Last week, my colleague Madawi al-Rasheed, a renowned anthropologist of religion and -- as a born Saudi -- one of the most knowledgeable experts on the situation in Saudi Arabia, published an assessment of the prospects of the revolutionary virus spreading to the desert kingdom in the online Foreign Policy Magazine. Here are a few relevant selections:
Saudi Arabia is ripe for change. Despite its image as a fabulously wealthy realm with a quiescent, apolitical population, it has similar economic, demographic, social, and political conditions as those prevailing in its neighboring Arab countries. There is no reason to believe Saudis are immune to the protest fever sweeping the region.
So far young Saudis have occupied their own "Liberation Square" on a virtual map. In the 1990s their exiled Islamist opposition used the fax machine to bombard the country with messages denouncing the leadership and calling for a return to pristine Islam. Later, a wider circle of politicized and nonpoliticized young Saudis ventured into Internet discussion boards, chat rooms, blogs, and more recently Facebook and Twitter to express themselves, mobilize, and share grievances. These virtual spaces have become natural homes for both dissenting voices and government propaganda. Recently the king's private secretary and chief of the royal court, Khaled al-Tuwaijri, launched his own Facebook page.
Saudis thought that they were safe in their virtual world, but the regime has been determined to trace each and every word and whisper that challenges its version of reality. Young bloggers, writers, and essayists have been jailed for asking simple questions like: Who is going to be king after Abdullah? Where is oil wealth going? Who is responsible for corruption scandals associated with arms deals? Why do the king and crown prince take turns leaving the country? Why are Abdullah's so-called reforms thwarted by his brother Prince Nayef? And who is the real ruler of Saudi Arabia? All unanswered taboo questions.
Of course, it's not just liberals who are demanding change. A couple of weeks before the king's return, a group of Saudi academics and professionals announced the establishment of a Salafi Islamic Ummah Party and launched a web site. Reformist Salafists are calling for democracy, elections, and respect for human rights. Five of the founding members were immediately put in jail.Here is a video, featuring one of the party founders, Shaykh Muhammad ibn Sa'd Al Mufrih
To date, 119 activists have signed the petition calling for constitutional monarchy. More petitions signed by a cross section of Saudi professionals, academics, and journalists are circulating on the Internet. A broad swatch of Saudi society is now demanding political change.
If Saudis do respond to calls for demonstrations and rise above the old petition syndrome, the majority will be young freethinkers who have had enough of the polarization of Saudi Arabia into two camps: a liberal and an Islamist one, with the Al-Saud family presiding over the widening gap between the two.
It seems that the kingdom is at a crossroads. It must either formulate a serious political reform agenda that will assuage an agitated young population or face serious upheavals over the coming months. [...] Many Saudis are disenchanted with both official and dissident Islam. They want a new political system that matches their aspirations, education, and abilities, while meeting their basic human, civil, and political rights.
Now is the time for the United States and its allies to understand that the future does not lie with the old clique that they have tolerated, supported, and indulged in return for oil, security, and investment. At a time of shifting Arabian sands, it is in the interest of America and the rest of the world to side with the future not the past.