News / Middle East

Could Unrest Hit Saudi Arabia?

Saudi riot police gather as Saudi Shi'ite protesters, unseen, chant slogans during a demonstration in Qatif, March 11, 2011
Saudi riot police gather as Saudi Shi'ite protesters, unseen, chant slogans during a demonstration in Qatif, March 11, 2011

The clamor for political change has gripped many nations of the Middle East, but Saudi Arabia has been a comparative oasis of calm. There is concern about the possible outbreak of political unrest there.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine says of those countries that so far have escaped the kinds of political protests that have forced change in Egypt and Tunisia, Saudi Arabia concerns her the most.

"There you have all the precursors that we’ve seen in other countries," she said. "You have a very aged leadership that is very narrow, very insular; a very young population; you have very large income disparity, unemployment."

Saudi authorities have firmly clamped down on any political demonstrations.  Small demonstrations in early March, primarily by minority Shi’ite Muslims in the restive Eastern Province, were quickly suppressed by security forces.

Emile Nakhleh, former head of the Political Islam Program at the Central Intelligence Agency, says the danger signal to watch for is an eruption of protest outside Eastern Province.

"Saudi Arabia, I would say, is the two-ton elephant in the room that nobody talks about.  I think Saudi Arabia is truly the country to watch.  And I think the signpost in Saudi Arabia that we need to look at as a sign of potential trouble is if there are some protests in places like Jeddah, not in the Eastern Province where the Shia live," said Nakhleh.

Jeddah is a comparatively liberal city in the kingdom, especially when compared to the capital, Riyadh. 

Calls for change

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah speaks to Saudi media upon his arrival at Riyadh airport, February 23, 2011
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah speaks to Saudi media upon his arrival at Riyadh airport, February 23, 2011

Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, dominated by conservative Sunni Muslims, that has little patience with any political opposition.  Yet, as Emile Nakhleh points out, some Saudis signed a petition to King Abdullah asking for change.

"A petition that was signed by over 200 Saudis from cross [all] walks of life demanded that - well, petitioned - the king to institute real change - a constitution, a parliament with legislative powers, independent judiciary. I mean, there were very real demands," said Nakhleh.

However, says Barbara Bodine, Saudi Arabia’s rulers may not be able to respond positively to such calls.

"I think one of the criteria on whether a government is able to adapt to the demands or break under the demands is whether or not it has the political institutions that will help it evolve very quickly," she said.  "And you don’t really have that in Saudi Arabia.  So I think I would watch Saudi Arabia as the next big one.  If Saudi Arabia were to start to fracture, I’m not sure what would hold it together."

Saudi intervention in Bahrain

Saudi Arabian troops cross the causeway leading to Bahrain in this still image taken from video, March 14, 2011
Saudi Arabian troops cross the causeway leading to Bahrain in this still image taken from video, March 14, 2011

In what may be the clearest example of Saudi Arabia’s unhappiness at calls for change, it sent a military force into neighboring Bahrain to help the Bahraini government stifle the protests there.  Analysts say the action was sparked by Saudi fears of purported Iranian sponsorship of the protests.  

But a new report by the International Crisis Group calls the Saudi fears unfounded.  It labels the Bahraini crackdown and the Saudi intervention "dangerous moves" that could exacerbate sectarian tensions since Bahrain has a Shi’ite majority population but a Sunni-dominated government.  

Emile Nakhleh notes that Arab states that backed the U.N. establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya have not supported the Saudi intervention in Bahrain.

"It’s very interesting that many Arabs have supported the Western no-fly zone over Libya and Western military attacks on Libya, but opposed Saudi intervention in Bahrain because they view the Saudi intervention in Bahrain as an anti-Shia thing rather than in defense of necessarily the Bahraini regime, but as a promoter of sectarianism," said Nakhleh.

How will US respond?

Saudi Arabia is a key U.S. ally in the region.  It is not known how the U.S. would respond if there is an outbreak of political upheaval and demand for change in the kingdom, especially if there is any intelligence indicating involvement of al-Qaida in the unrest.   Al-Qaida is bitterly opposed to the Saudi monarchy, especially for its alliance with the U.S. Al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden came from a wealthy Saudi family.  

There are also fears of steep increases in oil prices if unrest erupts as Saudi Arabia is the world’s second biggest oil producer, only slightly behind Russia.

Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
and discuss them on our Facebook page.

You May Like

ASEAN Ministers Set to Push for South China Sea Agreements

According to documents obtained by VOA Khmer, ministers will stand up for 'freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, trade and over flight' More

Puerto Rico Defaults on $58M Debt Payment

Payment was due Saturday, default is first in country's 117 years as a United States possession More

Turkish Public Fears Jihadists More Than Kurds

Turkey facing twin threats of terrorism by Islamic State and PKK Kurdish separatists, says President Erdogan’s ruling AK Party More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Communityi
X
Sharon Behn
August 03, 2015 2:23 PM
A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs