Saudi Arabia has not come through the recent unrest sweeping the Middle East unchanged. The kingdom has yet to see the kind of popular uprisings that brought down regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and that are threatening autocrats in Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain. Yet leaders in Riyadh are deeply concerned about regional political developments and what it might mean for stability at home. In an effort to preempt and counter any potential challenges to their power, Saudi Arabia’s rulers are taking a number of measures to head off a possible demonstration effect. It is likely that these measures, a combination of inducement and coercion, will hold off domestic critics for now. The regime may also, however, be delaying the inevitable, a moment when the kingdom’s rigid leadership will have to engage seriously with its own people on matters of governance, participation, and political opportunity.

Although it has been beset with the threat of militancy and terrorism, most notably from al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Saudi Arabia’s political order has not been imperiled seriously in recent years. Where dissidents elsewhere have been calling for the overthrow of authoritarian governments, those calling for change in Saudi Arabia are more interested in accommodation than revolution. Many of the kingdom’s subjects have long called for political reform, but what most seem to prefer is a top-down reform process in which the al-Saud ruling family open the political system to more participation, but remain in place. Few desire to see the potential chaos that would result from a political vacuum, which might threaten the country’s ability to generate oil wealth. As of now, there are no indications that Saudi Arabia is set to face the kind of youth-driven popular mobilization that has rocked regimes elsewhere. This does not mean the possibility should be dismissed altogether. Saudi Arabia shares similar social and demographic characteristics of its vulnerable neighbors. The ranks of the unemployed youth—many of whom are bored, angry or both—are large and might become restive. The potential for their mobilization is hard to gauge, but it is more than a theoretical possibility.

With the world’s largest crude oil reserves, developments in Saudi Arabia that threaten oil output could adversely affect the global economic recovery. This article reviews the calls for reform in Saudi Arabia, assesses the regime’s response, and identifies the special circumstances in the Shi`a-populated Eastern Province.

Calls for Reform
Even though there is a reservoir of frustration with the country’s ruling elites, especially among the youth, what most Saudis aspire to see is the creation of a more even-handed system in which citizens have a greater share in decision-making and in which oil wealth is distributed more equitably. Calls abound for an end to princely corruption and excessive royal family privilege, greater transparency in the management of the economy, and a real commitment to governance. Other demands are even more basic, such as the call for greater rights for women, an end to restrictions on free speech, and for the government to stamp out discrimination and intolerance. Calls for change have also been driven by frustrations with the state of the kingdom’s economy. Unemployment is officially at 10%, although estimates range as high as 25%, figures that do not include women. While women can work in the kingdom, there are severe restrictions on their ability to do so.

There is little that is radical about the reform movement in Saudi Arabia. It consists primarily of intellectuals, academics, religious scholars and elite activists who have, for the most part, carefully avoided direct criticism of the royal family and have not called for their ouster. Support for reform also cuts across religious and class divides, including Sunni Islamists, national secularists (although they avoid the label), Shi`a and women. Support for the reform position is spread geographically. Yet there is no centrally coordinated organization or party dedicated to reform, mostly because formal political organizations are banned in Saudi Arabia; reformers are forced into loose alliances and mostly rely on letter writing and petitions to press their cause. With the exception of key figures such as Abdullah al-Hamad, who has gone further than most in calling for the creation of a constitutional monarchy, reformers have preferred to keep a low public profile. Since their numbers are hard to measure and because the most prominent reformers have advanced their agenda quietly, it is difficult to determine how much support they command in the kingdom. A wide range of Saudi citizens claim to support the idea of reform generally, but this does not necessarily equate to support for any particular figure or platform.

The Regime Response
Even though the reformers have carefully calculated their tone and limited their demands, the country’s rulers have not only avoided dealing seriously with the substance of their position, but have responded as though they are more sinister. Recent measures undertaken by the al-Saud monarchy in response to renewed calls for reform underscore the regime’s anxiety and demonstrate its unwillingness to share power, its disinterest in engaging in political introspection or dealing seriously with thoughtful critics. By closing off the possibility of change altogether, the government might ultimately exaggerate the appeal of more confrontational options for those alienated with the present order. Indeed, by imposing obstacles to political transformation and by punishing advocates for change, the kingdom’s rulers are running the longer term risk of turning reformers, and those who support the calls for reform, into revolutionaries.

Riyadh’s current anxieties stem directly from the dramatic events that have shaken the region in recent months. The monarchy’s unease manifested most clearly in mid-March 2011. In response to calls by Saudi activists on Facebook and other social media outlets for a “Day of Rage” in Saudi Arabia on March 11, authorities intensified the presence of police and security across the country to foreclose the possibility of protests. The massive show of force, along with threatening statements by regime officials, produced the desired effect. With the exception of small protests in predominantly Shi`a communities in the Eastern Province, would-be protesters stayed home in Riyadh and elsewhere, and the Day of Rage ended without major incident.

The depth of Saudi disquiet was further demonstrated when it sent at least 1,000 of its military personnel into neighboring Bahrain to help crush the pro-democracy movement there. The kingdom has consistently claimed Iranian involvement in Bahrain and used the specter of sectarian politics as its justification for intervention. Equally important, however, were worries that Saudis—Shi`a and Sunni alike—might be inspired by events so close to the kingdom’s shores.

At home, the only political concession offered to those calling for reform is an empty one. In late March, the government announced that it would hold elections for mostly powerless municipal councils in September 2011. The elections were originally scheduled to be held in 2009, but were postponed indefinitely for unclear reasons. The announcement that they will go forward now (although women will still not be allowed to vote) is a cynical gesture on the part of a regime deeply disinterested in meaningful change.

