May 14, 2012 | The Journal of International Security Affairs
How Saudi Arabia Has Survived—So Far
May 14, 2012 | The Journal of International Security Affairs
How Saudi Arabia Has Survived—So Far
On December 17, 2010, the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Muhammad Bouazizi, who was protesting the confiscation of his wares and harassment by the country’s authorities, touched off mass protests that brought about the shocking exodus of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14th. Across the Middle East, the masses celebrated the drama in Tunisia as a step toward democracy. Indeed, it was the first time that mass protests forced an Arab leader from office. By January 25th, hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, also calling for the end of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. At the same time, protest movements sprouted in Jordan, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen. Media commentators called it the “Arab Spring.”
For the Saudi royal family, looking to preserve their autocratic state, this was the dead of winter. They watched events unfold and waited in fear. Would Saudi Arabia’s population take to the streets?
In short, the answer was no. Saudi Arabia remained remarkably quiescent during the first year of the Arab protests.
Quite by accident, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies was monitoring Saudi social media during this time for another study (analyzing the ideas and influence of Saudi clerics online). What follows is an account, informed by both social media and more traditional sources, of how the Saudis dodged the proverbial bullet during the 2011 Arab uprisings, but may yet face challenges in their wake.
A controlled media climate
One of the more remarkable aspects of the protest movements in Egypt and Tunisia was the extent to which Twitter, Facebook, and other social media enabled frustrated populations to express their anger against the autocratic regimes they sought to topple. Indeed, these relatively new means of communication helped the opposition coordinate their efforts and generate a nucleus of sentiment that led to the ouster of two dictators.
Saudi Arabia did not experience a similar Internet challenge, for several reasons. To be sure, the Internet is readily available to the Saudi people. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees lists the number of Saudi internet users at 11.2 million, which is second only to Egypt in the Arab world. The Internet and Democracy Project of Harvard University’s Burkman Center for Internet and Society confirms that Saudi Arabia “comprises the second largest cluster.” But the Center also notes a relative dearth of political activity, pointing out that this cluster “focuses more on personal diaries and less on politics….”
The reason for this is simple: Saudi Arabia has a high level of censorship. In January 2008, the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information enacted 16 articles of a law restricting the use of technology. The offenses for which perpetrators could receive long prison terms and harsh fines included anything that maligns Islam, is “contrary to the state,” discusses the Saudi military without prior consent, “harms relations with other countries,” damages the integrity of state officials, could be characterized as “the propagation of subversive ideas,” or “disrupt public order.” In other words, the government prohibits Saudi citizens from using the Internet to discuss “controversial” politics.
As if that were not enough, on January 1, 2011 the Saudi Ministry of Culture enacted the Press and Publications Law, requiring all news sites, discussion forums, mobile phone text messaging (and other mobile phone-based content), and email groups to obtain a government license. The regulation makes the license available only to Saudis, who must also be at least 20 years old and have a high school degree.
This is a contract which Saudis have had little choice but to accept. The regime maintains an iron grip on the media. The result is a relatively tame online environment, when it comes to politics. It should therefore come as little surprise that Saudis were largely quiet on Facebook, Twitter and other social media in the early months of the Arab revolts.
The big bribe, part I
However, the Saudi royal family was not content to simply enforce its draconian media laws as a means to prevent unrest in the kingdom. In an attempt to buy the loyalty of his subjects, King Abdullah pledged more than $35 billion to the Saudi people upon returning from his three-month convalescence in Morocco on February 23rd. This package included increased funding for housing, studying abroad, and social security. State awarded its employees a 15 percent salary increase, and infused $10.7 billion into the country’s development fund, which offers interest-free loans for Saudis to build homes, marry, or start small businesses. The measures were further designed to alleviate unemployment, believed to be around 40 percent for Saudis between 15 and 24.
These measures conspicuously lacked any indication that the king was considering the political reforms that masses were calling for around the region. The government proved as much when it arrested founding members of the Islamic Umma Party, a self-professed “moderate” party that blatantly flaunted the state’s long-standing ban on political parties.
Some Saudis openly scorned the king’s attempts to purchase stability by voicing their dissatisfaction on Twitter using the hash-tag #saudimataleb (Saudi demands). As the Financial Times reported, one female student wrote, “We don’t want… money, I want to know that I’ll be protected under a written constitution for the rest of my short life.”
Nevertheless, based on the relative calm that prevailed, the financial package appeared to allay some of the concerns of Saudi citizens, at least for the time being. On the other hand, they may have been afraid of protesting due to the expected response of the Saudi state.
