Saudi ferment, and a king’s choice

Saudi Arabia’s ruling family is seeking to mollify discontent by spending some of its vast wealth. But that approach fails to meet the aspirations of a changing society, says Christoph Wilcke.
Christoph Wilcke
9 March 2011

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah will not have to break his piggy-bank to make good on his promise to hand out $36 billion to Saudi citizens. With foreign reserves of over $440 billion, and oil prices at over $100 a barrel, any such rainy day remains distant.

But it is unlikely that cash bundles will satisfy Saudis’ demands. The king needs to spend political capital. Saudi youth have become politically mobilised and are demanding changes to the archaic and absolute rule of the Al Saud family. They want a say in their country’s public affairs.

Many Saudis invested high hopes in Abdullah when he took the throne in 2005. The new king did break taboos by promoting women, and publicly declaring respect for other religions. He also supported freer expression and a fairer judiciary. But for ordinary Saudis, tangible changes remained elusive, and the daily oppression of a petty and unaccountable bureaucracy, untouchable rulers, and repressive policies have converged to produce a kind of subsidised straitjacket, particularly for young Saudis (around 40% of whom are jobless).

In January 2011, at least ten people died in flash-floods in Jeddah, which many blamed on badly planned infrastructure. The dramatic scenes of helicopter rescues reminded Saudis of similar floods there in November 2009 that killed over 120 people. At the time, the king demanded accountability. A year later, accountability is no longer the buzzword.

Against the wall of silence

The platforms of Saudi mobilisation in 2011 are, as elsewhere in the Arab world, Facebook and Twitter. During the king’s recent three-month medical leave, the government was paralysed as a mesmerised population followed the unfolding popular upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya. Khalid al-Tuwaijiri, the chief of the royal court, even opened a Facebook page to allow citizens  to present their views (it was quickly oversubscribed). Saudi youth set up their own Facebook pages under the banner: “The people demand reform of the regime.”

The demands remain, for now, confined to computer screens; so far Saudi city streets don’t smell of burning rubber and people have been spared a cobblestone to the head or the blow of a police baton.

Saudi Arabia bans public demonstrations. There are no political parties. The king makes Saudi law, enforces it, and has a hand in appointing judges. The registration for candidates standing in municipal-council elections is scheduled for April 2011, but  women may not participate.

There is tight censorship of print and local television media; the information minister (also on Facebook) approves chief editors and censors content. An executive regulation of 1 January 2011 seeks to restrict online media, and until the royal Facebook initiative the authorities routinely blocked human-rights websites (and other critical sites) on Facebook and elsewhere.

It remains risky for Saudis to speak out. On 16 February, a group of professors and intellectuals who announced their intention to set up a political party, the Islamic Nation Party, was arrested by domestic intelligence. More broadly, officials apparently calculate that they can force the genie of demands for popular participation back into the bottle by showering citizens with cash, and slightly loosening restriction on some mild expression, while clamping down on such manifestations of coordinated dissent.

The release of some political prisoners has been part of this mix; among them Professor al-‘Abd al-Karim, a consultant with the human-rights ministry who dared to reflect on his Facebook page about the kingdom’s future without the ruling family. But the consistent reflex of the ruling family is repressive. In 2004, intelligence agents rounded up organisers of petitions for a constitutional monarchy, better education, and an end to corruption. In 2007, they detained activists planning to form a political grouping - whose members remain in jail. In June 2010, a local governor had a bothersome human-rights campaigner, Shaikh Mikhlif al-Shammari, arrested and  charged with “annoying others”. He now faces terrorism-related charges over articles critical of extremist clerics.

But amid this pattern of constraint, something new has occurred: Saudis have broken the wall of silence and fear. The reasonableness of their demands is reflected in a Facebook letter to the king on 23 February: a review of basic laws, an elected parliament, a constitutional court, human-rights protection and promotion of women.

King Abdullah is 87, crown prince Sultan barely a year younger, and deputy prime minister Prince Nayef (the third in command) in his late 70s. The king is running out of time: both on his own account, and that of an obsolete form of government. Saudis know this, as they look across the region to discover that their unresponsive leadership is becoming the exception and not the norm.

It’s time to make history, and King Abdullah still commands his people’s respect to do it. But he needs to break his piggy-bank of political capital to transform Saudi Arabia into a state where rulers govern by consent and citizens - men and women alike - are free to express themselves and participate in shaping policy.

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