The Arab Spring is not over. Anger at decades of corruption, oppression and tyranny continues to generate dissent across the Middle East and North Africa. But as vitalizing as the revolutionary moment has been, the forces of counterrevolution have been equally powerful. Entrenched regimes have unleashed a combination of measures aimed at either crushing the Arab Spring or minimizing its potential impact on the political and economic status quo.
Nowhere is this truer than in Saudi Arabia. With the exception of a few small protests and a highly visible movement by Saudi women demanding the right to drive, the ruling Al Saud have yet to face any serious challenge to their power. The likelihood of a Saudi uprising has been and continues to be low. The ruling elite, as well as a string of observers in the West, argue that this is mostly because Saudis see the monarchy as more legitimate than other autocracies in the region. Although King Abdullah’s popularity is impossible to measure, commentators also frequently refer to it as a compelling reason there has been no significant challenge to the system.
But the absence of public protest has little to do with the legitimacy of the ruling family, the uncertain popularity of an aged autocrat or the purported conservative nature of Saudi society. Many Saudis, whether pious or not, harbor deep frustrations with the country’s rulers. They share the same grievances about injustice, oppression and stifling corruption that have mobilized protesters elsewhere.
The quiet that predominates in the heart of Saudi Arabia is the result of several factors, including fear of the dangers a political vacuum might unleash and, most important, fear of the coercive power of the regime. The kingdom is also using its extensive wealth to buy off dissent. In mid-March, when it appeared that restive subjects might organize the kinds of protests that toppled the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, Saudi leaders urgently announced more than $100 billion in new spending to undermine the forces of mobilization. The regime long ago mastered the craft of using its vast oil wealth to ply citizens with economic inducements and social services in exchange for political quiescence.
The emergency spending package was a predictable move. Rather than being loyal subjects, Saudi citizens are pragmatic rent seekers who understand that their material fortunes are closely tied to the fate of the ruling family and the existing regime. Even though oil wealth is not distributed evenly and large segments of the population suffer from unemployment and even poverty, with oil prices currently running at historic highs, most in the kingdom enjoy relative prosperity. Revolution lacks appeal in times of plenty.
The ruling elite are also leaning on the country’s religious establishment for ideological backing, and the clerics have thrown their support behind the royal family. Scholars on the official payroll have declared protests to be un-Islamic and have accused democracy advocates of being agents of Western imperialism. It is difficult to gauge how influential the clerical defense of the status quo has been. Aside from the ruling family, the privileged class of religious scholars have the most to lose should the kingdom come undone. The regime not only relies on them for support but has also given them a virtual monopoly over public discussion. There are few meaningful alternative voices in the public sphere—not because alternatives do not exist but because they have largely been silenced. The result is that the clergy’s prominence and power have been exaggerated.
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There are risks for the Al Saud in empowering the religious establishment too much. The Saudi-clerical relationship has often been strained, particularly by the more radical wings of the scholarly community. These scholars have supported militancy in the past and periodically questioned the credibility of the royal family. Most notably, Riyadh worries about the potential power of a resurgent wave of domestic terrorism. For now, though, it views democracy as a far more dangerous threat.
But oil, Islam and patronage do not fully explain the caution of Saudi Arabia’s subjects. The regime is also using its considerable police, intelligence and military resources to make clear that the toll of dissent will be high. Few inside the kingdom have any doubt that those who publicly defy the regime would face the kind of violence meted out against protesters in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain. It is deep fear of the personal consequences of disobedience, more than anything else, that has kept the country quiet. While officials talk in patronizing tones about the paternal relationship they maintain with their subjects, the reality is that the elite despise those over whom they rule. The state tightly limits the ability of citizens to organize. Authorities impose stiff penalties, including the loss of work as well as imprisonment and torture, on those who press too boldly for political rights or who criticize the regime. Surveillance and harassment, particularly of young men and women, are structural features of the political order.
The oppressive capacity of the Saudi regime was in place well before the start of the Arab Spring. When faced with even the distant possibility of unrest, leading officials revealed their harsh instincts. In the spring the country’s usually soft-spoken foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, threatened to cut off the fingers of anyone who challenged the ruling family. An increasingly heavy police presence has closed off any possibility of public assembly.
While the threat of violence has been enough to dissuade most from heading to the streets, there have been small protests in Riyadh and in the oil-rich Eastern Province. The most visible would-be revolutionaries have been a vocal group of women who have grown tired of the country’s gender apartheid. Women activists have called for the right to vote in upcoming municipal elections as well as the right to drive. Authorities have responded harshly to even the smallest demonstrations. Since the spring hundreds of Saudis have been arrested, including Manal al-Sharif, who was detained for nine days in late May for videotaping herself driving. She was released only after signing a statement promising she would cease her activism, a vow she likely made under considerable duress.
