Arab Spring: Could Saudi Arabia Be Next?
The Arab world's revolutionary tide has so far bypassed Saudi Arabia, whose oil-rich royal regime is hoping to buy a bit of peace and quiet with billions in public spending.
Every year for the last several centuries, the holy cities of Mecca and Medina would wait for the Mahmal procession to bring the Kiswah, a huge fabric for festooning the Kaaba, from the Egyptian capital.
Nowadays, Saudis are wondering whether they should be expecting another kind of Mahmal to arrive from Cairo. Can the massive wave of discontent that has managed to topple Hosni Mubarak rattle the royal family of Saudi Arabia too? Can it give new impetus to the country's small group of reformers – the so-called "whisky-liberals' – who can seem so powerless in the face of the conservative block massed around the regime and the religious institutions?
For the time being, Saudi Arabia seems immune to the popular unrest so active on its periphery. "There is no spark, no level of suffering that can ignite the revolt," says an academic who prefers to remain anonymous. This is not to say that the kingdom lacks all of the characteristics that have begun undermining the besieged Arab regimes, including the government's murky management of the country's resources and the resentment of the role of security services.
Another similarity is demographics, even if the country has already entered a phase of transition toward lower birth rates. Like the other countries in the region, Saudi Arabia has to deal with a potentially explosive social situation as large numbers of young graduates try to enter a demanding labor market where they must often compete with better qualified foreign workers.
Corruption is not unknown to Saudis either. Proof of that was King Abdullah's decision on March 18 to create a National Anti-Corruption Committee (along with other measures taken to prevent any form of popular discontent). Mohammed Al-Sharif was named president of this new institution, and he is to report directly to the Saudi king.
As if all this were not enough, the Saudi dynasty is also suffering from ills inherent to its very structure. The principle of agnatic seniority used by the House of Saud (where the order of succession prefers the monarch's younger brother to the monarch's sons) means that power tends to stay in aged hands.
King Abdullah and his younger half-brother, the crown prince Sultan who also serves as defense minister, are both in their 80s and have repeatedly been hospitalized over the past two years. Another brother in line to succession, long serving Interior Minister Nayef bin Abdel Aziz is now 77.
Leadership has taken some steps to address the problem. For the last two years there has been talk of a ministerial reshuffling that might allow strategic positions to be redistributed among the various branches of the dynasty.
King Abdullah has also tried to sell himself as a reformist. He has invited all segments of the society, including religious minorities and women, to join a national dialogue; he has organized elections (reserved to men) for the first time ever in some provincial councils; and has shown interest in reforming the national system of education. These and other initiatives such as the opening of the co-educational King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (Kaust) have sometimes been frowned upon by the religious establishment.
Something else that may be helping the regime is the fact that the Saudi dynasty has multiple centers of power, thus allowing criticism to be directed at figures other than the king. This political system, by which the monarch acts as an arbiter between different factions, has also benefitted Prince Nayef, whose growing power can be explained by his role in fighting the jihadist threat in 2004 and 2005.
King Abdullah continues to be highly popular among his subjects, who are grateful for their monarch's ability to limit certain excesses of the past. Liberals instead reserve their loudest criticism for the interior minister, whom they accuse of being too conservative and too close to religious institutions.
And finally, the Saudi regime can always rely on its mountains of oil money to buy them some social peace. On March 18, King Abdullah announced plans to shower his subjects with almost $93 billion (€64.1 billion) in state spending. He promised an additional $36 billion last February, when he returned from a three-month convalescence abroad.
The spending measures include the introduction of unemployment benefits, an increase in public service wages and higher grants for students, especially for those studying abroad. The regime also has plans to build 500,000 new houses, create 60,000 new police officer jobs, and fund various religious projects. Still, there is always a limit to what money can buy.