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Saudi Arabia Mai Yamani


form a check
point outside
the Al Rajhi
mosque in
Riyadh, Saudi




Saudi Arabia, fortified by its oil wealth,

Wahhabi ideology and blanket
American protection, finds itself drifting
in the uncharted waters of a new
Arab awakening fashioned in revolt.

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remote Kingdom guarded by robed, well-oiled royals. This desert fortress is

sustained by unlimited hydrocarbon resources, bringing fabulous wealth to
its intoxicated rulers and sedating the inhabitants. Minarets serve as
watchtowers of orthodoxy and dogma. The fortress has also remained strong
because of a protective alliance with a foreign power, the United States (US),
that chooses a romanticised vision of a kingdom that offers harmonious exchange and a
false sense of security.
But the waves of revolution, dissent and sedition are lashing against the fortresss very
foundations, deepening cracks of this political structure built on shifting sand. King Abdullah and
his thousands of royal brothers, nephews and assorted hangers-on have watched the fall of fellow
dictators, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Others in their death
throes, like Muammar Al Gaddafi of Libya and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, refuse to see the
writing on the wall. The Saudi Royals younger brother King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah of Bahrain,
kowtowing to Saudi diktat, has now made his choice by inviting Saudi military into his troubled
land. Even the docile Jordanian monarch Abdullah II and his normally forgotten brotherly
neighbour Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said of Oman are floundering.
No state in the Arab world is being spared the sudden wrath of its people. The old strategic
criteria of dividing the region on the basis of oil versus non-oil states, or of alliances with the United
States, now fails to hold water. There are no longer any guarantees, with or without American
support, for protecting regional rulers from the legitimate demands of their people. The people have
made common cause, rising from years of misrule and repression, through the use of new
technologies in new media adopted by young people. The demographics of the population are
simply too lopsided in favour of younger generations versus the old ruling oligarchy. All these factors
are plentiful in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: a youthful majority, an abundance of computers, and
deepening social and political resentments and alienation.
The Saudi Kingdom contains within its fortress walls a deeper rot: an arbitrary coercive and
corrupt system that denies its subjects its fundamental political rights and social justice. The Saudi
royals do not even grasp what it is that their people are demanding. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter
have all helped bring down the walls of opacity. The seventy percent of the Kingdoms population
who are under the age of thirty are predominantly Internet savvy.
They are asking for the creation of a constitutional monarchy, parliamentary elections, the
release of thousands of political prisoners being held without trial or representation, an end to the
endemic and massive royal corruption, reform of the judiciary and the minimising of perks and
privileges afforded the 22,000 members of the House of Saud, as well as meeting demands to
curtail the influence of the religious establishment.
Talk of a Day of Rage scheduled for March 11 captured the worlds attention. To stop the
increasingly corrosive developments, the Saudi state has equipped itself with the biggest carrot and
largest stick in the Arab world. The carrot comprises the kings promise of 37 billion dollars to his
countrys agitated younger generations a fifteen percent pay raise for government employees, aid
for students and the unemployed, and access to sport clubs - something that only a Croseus-rich
A P P H OTO/ H A S S A N A M M A R )



monarch like King Abdullah could hope to deliver. Nowhere are

subjects offered such largess to buy off their loyalties.
Since thousands of voices using Twitter, Facebook and
YouTube expressed ingratitude for such a benevolent act, the
state then decided to deploy its catch-all religious fall-back to
warn its subjects that demonstrations and protests are unIslamic. Using the pretext of the Saudi Kingdom as the ultimate
guardian of the Islamic faith and custodian of the holy mosques,
the state claimed to be protecting its population from the sins of
other Middle Eastern youth. There have been in recent days
mass arrests of those calling for reform, and multiple websites
have been blocked. The Saudi bogeyman, thousands of security
forces backed by armour on the street and helicopters hovering
over city skies, act as an iron-fisted warning against any dissent.
The Saudi rulers are beyond the reproach of their people.
Meanwhile the United States, traditional protector and
custodian of the holy oil fields, has lapsed into diplomatic
torpor. The US has guarded the Kingdom from external threats
through the sales of hundreds of billions of dollars of high-tech
arms. Since 1945, the stationing of American forces in Dhahran
near the critical oil fields have been crucial for Saudi security
and are the lifeblood of American and world economy. The US
never alluded to the subject of democracy in its support of the
Saudi rulers and deliberately did not deal with the people,
remaining constant in their policy for the survival of the Al
Saud. The pact between Riyadh and Washington was to always
protect the Kingdoms fortress and not to get embroiled with
the multitude of tribes, sects, regions, and ethnic groups.
The big carrot and stick have bought the Saudi rulers a
temporary sense of control. But the faces of millions of
screaming, self-liberated Arabs beaming at them on the screens
of Al Jazeera have increased the tension. Prince Naif, interior
minister and crown prince in waiting, may continue to repeat


the Kingdoms slogan: What we took by the sword, we will hold

by the sword. But the traditional sword is dull, limited, and
unable to meet the challenges of the moment. The Saudi rulers
are also using the sectarian discourse both for the US and for
their Sunni populations, portraying the Shia as the scary
spectre seeking dominance and a dangerous alliance with Iran.
They also are using the divide and rule policy to warn their
Sunni population against the internal Shia enemy.
The most challenging group to the Saudi rulers is currently
the Shia, who constitute 75 percent of the population in the
Eastern Province, the Kingdoms main oil-producing region.
The Shia were also the first to respond to the eruptions of
demonstrations in the Arab region despite the legal ban on
demonstrations. The Shia have experienced loss of lives and
imprisonment since 1979 because of their defiance.
The strategic regional predominance of Saudi Arabia
through its oil wealth has allowed the countrys rulers to freeze
reform. This policy offers temporary political respite for the
kingdom, but the frozen body politic is brittle and can easily
break. The danger is that continued repression of peaceful
protests can lead to violence and radicalisation. At the moment,
Islamic extremism and Al Qaeda have no space in the Arab
movements of the people, but if this desperation continues to be
confined to computer screens while political representation and
expression is forbidden, then Al Qaeda will find renewed

DR MAI YAMANI is a political analyst

and the author of Changed Identities:
The Challenge of the New Generation in
Saudi Arabia.