The House of Saud appears stable amid the turmoil across the Middle East. But tensions still simmer below the surface. The youth are agitating for change, economic instability looms, and the kingdom will be influenced by the storms brewing around it. 

In a new Q&A, Frederic Wehrey discusses these evolving dynamics and the endemic problem of rising sectarianism after his visit to Saudi Arabia earlier this year. Wehrey says that the royal family’s current strategy of using co-optive and repressive techniques to hold onto power will not always be enough to limit the population’s calls for change. 

Who are the primary actors driving the lingering protest movement in Saudi Arabia?

Frederic Wehrey
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research deals with armed conflict, security sector governance, and U.S. policy, with a focus on Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf.
More >

The agenda is increasingly being set by the youth who are actively going into the streets and organizing through social media. This is particularly evident in the Eastern Province, where youthful protests have seized the momentum from older activists, intellectuals, and clerics who led the movement in the 1990s. 

The younger generation believes that its older counterparts have essentially been co-opted by the regime and argues for more incremental change, participation in the national dialogue, and working through the system. The youth question the achievements of this approach. Across the country, but in the east in particular, they are testing the bounds of what is permitted in terms of discourse and are accessing information that the state is unable to regulate. And they will be a major factor in shaping the country’s future. 

Two-thirds of Saudis are under the age of thirty and in 2010, 80 percent of unemployed Saudis registered with the Ministry of Labor were between the ages of twenty and thirty-four. While material expectations and political awareness have grown, the state’s ability to satisfy its youth population is declining. 

The dynamic is greatly impacted by Saudis’ increased access to higher education—at home and abroad. During the 1990s and 2000s there was the massive push to send youth abroad on scholarships. They are now coming back with new ideas and new expectations but are finding a country that cannot accommodate them. The types of degrees that are being awarded in Saudi Arabia are not allowing graduates to compete in the private sector or the global economy. 

The question is when the country will reach a point at which the youth can pose a real challenge to the regime. Youth activists say that it will take another five to ten years for this movement to mature. 

It’s also unclear at this point what changes an organized youth movement would push for. Some reputable polling in recent years has been relatively surprising—77 percent of Saudi youth between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four believe Saudi Arabia is headed in the right direction, up from 56 percent in 2012. 

For its part, the regime cleverly plays the Iran card in the east, claiming young Shia protesters are beholden to Tehran and unrest is a sign of foreign meddling. But this is not the case. The youth rising up have more in common with the crowds in Egypt’s Tahrir Square or Tunis than with Iranian-backed groups. They have in many ways moved beyond religious ideology to talk about bread and butter issues. 

Is sectarianism a problem as it is elsewhere in the Arab world? 

Sectarian tensions have ebbed and flowed, depending on the regime’s policies and regional events. Currently, it is a mixed picture. 

The regime has improved its efforts to curtail sectarian attacks in official media, and sectarianism is mentioned less in the media and in statements by clerics. Social media has facilitated increased contact between Shia reformists and Sunni reformists. But at the same time, sectarianism has risen to the fore because of the escalating civil war in Syria, events in Iraq, and, most importantly, the structural discrimination that is built into the Saudi state. 

In a regime that sustains itself through a symbiotic relationship with Sunni Salafism, the Shia feel marginalized, complaining that they are excluded from key ministries and some of the state’s religious establishments. They frame their demands in terms of dignity; they call for Saudi Arabia to be for all people rather than a state defined in narrow religious terms in accordance with Sunni doctrine. 

Many Shia recognize that there are some currents of the royal family that want to resolve this issue but are hamstrung by opposition from the Salafi establishment.

The removal earlier this year of Prince Muhammad bin Fahd, the long-standing governor of the oil-rich Eastern Province (where much of the Shia population is concentrated) and the object of a great deal of animosity among the Shia, was applauded and opens the window to change. But there is still pessimism about the move because so much of the problematic policy is controlled by the Ministry of the Interior rather than the governor himself.

Issues of mutual concern are beginning to unite many different strands of activism—from liberals to Sunnis to Shia. The explosive issue is the protests against the regime’s holding of political prisoners. Even conservative Sunni areas are mounting protests against the government for imprisoning people for their opposition to King Abdullah’s reforms. 

It’s a unifying concern that is increasing contact between Shia reformists and Sunni reformists across the country through Twitter and Facebook. The Sunnis are realizing that they have similar political reform goals as the Shia. 

How strong is the country’s economy? Can Saudi Arabia continue to rely on its oil wealth? 

Since the beginning of the Arab Awakening, the government has chosen to meet the challenge through the time-tested tactic of subsidies and handouts. And this has largely worked so far. But Saudi Arabia is not doing enough to ensure that the economy will thrive in the future. 

There have been increases over the past two years in public-sector spending, but the private sector remains stagnant. Only 6.5 percent of Saudis are working in the private sector, and the country is still importing cheap foreign labor despite recent efforts to deport foreign workers violating their work visas. There are few incentives for citizens or businesses to innovate. 

