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

Multimedia Obama Defends Immigration Action

Obama says with his executive action on immigration, enforcement resources will be focused on 'felons, not families; criminals, not children' More

US-Led Airstrikes in Syria Kill Over 900: Monitoring Group

British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the toll includes more than 50 civilians, five of them women and eight of them children More

Report: Obama Broadens US Combat Role in Afghanistan

The New York Times says resident Barack Obama has signed a classified order extending the role of US troops in Afghanistan for another year 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.
New Skateboard Defies Gravityi
X
November 21, 2014 5:07 AM
A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Gay Evangelicals Argue That Bible Does Not Condemn Homosexuality

More than 30 U.S. states now recognize same-sex marriages, and an increasing number of mainline American churches are blessing them. But evangelical church members- which account for around 30 percent of the U.S. adult population - believe the Bible unequivocally condemns homosexuality. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender evangelicals are coming out. Backed by a prominent evangelical scholar, they argue that the traditional reading of the bible is wrong.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Mexico Protests Escalate Over Disappearances

Protests in Mexico over 43 students missing since September continue to escalate, reflecting growing anger among Mexicans about a political system they view as corrupt, and increasingly tainted by the drug trade. Mounting outrage over the disappearances is now focused on the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto, accused of not doing enough to end insecurity in the country. More from VOA's Victoria Macchi.
Video

Video US Senate Votes Down Controversial Oil Pipeline - For Now

The U.S. Senate has rejected construction of a controversial pipeline to transport Canadian oil to American refineries. The $5 billion project still could be approved next year, but it faces a possible veto by President Barack Obama. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the pipeline has exposed deep divisions in Congress about America’s energy future.
Video

Video Can Minsk Cease-fire Agreement Hold?

Growing tensions between government troops and separatists in eastern Ukraine further threaten a cease-fire agreement reached two months ago in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Critics of U.S. policy in Ukraine say it is time the Obama administration gives up on that much-violated cease-fire and moves toward a new deal with Russia. VOA's Scott Stearns has more.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Ferguson Church Grapples with Race Relations

Many white residents of Ferguson, Missouri, say they chose to live there because of the American Midwest community's diversity. So, they were shocked when a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager in August – and shaken by the resulting protests and violence. Some local churches are leading conversations on how to go forward. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid