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.