No Saudi Spring

By Madawi Al-Rasheed

Last spring, a young Saudi named Muhammad al-Wadani posted a YouTube video of himself calling for democracy, human rights, and more jobs. Echoing Egyptian protesters, he declared, "The people want the downfall of the regime." On March 7, shortly before a national day of protest planned online, he emerged from the al-Rajhi mosque in central Riyadh with a group of followers. Smiling and wearing an immaculate long white shirt, he held high a sign calling for peaceful demonstration. He was soon overwhelmed by plainclothes and bearded security forces who dragged him into their car and drove him to an unknown location.

Al-Wadani's Dawasir tribal elders rushed to Riyadh to renew their allegiance to the regime. They issued a statement disowning their son as irresponsible and prey to outside influence. In the Arabian Peninsula, defying the aging leadership amounts to the rejection of parental authority and God. The consequences are banishment and withdrawal of family support, protection, and financial help.

The message was clear. March 11-the intended "Day of Rage"-came and went without mass protest. Al-Wadani disappeared without a trace.

Those Saudis expecting the Arab Spring to bloom in their country were no doubt disappointed. Using its classic strategies-anti-Shia religious rhetoric, a powerful and Western-trained security force, and economic handouts-the regime crushed any signs of an uprising.

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The success of this carefully orchestrated response shows stark differences between Abdullah's kingdom and the recently fallen dictatorships of the Arab world. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Saudi Arabia has no civil society of any significance. As a result, online calls to protest-beloved of so many "cyber-utopians"-had no place to take root.

This is how the revolutionaries were swept away with the sandstorms.


• • •

Frustration among Saudis has deep roots. Since the start of his reign in 2005, King Abdullah has promised reform. But, despite those promises, Saudi Arabia remains an oil corporation run by a large royal dynasty. The regime has much in common with a private family business: it subcontracts certain functions to outsiders, who in turn develop a vested interest in the firm's success. For example, Saudi Arabia subcontracts its security to the United States and other Western players that rely on its oil.

At the age of 87, King Abdullah has assumed the role of the honorary patriarch. His half brother, Crown Prince Nayif, controls internal security. His other half-brother, Prince Salman, has controlled the Ministry of Defense since the death of Crown Prince Sultan last October. During the reign of King Faisal (1964-1975), Saudi Arabia was a highly centralized absolute monarchy, but in the last three decades it has become more diffuse, run by first-, second-, and third-generation princes, all descendants of the founder, King Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, who died in 1953.

The Al-Saud dynasty rules a country sitting on the world's largest proven oil reserves. The regime bans political parties and independent civil society organizations; restricts human rights; directs the judiciary; and, with the help of Western expertise and surveillance technology, commands extensive security and intelligence services.

Al-Saud princes dominate major state and social institutions-not just defense and internal security, but foreign affairs, sports, literary salons, embassies, charities, and universities. The regime claims there is no need for representative government or a written constitution because Saudis have direct access to their leaders in informal open councils, majlis, and the constitution is the Qur'an. Appointed governor-princes who report to the minister of interior rule the provinces.

With the consolidation of dynastic rule, Saudi subjects have been increasingly marginalized and disempowered. Tribal chiefs, religious scholars, and regional elites, who once were strong enough to exert pressure on the ruling family, have become regime functionaries. Policy is largely the prerogative of senior princes who control state institutions, not of technocrats.

Between 2000 and 2010, as Saudi oil revenues grew, activists presented several petitions to the king and key princes asking for political reform. There was no response. The leadership has typically answered such demands by arresting activists, co-opting them, or simply ignoring them. Instead of economic reform, the regime prefers to distribute benefits through development schemes. This approach may have near-term political benefits, but it has failed to stem unemployment. The official unemployment rate is above 10 percent, with unofficial estimates as high has 30 percent.

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Madawi Al-Rasheed is a Saudi-Arabian-born professor of social anthropology at the department of Theology and Religious Studies in King's College London.


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