Saudi Arabia is currently consuming a quarter if its own oil and could become an oil importer by 2030. But the government relies on high oil prices to finance its budget. 

The government has talked about diversifying toward more nuclear energy with an ambitious scheme to get twelve reactors online by 2030, but by all accounts the country doesn’t have the technology to accomplish such a feat so quickly. 

What’s the current state of human rights in Saudi Arabia? 

The human rights situation in the country remains dire by any objective measure. But with the advent of social media, the real truth is becoming increasingly transparent to Saudis. This is particularly the case with political prisoners. 

Saudis are increasingly debating their government’s behavior and old limits on criticizing the royal family are being breached. They are questioning whether the religious establishment should have a stranglehold over the country’s judiciary and legal process. And some high-profile incidents are sparking debate. 

The incredibly harsh—even by Saudi standards—sentencing of two prominent and outspoken human rights and political activists in March triggered a bombshell statement by the most popular cleric in the kingdom, Salman al-Odah. His explicit calls for reform directed squarely at the royal family broke taboos and electrified Saudis. 

Al-Odah is seen as a galvanizing figure with over 2.6 million Twitter followers. Among some Shia activists in the east, he has been regarded as a potential bridge builder since he moderated his sectarian discourse and started using terms like democracy during the Egyptian uprising. 

This is worrisome to the regime, because its entire strategy has been designed to initiate calibrated, largely cosmetic reforms while keeping the opposition divided to play different factions off of one another. 

On women’s rights, there is some room for guarded optimism. Women have been appointed to the Shura Council, the legislative advisory body, for the first time. But it’s a symbolic move, and King Abdullah took that step in the face of opposition from religious conservatives. 

Women are increasingly educated and frequently at the forefront of protests but suffer from high unemployment rates and still don’t have the right to drive, which comes along with a whole cascade of profound and severe economic ramifications. 

I think women will eventually be given the right to drive. And the regime can make a number of concessions to women that are not completely devoid of risk but are the least costly things it can do in terms of releasing the pressure valve in society. 

Is there a threat of unrest toppling the regime?

No. Not now. People of course have been predicting the fall of the House of Saud for quite some time, but the regime can still effectively employ its twin strategy of co-option and repression. 

The question is how long this will last. The time for buying off dissent through grants and subsidies is running out. 

Today, the royal family benefits from the absence of any alternative movement, the sheer geographic scope of the country, and the diversity of discontent. It has been opportunistically pushing the narrative that while there are rumblings of dissent, the possible alternatives to the existing regime are far worse—a conservative Islamist country or the fracturing of the state. 

There will be a major shift in leadership with the emergence of the second generation of princes. But this is unlikely to create major destabilization. More pragmatic leaders could gain positions of influence, and it may lead to a bigger opening of the system with greater competition among factions causing them to form political alliances with reformists. 

And the regime has skillfully exploited what’s going on in the region to solidify its control in Saudi Arabia. The Iraq war and its aftermath were used to depict how moving down the path toward democracy too quickly can create major problems. It is doing the same with Syria now. One Saudi activist told me that the Syrian war has effectively delayed the Arab Awakening inside Saudi Arabia for one to two years as people don’t want to go down the path of reform for fear of internal chaos.

How do Saudi rulers view the change unfolding across the region?

Saudi rulers are alarmed by the turmoil in the region. This feeling is reflected in the term used to define the last few years: Arab troubles as opposed to Arab Awakening or Arab Spring. 

Saudi Arabia often views the uprisings through the lens of its relationship with the United States. The regime is watching Washington’s reactions and policies very carefully. 

Some have argued that the Saudis are pursuing a counterrevolutionary approach, but that’s not entirely accurate. Certainly in Bahrain, Riyadh is trying to prevent the Arab Spring’s arrival on the peninsula, but the unrest in Syria is seen more as an opportunity, guided by realist, balance-of-power calculations. 

The Saudi government views Syria as a zero-sum game with Iran and is providing support and arms to the opposition. The Saudis are worried about ensuring the post-Assad order is conducive to their interests and concerned that a civil war could actually allow Iran’s influence to grow. Much of their involvement is also a function of their long-standing competition with Qatar, which is providing support to the opposition.

Beyond Syria, the Saudis are concerned about an Iranian nuclear program, but they are actually more worried about a potential rapprochement with the United States that sidelines Riyadh. While this seems like a distant possibility at best, Saudi Arabia doesn’t want Tehran to replace Riyadh as Washington’s principle partner in the Gulf. 

There is also a real fear of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are historic rivals for Arab leadership, and an Islamist-dominated government in Egypt presents an alternate system that differs drastically from the Saudi model. The Shia menace was thought to be the big threat to the Saudis for quite a while. But now the main threat is thought to be the Brotherhood menace. 

Correction: The original version misstated the percentage of Saudis unemployed between the ages of twenty and thirty-four. This Q&A has been revised to reflect that 80 percent of unemployed Saudis registered with the Ministry of Labor in 2010 were between the ages of twenty and thirty-four.