In addition to projection of force and the explicit threat of violence, the regime also promised a series of economic measures aimed to address the social roots of frustration. On March 18, Saudi King Abdullah promised an ambitious multibillion dollar package of reforms, including a loan program, housing subsidies, assistance for the unemployed, a jobs creation initiative, and assorted other forms of material support.

Economic inducements have long been the “bread and butter” of Saudi politics and a significant source of the ruling al-Saud family’s legitimacy. Since the middle of the 20th century, the political order has been based on an implicit understanding between rulers and ruled that oil wealth would be widely redistributed.[1] The recently announced multibillion dollar aid program represents more of the same. Yet it is far from clear that the calculations that have driven the redistribution of oil wealth in the past will satisfy the demands of Saudi reformers in the future. Historically, the terms of Saudi Arabia’s political contract have been that in exchange for a share in the energy spoils, the country’s citizens are expected to remain politically quiescent. Riyadh’s attempt to buy off reformers and challenges to the existing order with more of the same may help ease the burdens of economic duress for many Saudis, but it does little to address the specifically political appeals made by many citizens.

In fact, it appears that not even the kingdom’s leaders believe the massive financial reform program will be sufficient in deflecting calls for change. Instead, Riyadh is dusting off an old playbook to ensure docility. Along with a renewed commitment to security and the threat of violence, Saudi leaders have sought to strengthen ties with religious elites and institutions. In the March 18 aid package, the government announced billions of dollars in support for the religious police, Islamic schools, and the clergy more generally. While the clergy have always been important to the ruling family, they have also often been kept at some distance and only allowed influence when convenient. The move to empower them now is designed to undercut the potential appeal of reformers, to strengthen the country’s most conservative social and political elements, and to use them to lend religious legitimacy to the government’s position.[2]

The resort to religion and clerics to enforce both an austere moral order and political authoritarianism is fraught with uncertainty. It is a strategy the Saudis have attempted before and one that has generated troubling political consequences in the past. In response to challenges to their power in the late 1970s, leaders in Riyadh also turned to the clergy to help them shore up power, a decision that led in part to the generation and institutionalization of Islamic radicalism. In the decades that followed, religious dissent and radicalism spread globally, the specter of which remains threatening today.

It might be tempting to interpret Saudi Arabia’s current political gambit—its steps to buy off dissent as well as measures to turn back the clock and avoid dealing earnestly with the challenge of reform—as indications of strength. Thus far, the strategy has succeeded in keeping widespread public protest at bay. Yet this is only a measure of short-term success and stability. It is far from clear that Saudis will be satisfied with palliative and compulsive measures on offer from Riyadh.

The Troubles in the Eastern Province
One area of the country where the national strategy has so far failed to compel quiescence is in the oil-rich Eastern Province. Flush with oil, the Eastern Province is also home to large Shi`a communities. In early March, Shi`a citizens took to the streets in relatively small numbers (hundreds rather than thousands) demanding redress of mostly local issues, including the release of political prisoners. More recently, the Shi`a demonstrations have continued and their aims have broadened, including demands for reform and demonstrations of support for Bahrain’s opposition, which is largely Shi`a.

Saudi Shi`a have a history of political activism and confrontational politics. Long oppressed and discriminated against, tens of thousands took to the streets in November 1979 demanding the overthrow of the al-Saud ruling family. Yet the era of revolutionary Shi`a radicalism has long since passed. Even the militant network Hizb Allah in the Hijaz, which enjoyed small support in Saudi Arabia in the late 1980s and 1990s, has remained quiet in recent years. Instead, as has been the case with other reform-minded communities, Saudi Shi`a have preferred to call for top-down reform as a means to deal with the specific issues facing them.

It is unlikely that large numbers of Shi`a will radicalize any time soon. Much depends, however, on how the Saudi regime deals with the larger issue of reform and how it responds to ongoing protests in the Eastern Province. The regime has responded to some Shi`a demands by releasing local political prisoners. Yet the government has also become increasingly sectarian at home and in the region, accusing Shi`a generally of maintaining loyalties to Iran. The saber-rattling with Iran and the charges of disloyalty threaten to alienate Saudi Shi`a and could drive them to embrace radicalism. That possibility remains a distant one for now. Nevertheless, given the importance of the oil-rich Eastern Province to both Saudi Arabia and the global economy, the regime is playing a risky game. Greater levels of mobilization or efforts to coordinate militancy against the regime would almost certainly include efforts to upend oil production.

Saudi Arabia’s rulers have demonstrated that they feel a sense of urgency, but their political instincts are taking them in the wrong direction. The reformers are right that the existing system is deeply dysfunctional, anachronistic, and no longer in touch with the interests and desires of the vast majority of Saudi citizens. It is hard to see how resorting to a well-worn political strategy will restore confidence in an ailing system or ensure that there will not be future and perhaps more confrontational challenges to regime power. The kingdom’s leaders have yet to learn the most important lesson coming from Cairo, Tunis, Sana`a and Manama: although Arab authoritarian regimes have proven durable in the past, they are no longer invulnerable to the demands and pressures of their own people.

Dr. Toby Craig Jones is assistant professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University. He is the author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia and an editor at Middle East Report.

[1] Wealth is redistributed through a combination of jobs, social services, and other welfare programs.

[2] For one example, see the following article: “Saudi Prints 1.5 Million Copies of Anti-Demo Edict,” Reuters, March 29, 2011.

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