Saudi Arabia: The elephant in the room?

Increasingly vocal minority groups could threaten kingdom's stability

Saudi Arabia recently announced a US$37bn welfare package for its citizens as well as a more robust Saudisation plan in its job market.
Saudi Arabia recently announced a US$37bn welfare package for its citizens as well as a more robust Saudisation plan in its job market.

Analysis provided by Gala Riani, IHS Global Insight Middle East Energy analyst

Saudi Arabia faces several challenges amid raging regional unrest, including the possibility of escalated protests at home, instability in neighbouring Bahrain, and a potentially emboldened Iran threatening the regional geo-strategic balance.

Saudi Arabia has been rattled by several minor protests over the past two weeks, held predominantly in the oil-rich Eastern Province, where the majority of the kingdom’s Shi’a population reside. Media reports say that minor protests have been held on several occasions over the past two weeks.

The latest protests were held on Thursday (3 March 2011) and Friday (4 March) in Qatif and Al-Hufuf. Several hundred people called for the release of Shi’a prisoners, including a popular Shi’a cleric, Sheikh Tawfiq al-Amer, who was arrested on 27 February after calling for the creation of a “constitutional monarchy”. Sheikh Amer was released yesterday (6 March). Witnesses cited by media reports also said a small protest was held outside the Al-Rajhi mosque in the capital, Riyadh on Friday (4 March).

Agence France-Presse (AFP) said that the men were calling for an end to “oppression”. The protests on Friday were held after a Facebook group called for a “Day of Rage”. The group has called for further protests to be held on 11 March and 20 March.

In response to the protests, Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry on Saturday (5 March) issued a statement saying that protests in the kingdom were banned, a reminder of existing restrictions. The statement said: “Regulations in the kingdom forbid categorically all sorts of demonstrations, marches and sit-ins...as they contradict Islamic Shari’a law and the values and traditions of Saudi society”.

It also said that police were “authorised by law to take all measures needed against those who try to break the law”, an unequivocal warning against groups attempting to stage protests. Also yesterday (6 March) the Council of Senior Scholars, headed by Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh, issued a statement iterating the ban on demonstrations and saying that “the Islamic way of releasing common interest is by offering advice”.

This comes after efforts by the state to pre-empt protests. King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz al-Saud, who returned to the kingdom last month after three months abroad, announced a US$37 billion social-spending package, which includes measures for creating new jobs and increasing spending on housing.

Unrest in the East

The Eastern Province is not unaccustomed to sporadic protests, as the Shi’a minority periodically demonstrates against discrimination and abuses at the hands of the Wahhabi state. In the past, the authorities have dealt with any protests in the area with a firm hand. Protests have thus remained isolated from the rest of the kingdom—where Shi’a sentiments, in any case, enjoy very little support. Unrest in the Eastern Province has also largely remained isolated from external events, even though Shi’as have been inspired by events such as the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Nevertheless, fears that the Shi’a population could become influenced by outside Shi’a forces, predominantly Iran, are a constant source of state misgivings against Shi’as. A further cause for suspicion is the fact that the Eastern Province is so rich in oil. The history of mistrust has alienated the Shi’a population from the Al-Saud royal family, who otherwise have relatively widespread support and enjoy considerable popularity. The troubled relationship has also been manifested in discrimination against the sect. Although most Shi’as would probably consider themselves as being Saudis, first and foremost, some have over the past decades called for secession from the Wahhabi kingdom.

Regional Instability and Domestic Fears

The potential linkage between domestic stability and external developments represents a clear sensitivity on the part of the state over any suggestions of foreign linkage or influence in the Shi’a population. These perennial fears have been sharply compounded by the outbreak of social unrest in the region and, in particular, in Shi’a-dominated Bahrain.

Bahrain represents several layers of challenge for Saudi Arabia. The tiny Gulf monarchy is considered an undisputed part of Saudi Arabia’s natural sphere of influence. Over the years, Bahrain’s Al-Khalifa Sunni dynasty has received unknown, but vast, sums of finance and crude from its bigger and more powerful neighbour. Since the Islamic Republic’s rise, Bahrain’s stability has gained in even more importance, not least because Iranian officials continue to occasionally refer to Bahrain as a long-lost province of Iran.

A causeway connecting the two countries, built in the 1980s and finalised in 1986, is said by some observers to have been built solely to provide Riyadh with a quick entry route to Bahrain in case of an emergency. Saudi Arabia considers the two greatest threats against Bahrain’s stability as the empowerment of the country’s Shi’a majority population, and undue influence by Iran; the two issues are also interconnected, as both are seen as potentially challenging the Sunni monarchy and directly threatening to Saudi stability.

As a result, since unrest broke out in Bahrain in February, the Saudi regime has been on edge. The stand-off between Bahraini protesters and opposition groups and the government has shown few signs of moving forward, with many of the demands put forward by opposition groups late last week (3 March) still unacceptable to the monarchy. For Saudi Arabia, Bahrain represents a major challenge: Saudi Arabia would probably go as far intervening militarily, in a worst-case scenario situation, if Bahrain’s stability comes under severe threat or if Shi’as look set to stage a revolution against the Khalifas.

Unconfirmed media reports have already suggested that Saudi Arabia has sent tanks over the causeway. Despite these reports, Saudi Arabia would probably only intervene reluctantly. as military action would risk involving Riyadh in a foreign quagmire which would come with its own domestic risks—not least of which is the potential for further enraging its own Shi’a population, or irking Iran into greater interference in the Gulf. Both alternatives are highly unfavourable for the kingdom.

Calls for Reform

At the same time, Saudi Arabia will continue to deal with its own domestic problems. Aside from the sporadic protests that have broken out, there have also been rare calls for political reform from groups of activists. Unconfirmed media reports have said that at least three online petitions calling for reform are currently in circulation. One such petition was issued by over 100 activists demanding sweeping political and socio-economic reforms. The petitioners include academics, activists, and businessmen. The Associated Press (AP) reports that that petition emerged on Saudi websites on 27 February 2011, with a statement saying:

"We are seeing...a receding of Saudi Arabia's prominent regional role for which our nation was known and the....prevalence of corruption and nepotism, the exacerbation of factionalism and a widening in the gap between state and society." It also said that the current situation in Saudi Arabia was “full of reasons for concern”.

Importantly, the petition called for a constitutional monarchy. The petitions followed a request by a Saudi political association, the Islamic Umma Party, to become a legalised political group. After the request was issued, the association said in a statement to AP that several of the founding members had been arrested on 16 February. It was unclear whether they have since been released.

Outlook and Implications

Protests in the kingdom have been relatively limited so far. Considering the relatively widespread legitimacy of the al-Saud family, there is not yet reason to conclude that the regime’s stability will come under threat. However, much will depend on the state’s response. Elsewhere in the region, for governments that have tended to use force too quickly and implemented concessions tardily, social unrest has dragged on and put the government’s survival at risk.

So far, the kingdom has dispersed protests and arrested demonstrators—which suggests that it might resort to force if protests mount. Nevertheless, it also released Sheikh Amer, and announced a mass-spending plan, and speculation in the media suggests that a vast government reshuffle is under way.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for Saudi Arabia is that regional developments could exacerbate domestic tensions. Saudi Arabia, thanks to its vast wealth and largely respected traditional institutions, is likely to find the means to weather the storm. However, in the longer-term, it will be increasingly difficult to limit demands for both political and social reforms, which are likely to directly clash with the kingdom’s conservative, Wahhabist socio-political constitution.

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