ministry of interior took the rare step to reiterate the kingdom’s strict prohibition on public demonstrations in advance of the planned protests. The ministry also held a protracted meeting with Saudi journalists and editors several weeks ago to let them know the correct and responsible way to report on regional unrest—especially in neighboring Bahrain. Finally, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the long-serving foreign minister, warned in a sternly worded statement that protests will not be tolerated and that the issue is an internal Saudi matter.
In January, a small protest in Jedda was reportedly broken up after only 15 minutes. There have been several other isolated protests, including at least one featuring foreign workers that received tacit government approval. More recently, Saudi authorities arrested over 20 Shi’i protesters in Qatif in the Eastern Province who were calling for the release of detained Shi’i activists. Saudi Arabia’s minority Shi’i community—perhaps 10-15 percent of the national population of roughly 20 million Saudis—live primarily in the Eastern Province, which is also the location of a large portion of the kingdom’s hydrocarbon production.
Even though conditions for Shi’a have improved under King Abdullah, sectarian difficulties remain. Prior to the king’s return, the Saudi government released several Shi’i detainees, but other Shi’i activists have in turn been jailed. Among those jailed—and just recently released—was a senior Shi’i cleric who called for the introduction of a constitutional monarchy.
Friday’s “day of rage” will most likely see disturbances, arrests, and the use of force by Saudi authorities in the Eastern Province. There may also be smaller Sunni demonstrations in Riyadh and other cities. But in the end the protests are unlikely to have a great impact and Saudi oil production and exports will not be disrupted. While the demonstrations will attract international attention, they will not present a serious challenge to the Saudi government.