News / Middle East

Analysts: Saudi Arabia Nervous About Domestic Discontent

Saudi Arabia's FM Prince Saud al-Faisal calls for dialogue, not protest, during a news conference in Jeddah Mar 9 2011
Saudi Arabia's FM Prince Saud al-Faisal calls for dialogue, not protest, during a news conference in Jeddah Mar 9 2011

Analysts studying the popular uprisings now shaking much of the Arab world are beginning to wonder if the turmoil could spread to Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy that is the world’s biggest oil exporter and a key U.S. ally. There are already calls for political reform in Saudi Arabia, and now, efforts to organize unprecedented public protests.

When a popular uprising ousted the government of Tunisia in January, experts predicted there could be similar revolts in other Arab nations with authoritarian governments. In short order, uprisings did break out in Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Libya and the island nation of Bahrain just off the coast of Saudi Arabia.

But despite the turmoil all around the kingdom, many experts continue to insist that a similar uprising is unlikely in a conservative society like Saudi Arabia. Not everyone agrees. Several thousand Saudis have joined Internet groups calling for a "Day of Rage" protest in the capital, Riyadh, on Friday, March 11.. The aim is to push for major political and social reforms in the tightly-controlled Saudi kingdom. Additionally, more than 100 leading Saudi academics, activists and businessmen signed a petition last month urging King Abdullah to enact sweeping reforms, including the establishment of a constitutional monarchy.

Saud Kabli, a political commentator for the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan, says it is "still early to say such things in Saudi Arabia."

"The social environment, in the first place, didn’t reach a critical mass for such a change," said Kabli. "Of course you are going to have some groups calling for a Day of Rage, and you will have some supporters from here and there, but it is [more] driven by sentiment than by reason. ... In Saudi Arabia we still lack this coherent vision, even among different young groups.  Awareness is now required in Saudi Arabia and this will take some time for things to evolve."

Saudi Shi'ite cleric Tawfiq al-Amir (R) greets supporters in Al-Ahsa, Mar 6 2011, after his release from prison. He was arrested for calling for a constitutional monarchy and a fight against corruption, witnesses and human rights activists said
Saudi Shi'ite cleric Tawfiq al-Amir (R) greets supporters in Al-Ahsa, Mar 6 2011, after his release from prison. He was arrested for calling for a constitutional monarchy and a fight against corruption, witnesses and human rights activists said

Noting that public demonstrations are illegal in Saudi Arabia, Kabli says Saudi culture is very traditional and strongly opposes public displays of civil disobedience. In any case, the commentator says change should be gradual because the kingdom has no political parties or parliamentary system. He acknowledges the need for dialogue about needed reforms, but not a regime change.

"We need to have more young people inside the government, inside the leadership promoting the vision of the young people. ... People are calling for a constitutional monarchy," Kabli said. "You can’t have a constitutional monarchy without having a strong parliament, for instance, and awareness of people of setting elections. ... I think what needs to be done is to initiate this process. We need to start a real dialogue to discuss how we are going to take these things forward towards creating a vision."

Perhaps reacting to the turmoil elsewhere in the Arab world, King Abdullah recently announced a $37 billion assistance package including debt forgiveness and a 15 percent cost-of-living increase for public-sector employees. He also offered them interest-free loans for those about to marry and to start up businesses.

But for the group of Saudi academics, activists and businessmen who petitioned the king last month, financial giveaways were not enough. They called instead for wide-ranging political reforms, including the right to form political parties and the right to elect the Shura Council. Under Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy, the Shura Council is not a legislature, as such, but only a consultative assembly, and its members are all appointed by the king.

Marina Ottaway is director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. She says Saudi Arabia is very different from the Arab nations already experiencing popular uprisings, and she predicts political reform there will not be easy.

"Saudi Arabia is one of the most difficult cases," said Ottaway. "You have to start from scratch, and I do not think the U.S. has any clear idea about what kind of process would take Saudi Arabia from where it is now to become a more democratic country, or what is the sequence of changes. Nobody knows."

It is not yet clear whether those pushing for political reforms in Saudi Arabia will be able to organize their planned "Day of Rage" protest (on Friday). If they do, the Saudi Interior Ministry has vowed to do whatever it takes to preserve stability. And if there is violence, the Obama administration could be facing new challenges in balancing its alliance with the Saudi royal family and its emphasis on respect for the right of free speech and peaceful assembly.

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

You May Like

Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

There is growing uncertainty over whether West’s response to ISIS is adequate More

China Crackdown on Dual Citizens Causes Concern

New policy encourages reporting people who obtain citizenship in another country, but retain Chinese citizenship; move spurs sharp debate More

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

Losing ground to Islamic State fighters, Syria's government says it is ready to cooperate with international community 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.
Ukraine Accuses Russia of Territorial Incursionsi
X
Zlatica Hoke
August 28, 2014 4:07 AM
Ukraine says a key border town (Novoazovsk) and surrounding areas of in southeastern Ukraine have fallen under the control of Russia's military. President Poroshenko says "Russian troops have actually been brought into Ukraine." Despite repeated denials from Moscow, Ukraine accuses the Kremlin of providing weapons and fighters to separatists in eastern Ukraine, toward the Russian leadership's alleged goal of annexing that strategic territory. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Ukraine Accuses Russia of Territorial Incursions

Ukraine says a key border town (Novoazovsk) and surrounding areas of in southeastern Ukraine have fallen under the control of Russia's military. President Poroshenko says "Russian troops have actually been brought into Ukraine." Despite repeated denials from Moscow, Ukraine accuses the Kremlin of providing weapons and fighters to separatists in eastern Ukraine, toward the Russian leadership's alleged goal of annexing that strategic territory. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video America's Most Popular Artworks Displayed in Public Places

Public places in cities across America were turned into open-air art galleries in August. Pictures of the nation’s most popular artworks were displayed on billboards, bus shelters, subway platforms and more. The idea behind “Art Everywhere,” a collaborative campaign by five major museums is to allow more people to enjoy art and learn about the country’s culture and history. Faiza Elmasry has more.
Video

Video Chinese Doctors Use 3-D Spinal Implant

A Chinese boy suffering from a debilitating bone disease has become the first patient with a part of his spine created in a three-dimensional printer. Doctors say he will soon regain normal mobility. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Uneasy Calm Settles Over Israel, Gaza Strip

Israel and the Gaza Strip have been calm since a cease-fire set in Tuesday evening, ending seven weeks of hostilities. Hamas, which controls Gaza, declared victory. Israelis were more wart. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jerusalem.
Video

Video India’s Leprosy Battle Stymied by Continuing Stigma

Medical advancements in the treatment of leprosy have greatly diminished its impact around the world, largely eliminating the disease from most countries. India made great strides in combating leprosy, but still accounts for a majority of the world’s new cases each year, and the number of newly infected Indians is rising - more than 130,000 recorded last year. Doctors there say the problem has more to do with society than science. Shaikh Azizur Rahman reports from Kolkata.
Video

Video Scientists Unlock Mystery of Bird Flocks

How can flocks of birds, schools of fish or herds of antelope suddenly change direction -- all the individuals adjusting their movement in concert, at seemingly the same time? British researchers now have some insights into this behavior, which has puzzled scientists for a long time. VOA's George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid