The Arabian Peninsula has recently been subject to, what has widely been called, the Arab world’s home brew wave of revolution. The most iconic of these has been the revolution in Egypt that saw millions take to the street – forcing the incumbent president to flee in the wake of peaceful protests that barely lasted a fortnight. In context, the bloodiest of these has been the ongoing wave of protests in Libya that have seen hundreds already fall to the violence inflicted by the state military. The most significant of these, however, has yet to take place.
Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s political and economic heavy weight, has so far remained sheltered from the tide that is counting down Arab monarchies and dictatorial rules, one after the other. Analysts, however, have been quick in forming the view that the oil exporter, too, is ripe for change. They cite socioeconomic indicators, demographic breakdowns and unemployment numbers to support their case. And whilst the conditions in Saudi Arabia are, no doubt, not very different from those prevailing in its neighboring Arab countries, whether or not the Arab youth – which comprises almost two thirds of the country’s native demographic – can be galvanized for such a cause is a question that few have been able to answer.
One of the more popular facts that are being thrown around, with rough approximations, is the demographic break down of the native population. Almost 70 % of the native population is under 30 years of age and approximately 40 % of this population is unemployed. This, of course, is notwithstanding the 22% of the population that lives below the poverty line in what is one of the largest Arab economies. Interestingly, while all of these numbers are traded around in most academic discussions about any impending revolution in Saudi Arabia, one very important facet is often ignored: the willingness of the Arab youth to take the initiative. The attempts at an organized protest against the government so far – one in mid February and another on 11th March – failed miserably when, despite several hundred confirmed attendees, protesters failed to even make it to triple digits amidst heavy presence of security contingents.
Fortunately, this mindset seems to have changed already, within the span of one short fortnight after the alleged murder of one of the chief organizers of one such protest rally by state security forces. This is being viewed largely as the wake up call and the impetus that the Saudi revolution movement needed. The fact that a human life was the much-needed shot in the arm should be a testament to just how severely desensitized the Saudi youth has become to its own predicament. This is a country where the economic disparity between a large royal family comprising of a few hundred members and the rest of the 26 million population is the difference between a several hundred billion dollar economy and a $24,000 per capita income, this is a statement indeed.
At this point, many people are criticizing the Saudi King’s attempt to bribe his ‘subjects’ into submission with the recent announcement of $37 billion in reforms and social uplift as too little too late. The fact, however, is that this year’s reforms have only come to light because of the fast spreading tide of uprisings across the Arabian peninsula. King Abd’ Allah bin Abd’al Aziz has been offering similar, albeit smaller, reform packages as token payments to his people since as early as 2005-06. If the correlation between aide packages, civil unrest and the inside reports of the socioeconomic conditions in Saudi Arabia are to be trusted, then the government has been pacifying its people with token money for one too many years. Now might finally be a good time to set its house in order lest the people finally wake up for once.
Right now, all signs are pointing towards just that. With growing activism and increasing state censuring (many times by virtue of force) of all such activities – the Saudi youth are finding themselves running out of options despite wanting the incumbent government to persist. Unfortunately, in case of a revolution, the Saudi youth might still find themselves stranded with the same problems, only this time, there would be no one else left to blame or to placate their problems. The power vacuum left, in the wake of a potential ouster of the monarchy, will leave a gaping hole in the fabric of the Arab political set up that will leave political actors scrambling for a piece of the pie.
This is a situation that the Saudis are neither used to nor equipped to handle. They have been a people used to the luxuries that are allowed to them by their rulers and any signs of discontent over their lot in life has been trampled with abandon by the ruling elite. Seeing a real opportunity to make amends to their predicament might see them rushing for a change, but the immediate future after that is a looming uncertainty. In such a situation, public health reforms, education and employment opportunities are not something that will be easy to come by or to set up. Somehow, this is something that the current crop of protesters have realized and they are, thus, demanding smaller changes that do not result in the immediate ouster of the ruling family but instead result in constitutionalization of the political set up and a more transparent governing body. This does not seem to sit well with the royal house, which is instead willing only to offer extravagant uplift reforms and an iron fist on the dissenting with no promise of transparency or a constitution.
Such an offer, which does not really imply any real participation on part of the public in the governing body, is not what the ‘revolutionaries’ want. And if plans proceed in line with the path that they are being driven to take, the resulting power vacuum will result in even greater unrest and uncertainty. Instability and an ouster in the most influential of the Arab countries will encourage the tide to turn over and spread across those Arab nations as well which have so far largely been bystanders to the show, regardless of what becomes of Saudi Arabia’s internal crises. Such a sudden change will not bode well for the Western powers who have vested interests in the region. These are major oil consumers and have invested extensively in the power corridors of these nations. That a revolution in Saudi Arabia could spark a revolution in the entirety of the Arab world makes this movement even more focal to the Arab cause of nationalism.
Moreover, the fact that any disruption in the daily proceedings in Saudi Arabia could disrupt the entire oil supply chain amongst the entirety of the OPEC drives this point home even more. This is both worrisome and problematic for the West that depends exclusively on this region to fuel both their economies and their wars, with the fortunes of the US especially tied to those of this region. It is a given that US will have to deal cautiously with this situation and consider carefully which side it opts for and proceed even more cautiously with its dealings with whosoever comes into power next, provided there is a change of hands at the helm. Since it is now a tradition amongst the larger Muslim community, barring the ruling elite, to blame most and many of their misfortunes on the west – the US specifically, how the US proceeds from here will be the highlight to watch out for. It will, without doubt have to deal with an unsatisfied Muslim leadership on its hands – one that might be difficult to befriend. In either case, there will be no easy decision for the Obama administration to make since a large part of its economy is dependent on the Arab, and more specifically the Saudi, oil exports.
The conditions in Saudi Arabia may be ripe for the revolution; the nepotism amongst its ruling elite pushing for a change and the oppression amongst its populace fueling the fire. However, the hanging question mark remains – will the Saudi youth be able to awaken from its slumber on schedule come 18th, and what will be the price? More importantly, are the Saudi people ready to take on the responsibility and the challenge that a democracy will throw their way and is the west ready for it?
As published on Future Challenges.