Saudi Arabia itself, like many other Arab kingdoms (Jordan, Morocco, Oman), makes every effort to present the monarchical system in the most benign ways, alleging it offers a favourable contrast to the nasty republican regimes that seem to be falling like dominoes. As a critical note, Prof. al-Rasheed observes that this rosy image is swallowed without question, and even spread further, by external stakeholders in regional Gulf stability. these interested parties are no longer confined to America and Western Europe, but now also include Russia and China. Their willingness to side with the incumbent regime is motivated by the need for access to Saudi oil reserves and the prospects of lucrative arms deals.
But, the sand storms of the Spring of 2011 are harbingers of growing domestic turbulence, Prof. al-Rasheed insists. As one of her informants has it: 'The events of early 2011 have propelled Saudi Arabia ten years ahead of its own pace of development'.
The government, in turn, has responded with its time-tested counteroffensive: financial mumificence. This time around the key beneficiaries were, first of all, the armed forces. All serving members were promoted one rank, while also receiving the cocomitant rise in pay. In addition, another 60,000 new positions will be created. Whereas this will only lead to a further militarization of Saudi society, Madawi al-Rasheed took care to note that the armed forces are by no means a united front. In fact, the loyalty of the various branches is fragmented and divided between key senior members of the royal family. The religious establishment too benefited from royal generosity, receiving additional budget for its activities. Combined with the third strategy: a further curtailment of the press, the Saudi regime has -- for now -- taken the sting out of the protest movement.
But aside from a combination of repression and largesse on the part of the government, there is another reason why protests in Saudi Arabia have remained relatively subdued when compared to other Arab countries. Calls for a 'day of rage', scheduled for 11 March, were generally ignored because there is no consensus among the protesters on the agenda for reforms. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has no tradition of civil activism. In order to prevent the development of such a sense of civil society or the articulation of shared citizens' concerns, the government also plays up tribal belonging and sectarian divides: pitching regions and tribes, and Sunnis and Shi'ites, against each other.
|Saudi Arabia's 'day of rage' (11 March 2011)|
|Shi'ites protesting in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province|
Whereas some Arab countries are looking to Turkey for inspiration, it is highly unlikely that this will be a useful model for Saudi Arabia, at least in the short term. Its lack of a sense of civil society and tradition of feminist activism currently deprive it of the necessary preconditions. This lack of civil action also severely limits the likelihood of a 'facebook' or 'twitter' revolution -- which al-Rasheed also considers a misnomer in the cases of Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria.
However, what is not an unlikely scenario is that continuing turbulence and the persistence of critical questions being directed at the government could destabilize the regime to such an extent that a fragmentation of the Kingdom is not entirely inconceivable. Most likely candidates for a breakaway would be the oil-rich Eastern province and the Asir and Najran provinces on the border with Yemen.The lack of a tradition of civil disobedience also makes a violent turn of events a very likely option.
According to Prof. al-Rasheed the current initiatives of the government to respond to the demands of the protesters are insufficient. Although Saudi Arabia's economy continues to expand it has never managed to absorb the country's rapidly growing population; for that the government has always relied on expanding the civil service, which is seen as inefficient and corrupt. Women's issues are primarily addressed in response to foreign criticism, but Madawi al-Rasheed is adamant that the kind of emancipation introduced by the Saudi regime will not undermine its authoritarian grip on power. Playing up sectarianism often expressed by pandering to a sense of 'Iranphobia' will also not contribute to the creation of a sense of nationhood. However, according to al-Rasheed there are signs that leading figures among the citizenry in the Western Hijaz province, a more cosmopolitan region with a historical tradition of plurality where also the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina are located, are trying to build bridges between Sunnis and Shi'ites.
Even though the Saudi government has been pushing for years for a military intervention in Iran, al-Rasheed thinks that in the current multi-polar world a sustained military campaign against Iran is highly unlikely, and Saudi Arabia definitely lacks the means to go it alone.
|Saudi interior minister, Prince Nayif|