On Thursday, much of the global media remained fixated on the continuing turmoil in Libya, but STRATFOR’s attention was drawn to Saudi Arabia. According to a DPA report, a Saudi youth group called for a peaceful demonstration on Friday in the kingdom’s western Red Seaport city of Jeddah, in an expression of solidarity with anti-government protesters in Libya. The group, calling itself Jeddah Youth for Change, distributed a printed statement throughout Riyadh asking people to demonstrate near the al-Beia Roundabout and vowed not to give up its right to demonstrate peacefully.
Ever since the mass risings spread from Tunisia to other parts of the Arab world, the key question has been whether or not the Saudi kingdom could experience similar unrest. The reason why this question is posed is two-fold: 1) The country is the world’s largest exporter of crude, and any unrest there could have massive ramifications for the world’s energy supply; and, 2) The Saudi socio-political culture is such that public demonstrations have been an extremely rare occurrence.
The behavior of the Saudi leadership since the ouster of the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents in the face of public agitation does show signs of grave concern regarding the potential for the regional tsunami of unrest permeating the borders of the kingdom.Domestically, the Saudi state announced a new $11 billion social welfare package. Regionally, the Saudis have been working hard to ensure that the protests in bordering countries do not destabilize those states (particularly Bahrain and Yemen), which could have a spillover effect into the kingdom.
“The Saudis will have to balance between the need to sustain old relationships such as those with the ulema class and new ones with the Shiite minority and liberal segments of society.”
Since the establishment of their first polity in 1744, the Saudis have demonstrated remarkable resilience and skill in dealing with challenges to their authority. They have weathered a litany of problems in their nearly 270-year history. These include a collapse of their state in the face of external aggression on two occasions (1818 and 1891), feuds within the royal family leading to the abdication of a monarch (1964), the assassination of a second at the hands of a nephew (1975), challenges from the country’s highly influential and expansive ulema class (1960s and 1990s), and rebellions mounted by religious militants on three occasions (1929, 1979 and 2003-04).
One of the reasons for the Saudi ability to effectively deal with these threats is the unique architecture of the state and its societal norms. Unlike many of the other authoritarian Arab countries, the Saudi state is not a vertical one detached from the average individual; instead it is very much rooted in the horizontal masses. The House of Saud is not the typical elite royal family; on the contrary, it is connected to the entire tribal landscape of the country through marriages.
In addition to the tribal social organization, there is a considerable degree of homogeneity of religious and cultural values. The historical relationship between the House of Saud and the Wahhabi religious establishment has proven effective in sustaining the legitimacy of the regime. Reinforcing all these bonds is the country’s oil wealth.
This arrangement has served the Saudis well for a very long time. But it now appears that they have reached a significant impasse — for a number of reasons.
First, the kingdom is due for a major leadership change considering that the king and the top three princes are extremely old and could die in fairly quick succession. Second is the rise of the kingdom’s archrival, Iran, and its Arab Shiite allies (in Iraq, Lebanon and nowBahrain), which represents the biggest external threat to the kingdom. Third, the regional wave of popular unrest, demanding that the region’s autocratic regimes make room for democracy, is something the Saudis have not had to deal with thus far.
The configuration of the Saudi state and society will likely serve as an arrester in the path of any serious unrest. This means Saudi Arabia is unlikely to be immediately overwhelmed by protests, as has been the case with Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain. But the kingdom is unlikely to contain such pressures for long, especially as a new generation of leaders assumes the mantle.
The future rulers will likely build upon the cautious reforms that have been spearheaded by King Abdullah in recent years. But in the emerging regional climate, it will be difficult to manage the pace and direction of reforms. The Saudis will have to balance between the need to sustain old relationships such as those with the ulema class and new ones with the Shiite minority and liberal segments of society.