No Saudi Spring: Anatomy of a Failed Revolution
March 8, 2012
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.
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.
Transparency International consistently ranks Saudi Arabia high on the list for corruption. On personal and religious freedom, Saudi Arabia’s record is equally bad; it even lags behind other Arab and Gulf countries, according to Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other human rights observers. Its universities remain underdeveloped, failing to prepare graduates for a competitive job market. The country hosts over 8 million expatriate workers. Despite successive “Saudization” programs aimed at increasing the employment of natives in the private sector, only 13 percent of private sector workers are Saudi. Women are hardest hit by unemployment; 78 percent of women graduates are unemployed, compared to 16 percent of men.
It is in this context of repression and economic hardship that planning for the ill-fated Day of Rage commenced. It was preceded by two online petitions that began circulating after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. The regime moved quickly to censor the sites hosting the petitions, but hundreds rushed to sign them. Echoing a 2003 petition, the 2011 “Declaration of National Reform” demanded the regime’s gradual evolution toward constitutional monarchy with a written constitution, independent civil society, and elected local government in the provinces.
The demand for independent civil society demonstrates a lack of faith in existing organizations, such as the government-appointed human rights associations. And the interest in regional autonomy reflects recent corruption scandals related to land development and confiscation, which led to serious flooding and deaths in several Saudi cities. In February of last year, ten people drowned in Jeddah and hundreds of houses were swept away.
Immediately after this petition was posted, a diverse group of moderate Islamists and activists released a second. Reiterating a commitment to Islamic principles, this petition made no call for constitutional monarchy or regional government. The new petition, “Toward a State of Institutions and Rights,” asked for an elected national assembly, an independent prime minister, an end to administrative corruption, freedom of speech, independent associations, release of all political prisoners, and the lifting of a travel ban applied to activists. Within days, the petition attracted more than 5,000 signatures.
While the first petition attracted a “liberal” constituency, the second one had more Islamists among its signatories. The first appealed to civil and human rights while the second invoked Islamic rhetoric.
Both petitions were moderate. Neither called for the overthrow of the regime. Nor did they call for public demonstrations. In each case, authors were careful not to involve open opposition outside Saudi Arabia—for example, from the U.K.-based Sunni Islamist group MIRA, the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia.
Reformers told me that they refrained from taking a more radical stance to avoid arrest and accusations of sewing chaos or working with “outside agents.” Signatories insisted on staying close to previous reform agendas and pledged allegiance to the king. Most of the activists were either well-known veterans of reform, such as Muhammad Said al-Tayib and Abdullah al-Hamid, or young people who spread the petitions on Facebook and Twitter.
The protests reflected a growing sense of disappointment with King Abdullah, who has failed to implement a single political demand from previous petitions. However, in spite of their disappointment, reformers from a wide range of political ideologies—Islamists, nationalists, leftists, and liberals—are being cautious because the future could be worse. Many intellectuals and professionals are haunted by the prospect of losing their positions when Crown Prince Nayif becomes king. Abdullah has developed a quasi-liberal constituency and cultivated its interest in the state, business, and media. Reformers nonetheless loyal to Abdullah fear that Nayif’s iron fist will come down on them: functionaries of the ancien régime to be replaced…