And while Saudi security forces have yet to turn their gun sights on fellow citizens, the kingdom sent a clear signal that it was willing to sanction and use violence to crush any potential uprising when it dispatched more than 1,000 members of the National Guard to neighboring Bahrain in March. Bahrain, a virtual protectorate of Saudi Arabia, occupies a central place in Riyadh’s domestic and regional political calculus. The Saudis view the ruling regime in Manama as a front line of defense against Iran, the kingdom’s most powerful regional rival. When street protests there threatened to topple the regime, Saudi Arabia provided direct support in what turned out to be a protracted and brutal crackdown. Although the scale of violence in Bahrain was smaller than elsewhere in the region—the country has fewer than a million native citizens—it was nonetheless horrifying. Bahrain’s leaders claim they are interested in pursuing a political resolution to the crisis, but the crackdown is ongoing, and Saudi forces remain in the country.
Because most of Bahrain’s democracy movement is made up of Shiites, there has been limited outward support for it in Saudi Arabia. Anti-Shiite sectarianism runs deep in the kingdom, and the country’s official religious orthodoxy considers Shiism to be a form of Islamic heresy. Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority, which makes up around 10 percent of the population and is concentrated in the Eastern Province, endures considerable discrimination and persecution. Whatever the sectarian sensibilities of most Saudi citizens, the message of the crackdown in Bahrain was clear. So too were the limits of regime tolerance for public dissent.
The Saudi regime is not resting on its existing capacity to sustain an effective counterrevolutionary campaign. Already the world’s largest consumer of weapons from the United States—the kingdom agreed to a $60 billion arms purchase last year—the Saudis recently concluded an agreement to buy 200 advanced Leopard tanks from Germany. Since the heyday of the 1970s oil boom, the kingdom has devoted significant resources to weapons purchases, and yet it remains entirely unable to provide for its own external defense. It continues to be wholly reliant on the United States and its European allies for its regional security. This suits Riyadh just fine, since assurances from foreign powers allow the kingdom to direct its military and security forces toward breaking up protests, targeting its own citizens if necessary and intervening to protect its closest allies.
While much of their energy has been directed at securing political order at home and in the Gulf, Saudi leaders have also sought to minimize the impact of revolutions further afield. Although their influence has proven limited, the Saudis have tried either to preserve as much of the regional status quo as possible or to make political gains at the expense of regional rivals, including Libya and Iran.
With Saudi Arabia in the lead, the Gulf Arab states reached out to fellow monarchies in Jordan and Morocco, suggesting that they join the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is ostensibly concerned with protecting regional security. The GCC has a less than remarkable record as a security framework, but the organization’s support for fellow monarchies sent a clear signal that the Gulf states were committed to taking dramatic measures to keep more regimes from falling to the forces of democratic upheaval. Even in Yemen, where the Saudis attempted to broker a change in power, their aim was not to usher in a new political order. Rather, they have tried to use their considerable patronage to install a new but familiar constellation of tribal and family forces that would be loyal to the Al Saud. Yemen’s political future is uncertain, but it is a certainty that Saudi Arabia will continue to try to buy influence there.
Saudi Arabia has not upheld the status quo everywhere, however. The kingdom has undermined political elites where its leaders believe they stand to gain ground politically. Riyadh showed its most determined support for the Arab Spring in Libya, where it backed the imposition of a no-fly zone and a policy of regime change through the Arab League. But Saudi encouragement of the no-fly zone was not an expression of support for the end of autocracy. King Abdullah has long loathed Muammar el-Qaddafi, whom he considers an irritant and an obstacle to Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of leadership in the Arab world, which will be enhanced if the Libyan tyrant falls. Saudi support for the no-fly zone also had the effect of creating space for Riyadh to intervene militarily in Bahrain without incurring criticism from its Western allies, most important the United States. After maintaining an ambivalent posture on Syria, where Bashar al-Assad’s regime has engaged in a sustained and violent crackdown on its people, Riyadh only recently condemned the violence and withdrew its diplomats. The decision was not an indication that Saudi leaders had suddenly discovered compassion for the oppressed or for the forces of populism there. Rather, after hedging for months, Saudi Arabia now sees the fall of Assad’s regime, an ally of Tehran, as an opportunity to erode Iranian influence in the Levant. Should Qaddafi and Assad both fall from power, Saudi Arabia would prefer to see friendly strongmen take over.
For now, the kingdom has bought itself time and short-term stability at home and in the region. But rather than resolving the problems that could potentially mobilize Saudi subjects against their rulers in the future, the regime is making them considerably worse.