Many have noticed that little has changed in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia when much of the rest of the Middle East is in turmoil.
The writer notes that the protests, “concentrated in the Eastern Province fell short of producing a national consensus around demands for political reform”. He says the stability of the regime is as a result of “the country’s domestic stability has been attributed to a combination of three factors: the regime’s ability to rely on an influx of oil reserves to buy-off political unrest, its domestic alliance with a conservative religious establishment and powerful tribal groups as a means of dividing and controlling sources of dissent, and the long-standing support of Western powers for external security”.
He argues, largely correctly, that groups protesting the regime have lacked any cohesion and have been thus unable to rally mass support. Yet, interestingly, he implies that this choesion could soon come about. He mentions that “Official unemployment stands at 10 percent, but unofficial estimates place it as high as 20 percent. The latest official figures reveal that 670,000 families—approximately 3 million out of a total population of 18 million—live in poverty. Nor is hardship restricted to rural areas: a recent documentary on poverty in Riyadh, Maloub Alayna (The Joke’s on Us) recorded testimonies of families living on one meal a day, with as many as twenty people living in the same home”. Of course, those figures are large, but given the country’s high birthrate and large youth population, these figures are not all that surprising.
Even worse for the ruling family, he argues that “Saudi Arabia’s position as the leading exporter of oil is threatened by unrestrained domestic fuel consumption, which grows at 7 percent annually. At this rate, the Kingdom is set to become a net oil importer within the next twenty-five years. Long-term plans to diversify the economy have made little impact: the government derives almost 75 percent of its revenueand 90 percent of export earnings from oil, and the country still has the lowest GDP per capita within the Gulf Cooperation Council—lower than Oman or Bahrain”. Not only that, but some have speculated that the kingdom is not as wealthy as many think. Following on from this he notes, uncontroversially, that the $130 billion spending package/bribe given by the increasingly frail King Abdullah.
He adds that opposition is further stifled as a result of “the Al Saud have built a state fused around a single cultural and religious identity, to the exclusion of competing historic identities from the Hejaz and Eastern parts of the country. The benefits of this alliance to the regime are clear: as opposition activists began to mobilize in early 2011, the country’s Council of Senior Scholars issued a fatwa denouncing protests as ‘un-Islamic,’”. In addition to this he mentions how the tribal and religious elites have been co-opted into supporting the monarchy with ”key ministerial and military positions [which] have been delegated to a core of wealthy tribal families–institutionalizing powerful loyalties within the state and creating a strong elite with vested interests in the status quo”.
He adds worryingly, that “Institutionalized discrimination has fueled affinity with other Shi‘a abroad”, most obviously Iran. He concludes arguing that “the country faces a host of challenges that may provide the opportunity for the formation of cross-sectarian and cross-political alliances along a common set of demands, as demonstrated in 2003 when a group of liberals and Islamists from various sects signed a petition calling for democratic change”.
It is far from certain that the demands of these nebulous groups can and will be met, yet, on the other hand, if some gradual reform is not introduced the country could be known for much more than its oil reserves.