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

Nearly 900 Dead, Missing in 2014 Air Disasters

Southeast Asia took a particularly heavy hit; 3 major events involved weather, two planes were shot down in eastern Ukraine, and one crash was attributed to mechanical problems More

Video Islamic State Emergence Transformed Syria, Iraq in 2014

'It was very clear that there were problems building up in Iraq at the end of 2013 but everybody was distracted by Syria,' says one expert, explaining group's rapid rise More

Rights Group: IS Executed Nearly 2,000 in Syria in 6 Months

Islamist group also killed 120 of its own members, most foreign fighters trying to return home, in past two months, according to Syrian Observatory for Human Rights 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.
Russians Head Into Holiday Facing Economic Malaisei
X
Daniel Schearf
December 25, 2014 4:34 PM
Russian preparations for the New Year holiday are clouded by economic recession and a tumbling currency, the ruble. Nonetheless, people in the Russian capital appear to be in a festive mood. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Russians Head Into Holiday Facing Economic Malaise

Russian preparations for the New Year holiday are clouded by economic recession and a tumbling currency, the ruble. Nonetheless, people in the Russian capital appear to be in a festive mood. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Mombasa in Holiday Tourism Slump Due to Security Fears

Kenya's usually popular beachside tourist destination of Mombasa is seeing a much slower holiday season this year due to fears of insecurity as the country has suffered from a string of terror attacks linked to Somali militants. Mohammed Yusuf reports for VOA on how businessmen and tourists feel about the situation.
Video

Video For Somalis, 2014 Marked by Political Instability Within Government

While Somalia has long been torn apart by warfare and violence, this year one of the country's biggest challenges has come from within the government, as political infighting curtails the country's progress, threatens security gains and disappoints the international community. VOA's Gabe Joselow report.
Video

Video 2014 Saw Intensification of Boko Haram Insurgency

The year 2014 saw Nigerian militant sect Boko Haram intensify its five-year insurgency and target civilians in large numbers as it seized territory in the northeast. The kidnapping of nearly 300 schoolgirls in Chibok in April sparked global outrage, but failed to become the turning point against the sect that Nigeria’s president said it would be. The picture at year's end is one of devastation and uncertainty. VOA’s Anne Look reports.
Video

Video Estimates Rising of Foreign Fighters in Iraq, Syria

Foreign fighters are making more of a mark on the battles raging across Syria and Iraq than initially thought. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more.
Video

Video US Political Shift Could Affect Iran Nuclear Talks

Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to resolve Iran’s nuclear crisis are continuing into 2015 after Iran and six world powers failed to agree by a November deadline. U.S. domestic politics, however, could complicate efforts to reach a deal in the new year. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins has the story.
Video

Video NYSE: The Icon of Capitalism

From its humble beginnings in 1792 to its status as an economic bellweather for the world, the New York Stock Exchange is an integral part of the story of America. VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports from Wall Street.
Video

Video Syrian Refugees in Lebanon Fight to Survive Water Crisis

In a region choking from dwindling water supplies, Lebanon has long been regarded as one of the few places where there is enough. But in recent years, half the people in the country have faced severe shortages. And the more than 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon are hit the worst by the water crisis, making the country's most vulnerable people increasingly impoverished and sick. Heather Murdock reports for VOA in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid