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More about Saudi Arabia and the future Days of Rage

11 March 2011

Summary:   Another brief about the situation in Saudi Arabia, looking deeper than the previous chapter (see the links at the end of this post).  Whatever happens today, the near future will see significant changes in this key region.  But perhaps not the changes we expect.

Most of what we know about foreign events comes from journalists on the scene.  Like this.  Reporting from the bar of a five star hotel.  Nothing to see; I’ve asked the barmaid.

“I don’t know from where my bosses in the States are getting all kind of weird stories — that tanks are rolling in the Eastern Province, that there is a curfew in many towns,” said one foreign journalist who has been combing the Eastern Province for two days in search of a story. “I am sitting here in one of the best-known hotels in Alkhobar, and everything is so normal.”  {Source:  Arab News}

Moving from the news back to the real world — The key factors for the Saudi protests, like that scheduled for today (it might be the first, but probably not the last):

  1. Will substantial numbers of people show up, especially Sunni?  Will they come from a broad range of Saudi society, different tribes and classes?
  2. How will the elderly Princes react?  Tolerantly?  Or ordering force?
  3. Will the security forces use force on their own people?  (We know they will shoot Shiites)
  4. Will the factions among the opposition work together?  Failure to do this has crippled the rebels in Libya.

When an authoritarian regime hits #3, that’s the end.  It’s evolution in action.

If the Saudi Princes go down, their neighbors probably will go down soon afterwards:  the UAE and Oman.   We know so little about internal conditions in Saudi Arabia, especially about the elites, that we can make no reliable predictions.  It’s like Kremlinology during the Cold War.  It and Egypt (the heart of the region) are in motion, and none (here or there) can say how the pieces will fit together when the winds slow down.

For a first-rate background on the tensions in Saudi Arabia see “Saudi Arabia: Royal Succession, Regional Turmoil“, Michael Wahid Hanna (see his bio), World Politics Review, 8 March 2011 — Much of the good analysis is still subscription-only, and WPR is among the best (well-worth the money).  This article is unlocked for a short-time only.  A few key excerpts:

  • Political repression has been common in Saudi Arabia, and independent political organizing not only has no role in the country’s political architecture but also is simply not tolerated. …
  • {T}he period of governmental transition resulting from each case of royal succession represents a unique point of vulnerability …
  • The most persistent internal dissent in the kingdom has revolved around issues of sectarian identity and the plight of the country’s Shiite citizens, who represent 10- 15% of the population. …
  • Generational and economic trends have exacerbated social divisions and created a pool of disenfranchised youth …
  • While {al Qaeda} has been contained in recent years by the government’s crackdown, its continued existence is a reminder of a more potent rejection of royal authority that retains some purchase with segments of Saudi society. It is also a reminder that the war on terrorism provided substantial cover for Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian Arab leaders to suppress opposition activity unconnected to terrorism. …
  • The calls for political reform now being issued primarily via the Internet should not be mistaken for a broad-based movement for social change. …
  • {T}he signs of a political awakening do exist, and real resentments over corruption among the royal family exacerbate disillusionment with the current political order. …

The last and most important point

Many of the candidates for the throne are more conservative than the King.  That tells us something about the future.

The trajectory and pace of Saudi Arabia’s internal reform and the nature of its diplomatic engagement and external relations will be impacted by succession, as differences in personality and outlook will have appreciable effects on policy choices. While Abdullah was deemed to be a conservative before becoming king, he has cultivated a reputation as a reformer within the Saudi context. During his stewardship and reign he has settled the border dispute with Yemen, ushered the kingdom into the World Trade Organization, overseen some level of privatization of state industries, inaugurated educational reforms and made symbolic gestures toward rights for Shiites and women.

Even this relative and quite modest progress toward implementing gradual reforms might be halted or reversed in the near term, however. Sultan is perceived as a cautious and very conservative figure who has disagreed with many of Abdullah’s initiatives. Nayef is a demonstrably pious figure who, having already opposed the holding of municipal council elections, is also assumed to be less likely to undertake even a modest reform agenda. Other credible candidates for the monarchy, such as Prince Salman, the current mayor of Riyadh, are also perceived to be more cautious figures than Abdullah.

Despite expectations in Washington, the younger generation might be more Islamic, less tolerant of western culture, less supportive of democratization, and less accommodating of Israel.  Many Saudis see these things as challenges to their values, their way of life.  The future might bring a shift away from the West.

In some ways this might narrow the gap between the Princes (behind their walls of wealth and debauchery) and their people.  Western culture undermines the basis of their religion, devaluing what they consider highest. We are the Pied Piper, stealing their children.  From this perspective, the Princes’ political alliance with the West weakens their legitimacy — a problem the next generation of Saudi rulers might fix.

This brings us to one of the West’s great fear, that the tide of history now runs against us.  That secular humanitarian regimes might be a phase in history. The belligerence of Islamic fundamentalists, the natural violence of the true believer, carving out an ever-larger space in our public spaces (see this about Europe).  Their high fertility rates and our below-replacement rates make evolution itself their ally and our enemy.  We might be literally letting Islam inherit the Earth (demographics is a multi-generational game).

This resembles a classic set-up for wars.  Two cultures that fear each other — neither of which understands the other.

For more information

Other posts about Saudi Arabia:

  1. The world changed last week – with no headlines in the news, 25 April 2008
  2. When will global oil production peak? Ask the CIA!, 1 May 2008
  3. Red Alert: the Saudi Princes have announced the arrival of Peak Oil, 11 July 2009
  4. A solution to our financial problems: steal wealth from other nations, 2 February 2009
  5. Red alert: Friday’s “Day of Rage” in Saudi Arabia could rock the world, 10 March 2011

About Libya: 

About Egypt:

Posts about Islam:

  1. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy, 1 March 2006
  2. Are islamic extremists like the anarchists?, 14 December 2009
  3. Hatred and fear of Islam – of Moslems – is understandable. But are there hidden forces at work?, 3 August 2010
  4. Should we fear that religion whose believers have killed so many people?, 4 August 2010

See posts about al Qaeda here.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Post-game analysis of the second Day of Rage, permalink
    12 March 2011 12:32 am

    Saudi Arabian security forces quell ‘day of rage’ protests“, The Guardian, 11 March 2011 — Excerpt:

    Heavy police presence and official warnings deter protests in Riyadh and result in small demonstrations in eastern provinces

    … Security in Riyadh was high-profile and intense, with helicopters hovering overhead and police checks on cars and individuals heading for mosques, where protests were expected after prayers. “Police cruisers were given orders to pull over any car,” tweeted Mohammed al-Qahtani, president of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association. “I saw several cars being searched by officers, and they checked IDs.”

    Disappointed activists counted more policemen and journalists than demonstrators. “Where were all these policemen and helicopters when Jeddah was drowning?” asked one Saudi — a sardonic reference to the floods that devastated the Red Sea coastal city twice in the last two years and fuelled anger and resentment at government incompetence.

    … Activists had used a Facebook page to call for protests but many reformist Saudis said they did not know who the organisers were and raised concerns of a possible provocation by the secret police in a country where demonstrations are rare.

    Like

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