Protesters chant slogans and hold posters of prisoners during a protest in Qatif on March 9, 2011. The banner reads: «Peacefully, Peacefully,» / Reuters
Recent demonstrations and violence in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province that left four people dead and nine others wounded raise the question: Is Saudi Arabia the next country that will encounter the wave of popular unrest sweeping the Arab world?
Already the Arab uprisings’ effects have been felt in Saudi Arabia. In February and March, soon after Mubarak’s overthrow in Egypt, Saudi Facebook activists began calling for a revolution and declared a «Day of Rage» for March 11, emulating the youth activists in Egypt and Tunisia. However, the «Day of Rage» fizzled out, and demonstrations were held only in the Eastern Province, home to Saudi’s restive Shia minority.
Since then, things have been relatively quiet, at least until recently. One reason is that unlike Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and Libya, which are technically republics, Saudi Arabia is a monarchy run by the Al Saud family. So far, the Arab monarchies have been better suited to absorb discontent. In many of the region’s monarchies, while the king maintains ultimate control, power is more diffuse and thus the top leaders are able to deflect some criticism. Monarchies have so far proven to have greater legitimacy in the eyes of their countrymen than have the faux-republics. That doesn’t mean that they are immune to unrest, as we have seen in Jordan and Bahrain, the latter though is anomalous in that a Sunni minority rules over a Shiite majority. But they are better positioned to manage it.
Saudi Arabia’s unique status as the «custodian of the two holy places,» Mecca and Medina, also confers legitimacy on the kingdom’s rulers. As the birthplace of Islam, and with an official religious establishment recognized well beyond the country’s borders, the Arabian kingdom ultimately exercises authority through religion and through the ruling family’s alliance with the Wahabi clerical establishment.
But the Saudis are not taking any chances, and throughout the region’s uprisings, the royal family has employed a combination of sticks and carrots to help ensure domestic tranquility. Saudi troops have been deployed in force to deter any possible unrest. Thus far, any domestic turbulence has been contained to the Shia areas of Saudi Arabia, far from the majority Sunni population areas.
At the same time, Saudi largesse has been more widely distributed through massive aid packages and wage increases. In February King Abdullah introduced a domestic aid program worth $37 billion. The King rolled out an even more comprehensive $97 billion aid package on March 18. He provided $70 billion alone for five hundred thousand units of low-income housing and sent $200 million as a reward to the religious establishment. Additionally, the king upped unemployment benefits, paid a bonus worth two months’ salary to public servants, and increased the education allowance for all students.
Fortunately for the kingdom, the nine million barrels of oil Saudi produces each day provide tremendous revenue for it to dole out these kinds of subsidies. Moreover, this income, combined with Saudi’s huge cash reserves, estimated at $400 billion, allows the ruling family to maintain comprehensive security and intelligence apparatuses, the ability to wield huge influence over both domestic and international media, and the general ability to quell unrest by throwing money at problems.
One key challenge for the country is the high unemployment among the young. Youth unemployment in Saudi Arabia is estimated at 25 percent or higher. Providing a promising future for these educated younger Saudis is a major challenge to the kingdom, despite its overall wealth.
The other key variable that could trigger real instability centers on succession to the relatively moderate King Abdullah who is eighty-seven years-old and ailing. Abdullah has introduced some progressive policies by holding municipal elections in September and calling for women to be allowed to vote in the next municipal elections scheduled for 2015. But the recently appointed Crown Prince, Nayef, is viewed as a social conservative unlikely to adopt progressive policies for the kingdom. Despite reassuring Vice President Biden that his policy aim would be one of continuity in terms of reform and closeness with the United States, it is difficult to predict how he’ll guide the kingdom should he succeed Abdullah. At seventy-eight years-old, Nayef’s own reign is not likely to last long, if it occurs at all. And his perceived closeness to the conservative religious establishment could trigger discontent among liberals.
For now, the kingdom seems stable. Through its rapid intervention in Bahrain, and deployment of troops at home, Saudi leadership has signaled that popular dissent will be met with swift resistance. And the spread of largesse and minimal reforms have served as a palliative to a largely passive population.
Nonetheless, the kingdom is likely to face some significant succession challenges in the not too distant future. How the Al Saud family manages its upcoming successions will be pivotal for Saudi Arabia’s stability. Tumult in the succession process could provide an opening for popular unrest to billow out–especially if uprisings continue to ignite the broader region in the months and years to come.