COMMENT: Saudi Arabia: the prized domino —Dr Mohammad Taqi - Thursday, March 10, 2011

Source :\03\10\story_10-3-2011_pg3_2

The Saudi regime is also acutely aware that, in the final analysis, the Shiite grievances are not merely doctrinal issues but stem from socioeconomic deprivation, as a result of religious repression and political marginalisation bordering on apartheid

As this column goes to press, many observers are anticipating that the ‘Day of Rage’ protests in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) or the ‘Hunayn revolution’ as some of the organisers have opted to call them, would actually go through on Friday, March 11, 2011. For the first time since the Shiite uprising of February-March 2009, the Kingdom’s security apparatus is now on the highest alert. An Israeli security analysis website ‘DebkaFile’ is reporting, however, that the protests have been called off. However, it is immaterial at this point whether the protest — large or small — takes place this Friday, as the Saudi regime has blinked first. Even before the first protestor marched onto the street, the monarchy’s nervousness has become palpable.

Three weeks ago we had noted in these pages that the Saudis were “deeply worried by the Bahrain-like events where the demographic makeup of the population and regime are lopsided and the socio-political unrest has the potential to topple the regime. Similar events in Kuwait can trigger uprisings by the population in the oil-rich eastern KSA, which can become a pain if not a threat for the kingdom.” And when the ageing Saudi monarch, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz returned home after surgery in New York and convalescence in Morocco, among those waiting for him on the tarmac was King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain, supposedly, to convey a ‘get well soon’ greeting. The Bahraini king had been summoned not because he could be overthrown but because such an overthrow would be perceived as a weakness of his patron in Riyadh. The message could not have been clearer: the prized Saudi domino itself was on the line now.

The Saudi state machinery has subsequently gone into overdrive to prevent any prominent demonstrations. The regime has resorted to both appeasement through a $ 37 billion ‘aid package’ to the Saudi people and a series of stern warnings. The Saudi interior ministry said last week that the “laws and regulations in the kingdom totally prohibit all kinds of demonstrations, marches and sit-in protests as well as calling for them as they go against the principles of shariah and Saudi customs and traditions”. The chairman of the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars of Saudi Arabia, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh provided the doctrinal façade for curbing the opposition. He stated: “The council affirms that demonstrations are forbidden in this country. The correct way in shariah of realising common interest is by consultation, which is what the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) established.” (One could not help but note the resemblance between the Sheikh’s words and the Saudi protégé General Ziaul Haq’s infamous statement that political opposition is prohibited in Islam.)

The reason for the Saudi regime being seriously concerned at the prospect of even a small protest is that since the 2009 uprisings a lot has changed in the Arab world. The brutal crackdown by the security forces on the Saudi Shia pilgrims in Madinah in February 2009 had largely gone unnoticed by the world. Subsequently, when a Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr in his March 13, 2009 Friday sermon in Awwamiyya called for the Shia to consider secession from Saudi Arabia if their rights were not respected, the state suppression was swift but did not make the headlines. But now, with the full glare of media turned on to the Middle East, the last thing the regime wants is an uprising that it may have to put down brutally.

However, the regime is even more alarmed about the demand for change coming from the kingdom’s Sunni population and the potential coalition building between the Sunni and Shiite opposition. Two out of the three main population centres in the KSA are the capital Riyadh, which has a population of over four million and the port city of Jeddah with over two million people. The Shia Muslim areas of Qatif and al-Ahsa in the eastern province, which sit on the vast oil reserves, have a population of another two million. While, in the absence of any history of organised political activity in KSA, the chances of all three regions erupting in protest are rather slim, this remains the regime’s worst nightmare.

The Saudi regime is also acutely aware that, in the final analysis, the Shiite grievances are not merely doctrinal issues but stem from socioeconomic deprivation, as a result of religious repression and political marginalisation bordering on apartheid. On the other hand, the sizeable young population of the Sunni areas with high unemployment rates is also demanding socioeconomic reform if not outright revolution. The economic dispossession and persecution in the Shia eastern province is nearly absolute, while in the Sunni areas it plays out as relative deprivation, where those farthest from the royal hub of the rentier state suffer the most. A regime that has perpetuated itself by playing off tribe against tribe and Sunni against Shia, dreads the people beginning to unite on a minimum socioeconomic agenda.

All the opposition groups in the KSA appear to have made common cause in demanding political reforms, a constitutional monarchy, release of political prisoners, full rights for the Shia minority and equal status for women. This is reflective of the general wave of changes across the Middle East and North Africa where no single ideology has become the rallying cry of the revolting masses. And, like the rest of the current reform movements, the Saudi opposition groups have not looked outward for inspiration or help. In fact, it is of utmost importance that the Shiite component of the Saudi opposition keeps Iran at arms length. Seeing its fortunes rise in the region, Iran is prone to overplay its hand, but it must remember that when Khomeini attempted to project power into the region, it triggered a massive response in Iraq and Pakistan. The Saudi monarchy would jump at a chance to label the movement foreign-sponsored and potentially unleash a Gaddafi-like repression against it.

It is unlikely that a protest or even a sustained movement can dislodge the Saudi regime, but it is equally unlikely that the $ 37 billion in bribes to the citizenry or half-hearted reforms can stop such campaigns forever. In fact, uneven economic development and partial political reform from above are the triggers for revolutions, not safety valves against them.

The writer can be reached at

No comments:

Post a Comment