Christopher Davidson, lecturer of Middle East Politics at Durham University and author of After the Sheikhs.
One of the most active current Twitter conversations, loosely translated as Salaries are not enough, is almost entirely Saudi-based and is mostly in Arabic. With hundreds of tweets per second and millions per week, it is causing great alarm within elite circles and in many ways encapsulates the multitude of problems that the Al Saud regime is now facing. The size, content, and voracity of the debate caught the international media’s attention. Complaining of ever-growing wealth inequalities across the kingdom, along with rising poverty, corruption, and unemployment, the conversation is helping prove that Saudi Arabia’s social contract with its citizens is now publicly coming unstuck.
More importantly, it is also demonstrating that powerful new modernizing forces—in this case globalizing communications technologies that can neither be co-opted nor controlled by the state—are having a huge impact on a restless, hitherto traditional society that now enjoys one of the highest broadband and smartphone penetration rates in the world. Indeed, Saudi Arabia now generates more tweets per capita than the United States. Able to access new media platforms that finally allow for unfettered free speech, and undoubtedly emboldened by the demonstration effect of mass uprisings and denunciations of authoritarian rulers in neighbouring states, Saudis—from all walks of life and regardless of sect—are undoubtedly mobilizing. Even members of the ruling family are breaking ranks and wading in, with some describing the ‘looming crisis’ and others publishing open letters of ‘defection.’
What’s also clear is that the kingdom’s enormous Arab Spring public spending program—now amounting to hundreds of billions spent on subsidies, welfare, and public sector job schemes—isn’t having the desired effect. Clearly hoping that the uprisings of 2011 would be a short blip and that the ongoing revolutions—notably in Syria and Egypt—could be ‘managed’ by Saudi wealth injections, the aim was to pacify the backyard and buy the political acquiescence of citizens until the storm had passed, even if it meant pushing up the breakeven oil price and increasing the kingdom’s now perilous dependency on global oil demand. The reality, however, is that a fundamental shift in political order is now taking place across the region, and in many ways is just beginning. Large, youthful populations are signalling their discontent with opaque authoritarian politics and the mismanagement of national resources. There is no valid academic explanation for why Saudi Arabia should remain exceptional to this shift.