In addition to these secular gifts, the king funded new religious centers to spread the Wahhabi message and Hanbali jurisprudence, the predominant school of religious law among Saudi Sunnis. The new facilities will encourage the memorizing of the Qur'an and missionary work inside and outside Saudi Arabia. The goals are not solely pious. The religious police, who saw their own slice of the extra funding, don't only monitor public morality-they also spy on the population. And, with more jobs available, the religious bureaucracy will be able to absorb religious graduates who are of no use to modern economies.
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About two weeks after the failed mass protests, Chas Freeman, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, gave a lecture at the Asia Business Forum in Riyadh.
He unequivocally asserted that there is no great power other than the United States capable of defending the Gulf. He called the Bahraini protesters an "unruly mob" and applauded the Saudis for their quick response to the Iranian challenge. As a retired diplomat, he does not represent official American views. But having seen that the United States could not save Mubarak once popular protest was in full swing, Saudi leaders took heart in Freeman's commitment to the status quo in Bahrain.
So far Washington has remained silent on political reform in Saudi Arabia and maintained its special relationship with its most important regional ally. But should pressure start coming from the West, the Saudi regime knows how to exploit its allies' weak spots: fear of terrorism and an insatiable appetite for oil and military contracts. The Bahraini episode, in which the West stood idle as the Saudis overran protesters, demonstrated clearly that the United States, Britain, France, and other Western countries still prefer security to democracy in oil-rich regions. After Bahrain, there can be no doubt of the hypocrisy of these liberal democracies. Authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia's thrive on it.
For the moment, the Saudi regime has avoided real turbulence. Religious bans on demonstrations, anti-Shia sectarianism, heavy policing, and economic rewards effectively halted the momentum toward mass protest. Digital activism will continue to provide an outlet to a population denied basic freedom. But with popular unrest largely under wraps and the West silent, the regime faces no threat in the short term.
Saudi Arabia's experience of the Arab Spring demonstrates that it lacks the structural conditions for mobilization, organization, and protest, let alone revolution. The economic and social deprivation, political oppression, and corruption that triggered revolutions elsewhere are all present in Saudi Arabia, but these alone are not sufficient to precipitate an uprising. Saudi Arabia does not have trade unions-the majority of its working population is foreign, which has stunted the growth of organized labor-a women's movement, or an active student population, three factors that helped to make protests in Tunis and Cairo successful. Elsewhere in the Arab world, in the absence of these important factors, revolt stumbled, turned violent, and could not progress without serious foreign intervention. Libya is a case in point.
And that foreign intervention won't come in Saudi Arabia, where oil ensures unconditional support from Western governments. Tunisia and Egypt were Western allies too, but they lack the kinds of resources that deter foreign meddlers. The same resources that also enable the Saudi king to appease the people.
Finally, the Saudi case attests to the limits of cyber-utopianism, the optimism surrounding the so-called Twitter and Facebook revolutions. The Web is useful for publicizing action, but where the state is the only institution that matters, effectively bringing people together offline may be impossible.
If the delayed Arab Spring eventually reaches Saudi Arabia, it will likely be a bloody affair. Violent opposition is nothing new in Saudi Arabia, where jihadis have fought the state since 2003, and regime opponents took up arms in 1927, 1965, and 1979. In the absence of a tradition of peaceful protest and in the face of religiously sanctioned bans on even nonviolent activism, aggression against the regime and its enablers may again become the only option.