Disregarding the Saudi Arabian government’s ban on the establishment of political organizations, a small group of Saudi activists recently formed the Islamic nation’s first political party. It was but the latest event demonstrating the increasing vulnerability of the Saudi kingdom to revolutionary forces, like much of Middle East in general.
While the newly formed Islamic Umma Party remains committed to keeping Saudi Arabia an Islamist state, it does calls for political freedoms that it says “predate Islam.” A statement released by the party’s founders read in part that the Islamic Umma Party believes in “freedom,” “political pluralism, and the peaceful transfer of power, and the right of the [Islamic] nation to choose its governments.”
According to Sheikh Mohammed al-Qahtani, one of the party’s founders, the formation of the Islamic Umma Party “was a natural response to the development of the political situation in the region and the development of political action in the kingdom.”
Of course, the Saudi government has been in complete denial with respect to the political winds coursing through the Mideast. While many Saudis cheered on the uprising in Egypt, Saudi King Abdullah was labeling the Egyptian protesters as instigators who “have infiltrated into the brotherly people of Egypt, to destabilize its security and stability.”
Even when the Saudi government did officially acknowledge the news of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster as Egypt’s president, it made no mention of the anti-authoritarian tenor of the Egyptian rebellion. Rather, it welcomed “the peaceful transition of power in the Arab Republic of Egypt and expresse[d] hope in the efforts of the Egyptian armed forces to restore peace, stability and tranquility.”
That the Saudi Kingdom would wish a quick restoration of political order to Egypt makes perfect sense. The absolute monarchy has been privately fearful of the growing signs of unrest emerging within its own populace. In fact, much of the Saudi public’s discontent echos that which sparked the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings: high unemployment, official corruption, imprisonment without trial and the excesses of the ruling elites.
For example, while the Saudi government lists the country’s unemployment rate at 10.5%, unofficial estimates peg the number closer to 20 percent. Further compounding the issue is that 22 percent of the Saudi kingdom’s population lives below the poverty line, despite a three year anti-poverty campaign by the government.
On a recently posted Internet video, Saudi Arabian Mufti Sheikh Yusof al-Ahmad said that growing unemployment and poverty would lead regional unrest to “permeate into Saudi Arabia,” while further adding, “The way people express their anger has changed in an unprecedented way, due to the injustice and the feeling of being oppressed.”
That expression of anger recently surfaced when a series of heavy rains flooded Jeddah–Saudi Arabia’s second largest city– and caused massive property damage and left thousands homeless. When the government was slow to respond to the catastrophic situation, public anger culminated in a demonstration on January 28, 2011. While the protest leaders were quickly arrested, a film of the event was available for a few days on the Internet before it was removed by government authorities.
That protest was quickly followed by another one on February 6 in the capital city of Riyadh. There, a group of 50 Saudis, mostly women, publicly called for the release of imprisoned family members. Since 2003, the Saudi government has been accused by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations of falsely imprisoning thousands of reform activists. Chanting “God, free our prisoners,” the women marched in front of the country’s Interior Ministry before being dispersed by police.
Finally, Saudi activists have lifted a page from the social media handbook utilized successfully by Egyptian and Tunisian protesters and have launched an online campaign calling for political reform. In fact, social media has become such a popular tool that approximately 3 million Saudis use Facebook and Twitter, a jump in usage of 240 percent since 2009.
The activist demands include a call for a constitutional monarchy, an end to official corruption, and an even distribution of wealth. Perhaps nothing best summarizes the urgency and seriousness of their demands than one website which recently posted: “Before it is too late, I call the government, and the king, to reform the country and heed our requests…if they wish to continue ruling this country.”
Of course, who will eventually rule this absolute monarchy has been up for debate for some time and has added to the current unease. King Abdullah Ibn Abdulaziz Al Saud is 86 and has been suffering from back and heart ailments as well as signs of dementia. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal even had to fend off rumors that Abdullah had actually died on February 9.
Yet, Abdullah’s designated successor, Crown Prince Sultan, is himself 85 and also in very poor health. However, after Sultan, who is next in line to the throne is unclear, despite the presence of the Allegiance Commission, expressly created in 2006 to decide the line of succession after Sultan.
Still, there are still those who are quick to point out that recent Saudi protest efforts constitute at best a nascent movement with little chance of success, one dwarfed in size and scope by the massive demonstrations seen in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen.
Although Saudi Arabia’s high unemployment and near total lack of democracy are parallel factors to the ones present in the Tunisian and Egyptian rebellions, there also key differences.
For starters, Saudi Arabia has little historical experience with opposition politics, evidenced by the fact its royal family has been consistently backed by both conservative clerics and political reformers. It’s a view best expressed by reformist blogger Al Nafjan: “For the majority of Saudis, we still believe in our monarchy. It’s just that we want reforms.”
Secondly, the Saudi government enjoys enough surplus reserves to spend on job programs to appease both an unemployed and underemployed populace. For example, Saudi foreign reserves are 101% of its gross domestic product compared to 15% for Egypt.
Furthermore, the Saudi government has embarked on an $800 billion investment program that runs until 2014. Its 2011 budget also calls for an increase in spending of $155 billion, the third straight record budget for planned spending. As King Abdullah noted in December 2010, “Fiscal budgets in future years will not decrease, but rise and rise.”
Finally, Saudi Arabia’s own geography is an obstacle to protest movements, as its population centers are spread out across a wide area with few densely crowded enclaves where a mass of demonstrators could defy government authorities.
As such, critics argue Saudi Arabia remains relatively immune to the region’s revolutionary virus. If anything, they counter, the concern of Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim ruling elites comes not from a potential challenge to their rule, but rather, from a genuine fear of Shiite Iran’s imposing hegemony.
It is one reason why this most Islamic of Arab states has long supported secular authoritarian regimes, like Egypt, as powerful allies against Iranian expansion, one which led the Saudi government to be so aggressive in its efforts to support Mubarak.
Even while Iran is momentarily tied down with its own internal unrest, the Saudi government believes that Iran has not abated in its desire to see a destabilized Arab world. According to Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, “Iran will try to take advantage of the spreading catharsis and this will challenge the Saudi foreign policy establishment even more.”
Perhaps, in the end, the greater challenge for Saudi leaders will be to become less preoccupied with the dangers posed by these external threats and more focused on the dangers posed by the discontent cropping up among their own people. As recent events in the Mideast have clearly demonstrated, failure to do so can lead to a quick and unexpected end. If they don’t believe it, they can ask former Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak.
Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank’s work at his blog, www.politicallyunbalanced.com.