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.

Arab Spring: Could Saudi Arabia Be Next?
Gilles Paris

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.

Aging royals

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.

Purchasing peace?

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.

Photo - RabunWarna

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Saving The Planet Is Really A Question Of Dopamine

Our carelessness toward the environment could be due, in part, to the functioning of a very primitive area of our brain: the striatum.

Ad scuba-diver and brain coral

Stefano Lupieri

PARIS — Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Addictions to sex and social media

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the 'pleasure hormone.'

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

Transverse section of striatum from a structural MRI image

Lindsay Hanford and Geoff B Hall via Wikipedia

Tweaking genetics 

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Les Echos
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