Saudi Arabia and the Arab Spring: The Forgotten Uprising

The West has a damaging tendency to ignore events inside Saudi Arabia. But we can ill afford to overlook current upheavals in the Kingdom.

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Will James
On 23 April 2011 11:29

With the unprecedented events taking place in the Middle East, it is difficult to keep one’s attention focused on the various revolutionary (and counter-revolutionary) forces sweeping through the region. Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and now Syria have all vied for the attention of the world in recent weeks and months. However, it is the almost unseen and under-reported upheavals in Saudi Arabia which should be of greatest concern to outside observers.

While the Kingdom has so far avoided regime-toppling popular unrest, such as in Tunisia or Egypt, and there seems little potential for armed rebellion like the one facing Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, the Saudi monarchy has nonetheless been faced with an extremely challenging set of both internal and external tests.

Beginning in February, increasingly vocal calls have been made for political and economic reforms, with protesters taking to the streets – as well as social networking sites – to call for greater freedoms in what is perhaps the most totalitarian and conservative Islamic state in the region. Protests, especially in minority Shi’ite areas in the country’s oil-rich Eastern Province, have ranged from small groups of women calling for political prisoners to be freed, to web-based campaigns for major reforms, including “constitutional monarchy, an end to corruption, an even distribution of wealth, and a serious solution for unemployment”.

Reuters has reported the creation of a new reformist political movement, the ‘Islamic Umma’ Party, whose members include “Islamic intellectuals and lecturers, human rights activists and lawyers”.

These protests were given added impetus following Saudi Arabia’s troubling intervention – along with the UAE – into Bahrain last month, to assist in quelling the anti-regime protests there. By sending around 1,000 troops into Bahrain – a majority-Shi’ite Gulf kingdom with a minority-Sunni monarchy – the Saudi leadership succeeded in stoking tensions in its own Shi’ite areas, with protests erupting in towns like Qatif and Awwamiya. The response from the Saudi monarchy has been entirely predictable. Human Rights Watch has estimated that around 160 people have been detained since February, in violation of international law.

The leaders of ‘Islamic Umma’ have also been imprisoned, and Shi’ite protesters clashing with riot police have been fired upon with rubber bullets. Added to these sticks, however, have been some generous carrots. On March 19, King Abdullah announced $93 billion in welfare handouts, which includes increased funding for “the security forces and religious establishment, as well as loans and increases in government salaries”. Following this announcement, the King also declared that municipal elections – last held in 2005 – would take place, in an attempt to placate demands for political reform.

There are many arguments to be made that Saudi Arabia will not be the next Egypt, let alone the next Libya. No other country in the Middle East – aside from the small Gulf sheikdoms – can lavish as much financial largesse on its population. Also, with a population entrenched in some of the most orthodox Islamic ultra-conservatism in the region, Saudi Arabia has less to fear from the revolutionary fever spreading across the Arab world than many others (indeed, calls for a ‘Day of Rage’ on March 4thled to a paltry protest of 14 at a Mosque in the capital – hardly Tahrir Square).

However, the threat of imminent regime collapse in Riyadh isn’t the main worry for the West.

For anyone who has read Yaroslav Trofimov’s The Siege of Mecca – which describes the events of late 1979 when armed Islamist fundamentalists took control of the Great Mosque in Mecca, igniting a bloody battle with the authorities on Islam’s most sacred site – Western ignorance of the turmoil currently engulfing the Kingdom will be chillingly familiar. The upshot from that forgotten uprising was for the Saudi elite to tacitly placate radical Wahhabi Islamists in exporting their violent brand of intolerance, rather than have it directed at the Saudi leadership. The failure of the West to appreciate the repercussions of this Faustian pact plagues us to this day.

When it comes to the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is the linchpin; in political, religious and economic terms almost no other actor in the region comes close to rivalling the House of Saud for influence and prestige. It is for these reasons that Western governments have often chosen to ignore, rather than engage with, the internal disputes in the Saudi Kingdom. But the decision of the Kingdom’s Western allies – most principally the United States – to overlook these problems only serves to make them worse. Stability in Saudi Arabia cannot be bought without a long-term roadmap for reform in the Kingdom that undoes the most damaging aspects of the closed society most Saudi citizens live in.

In particular, the House of Saud’s over-reliance on and tolerance of radical Wahhabi Islam, at the expense of developing a more liberal form of Islam is both a direct security threat to the West and a short-sighted path to take for King Abdullah and his fellow octogenarian autocrats.

In the short-term Saudi Arabia may be able to both repress and buy its way out of the ‘Arab Spring’, but the long-term trends do little to encourage optimism. Gradual reform and ad hoc responses to the internal pressures that we have seen in recent weeks are woefully inadequate. Real reform needs to start now. And, above all, that needs to be the message coming from the White House.

Will James is a freelance writer and political analyst. Follow him on Twitter: @wmhjames

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