Frederic Wehrey, senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings.
Two years after the start of the Arab uprisings, the threat of regional chaos has helped shield the house of Saud from the dissent brewing at home. In a time-worn strategy, the ruling family has skillfully portrayed itself as a bulwark against the specter of communal strife and civil war brought about by rapid and uncontrolled political change. Regional sectarian tensions—exacerbated by Sunni clerics and state-owned media—have spilled over, casting a chill over cooperation and coordination between Sunni and Shia activists in the Kingdom —to the benefit of the monarchy. In tandem, a campaign of massive subsidies and carefully calibrated reforms has been used to produce consent among an increasingly restive younger generation.
A key question confronting the kingdom now is whether the diminishing returns from such a strategy are sufficient in light of spreading disenchantment that could, at some point, mutate into something more serious. Among activists and reformists across the country, there is the growing sense that the National Dialogue and municipal council elections were fundamentally hollow reforms that yielded little in the way of actual political or economic change. Confronted with a regime that has typically presented itself as a gatekeeper for dialogue among the kingdom’s sects and regions, these young activists have found new spaces in social media to share ideas and find common ground. So far, such activity has not yielded anything resembling a coherent popular movement or political force.
That said, a number of grievances have arisen that are shared by disparate sectors of Saudi society: low wages, unemployment, infrastructural neglect at the municipal and provincial level, and—perhaps most importantly—protests over the incarceration of political dissidents. On top of this, the previous tools of social control—familial and clerical authority—may be showing the strains of overuse.
If there is one corner of Saudi Arabia that provides a laboratory for observing these dynamics at work, it is the Eastern Province, which has witnessed sustained and seldom-reported protests since 2011. True, the region carries its own unique grievances related to sectarian discrimination against its Shia citizens. But many of the protesters’ calls are echoed by activists elsewhere in the country, albeit at lower decibel levels: the release of political prisoners, greater power for elected municipal councils, an independent judiciary, a constitution, and economic reforms. In this respect, the province should not be treated solely as an isolated pocket of discontent, but rather a sort of bellwether for the overall health of the country.