Quick Notes on Saudi Arabia

While all the hoopla has continued throughout the Middle East, Western media has focused (as have I) in on the situation in Libya, as it is more a war zone than a simple sea of turmoil. Consequently, protests and uprisings in other countries have been left alone. Michael Collins Dunn reminds us of the revolutionary events that are occurring across the region – events that would be getting major press time if they happened independently:

Today, Egypt’s new Prime Minister went to Tahrir Square and told the demonstrators he would support their goals and resign if he couldn’t implement them. There were growing tensions in Iraq between protesters and Nuri al-Maliki’s government. In Yemen Salih rejected the proposed deal for him to step down, and security forces reportedly fired on demonstrators. Major protests continued in Bahrain and Algeria. Iran continues to hold Mousavi and Karroubi and their wives, amid continuing protests. The cauldrons continue to bubble in Algeria and Bahrain, with protests in Morocco, Jordan, Oman, and even a few stirrings in Saudi Arabia.

This is an unprecedented moment in the Middle East, though to many it would appear that the revolutions and unrest are limited to a handful of north African countries. While I am going to try and provide more information on other Middle Eastern countries that are erupting, I am rather busy today so, considering I spent time there, I’m going to limit myself to some quick notes on Saudi Arabia.

Many thought that Saudi Arabia was immune from the revolutionary fever that has swept the region; oil-funded largesse has the unique ability to buy legitimacy and, considering the cultural norms of Saudi, it is unlikely that women would play as large a role in any demonstrations as in Egypt. Moreover, the country is vast, has massive support from western countries and has a well-liked (though old as Napoleon) King. However, unlike neighboring United Arab Emirates and Qatar, there is a large unemployed native population in Saudi – not to mention a massive foreign worker population that is denied most basic human rights, but that is another story). From the Economist:

Whereas 70% of Saudis are under the age of 30, and their median age is 19, the Saudi cabinet ministers average 65. Some senior princes have held their jobs as ministers or provincial governors for decades; one has governed the Northern Borders Province since 1956. Whereas 40% of Saudi youths have no jobs and nearly half of those in work take home less than 3,000 riyals ($830) a month, every prince (of whom there are probably 7,000-8,000) gets a monthly stipend ranging from a few thousand dollars up to $250,000, according to an estimate in a WikiLeaks cable.

In forums where Saudis are able to express discontent, anger is rising. Out of 1,600 asked in a recent web poll to rate the credibility of statements by Saudi officials, 90% ticked “untrustworthy”. Asked what would come of a government inquiry into flooding that struck the kingdom’s second city, Jeddah, in January, killing ten, 85% said “nothing”. Scepticism was understandable, since an even deadlier wave of rainwater mixed with sewage engulfed the city last winter, prompting another investigation and promised cures. In a silent comment, Saudis exchanged a cartoon depicting the royal seal’s crossed swords over a palm tree as crossed mops over a bucket.

King Abdullah has tried to put an end to the unrest in his country by announcing a $36 billion subsidy and welfare package soon after returning to the country after a three-month medical vacation. Despite these measures, though, protests have sprung up across the country, with several taking place yesterday and more scheduled for (in another “Day of Rage”) on March 11th. Yesterday’s protests (see videos above and here) in the capital of Riyadh saw a relatively (compared to other recent Arab protests) number of protesters – reaching perhaps 60-70 – though the demonstrations were important: political activism is a rarity in the Kingdom.

The most popular call for reform is supporting the establishment of a Constitutional Monarchy in the Kingdom, that would greatly reduce the power of the ruling family (as noted above, including some 7,000 – 8,000 princes) by creating an “independent judiciary, an accountable executive and an elected parliament.” While it seems unlikely that these reforms would ever be taken seriously by the ruling family (the online petition has only 1,500 signatories and it is unlikely that the government would agree to such drastic reforms) the mere presence of the reform movement and the increasing frequency of protests (can you imagine protesting in 53 degree weather?) demonstrate the power of the Arab reform movement as well as the delicacy of the still-standing Arab governments.

King Abdullah, at 87 years old, is well-liked, perhaps putting a damper on a protest movement still in its infancy. The calls for reform and days of rage will probably amount to little during his reign, though after the crown is passed to the Saud, anything could be possible. Potential successors – Crown Prince Sultan and Prince Nayaf – aged 83 and 77, respectively – are not as adored by the Saudi population and are suffering from chronic health issues (Crown Prince Sultan is said to have Alzheimer’s and Prince Nayaf has diabetes and osteoporosis). It is very unlikely that the current round of revolutions will include the fall (or reform) or the Saud monarchy, though it will have definite and demonstrable effects for the future of Saudi Arabia.

Photo from Globalizing

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