The clerical factor
To be clear, the lack of activism did not reflect an absence of conditions that could make Saudi Arabia ripe for unrest. The corruption, poverty, authoritarianism, and lack of freedoms that set off uncontainable protests in neighboring Arab countries certainly exist in the kingdom. And as French academic Stéphane Lacroix observed, “a new generation of young political activists” are on the rise. He notes that they are “connected… through social networks, especially Facebook and Twitter, and count among their ‘friends’ numerous young Egyptian and Yemeni activists, whose revolutionary ‘know-hows’ they have been sharing…”
The regime offset the zeal of this new cadre of Internet activists with online support from its clerics, who issued rulings and opinions that served to buttress the regime and reaffirm its legitimacy. Even the unsanctioned clerics who have a history of protesting against government policies, were careful not to challenge Saudi rule.
On March 6th, the kingdom’s highest religious body, the Council of Senior Ulema, called on “everybody to exert every effort to increase solidarity, promote unity and warn against all causes giving rise to the opposite.” The cumbersome statement further stressed the “importance of mutual advice, understanding, cooperation in righteousness and piety and forbidding sin and transgression,” and cautioned against “injustice, evildoing and ingratitude.” More directly, the statement warned Saudis about “deviant intellectual and partisan (read Shi’a) tendencies, as the people of this country are a single unit following the example of the Salaf (righteous ancestors)… and contemporary Muslim imams when it come[s] to preserving unity.”
In essence, the Saudi government appealed to its public via the clerical establishment, without having to threaten them directly.
Other clerics intimidated citizens with violence. Saad al-Buraik, a member of the government’s Counseling Program for re-educating extremists, issued a fatwa in which he called for “smashing the skulls of those who organize demonstrations or take part in them” on the Saudi-owned Al Majd TV. This statement, which the regime tacitly welcomed, prompted heated debate between regime supporters and detractors on Arabic language discussion forums.
The al-Buraik controversy caught the attention of the New York Times. Writing in its “Room for Debate” section, Madawi al-Rasheed of Kings College London ripped into the cleric. “Al-Buraik, an extremist but also a government loyalist, preaches hate against anybody who does not worship the Al-Saud, obey their orders, and maintain silence over their excesses. He is part of a prolific network of preachers embedded in state-funded institutions. His [fatawa] against Shi’a and Sunni activists are notorious. He is one of the extremists retained by the government to preach obedience at home and jihad abroad.”
Madawi’s observations cut to the heart of longstanding perception that the state-sanctioned clergy in Saudi Arabia serves as a rubber stamp for regime policies. This phenomenon was particularly obvious at the start of the Arab protests, when the Saudi clerical establishment warned against self-immolation in response to Bouazizi’s now-historic act. A fatwa from the kingdom’s Grand Mufti, Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, ruled that Islam forbids self-immolation, and called it a “heinous crime and a great calamity.” Nasir al-Omar, a prominent Saudi cleric, pointed out that killing oneself ranks among the greatest sins in the Quran and Sunnah. Clerics across the political spectrum also concurred.
To the chagrin of Saudi officials and their clerical backers, the Arab protests did not subside, but instead gained momentum throughout the region. Building off that energy, a group of Saudi dissidents sought to organize a massive demonstration against the regime on Friday, March 11, 2011. The date was significant in two ways. First, protesters across the Arab world designated Fridays the “Day of Rage.” Additionally, March 11 symbolically recalled the tragic date in 2002 when 15 girls died in a schoolhouse fire because Saudi religious police forbade the “improperly veiled” girls from exiting.
Remarkably, the campaign gained momentum via social media, despite Saudi Arabia’s media restrictions. But the demands did not exactly mirror those of other regional protesters. Those who supported the campaign expressed their desire for wide-ranging reforms from the current government (rather than regime change, as in neighboring states). Indeed, Saudis clamored for the existing state to allow for a constitutional monarchy, elected members of the parliamentary Shura (Consultative) Council, greater freedoms for women and minorities, and the release of political prisoners.
Despite the fact that the movement did not seek to topple the state, Saudi authorities took strong measures to put down this “Day of Rage.” On March 5th, London’s Independent reported that the government drafted “up to 10,000 security personnel into its north-eastern [Shi’a] Muslim provinces, clogging the highways into Dammam and other cities with busloads of troops…” On March 10th, the security forces wasted no time dispersing several hundred Shi’a protesters in the Eastern province oil-towns of al-Qatif and Hofuf. When March 11th finally arrived, the government had already locked down the capital Riyadh with roadblocks and checkpoints, as helicopters circled overhead. Protesters were nowhere to be found. One lone man approached a BBC reporter to tell her, “We want freedom. We want democracy.”
Thus, some three months into the “Arab Spring,” the Saudi government’s three-pronged strategy of money, religion, and military force ensured that the Day of Rage passed without major incident. Undoubtedly, this relieved the House of Saud and world leaders who rely heavily on Saudi Arabia to maintain stable oil markets.
The big bribe, part II
One week after the March 11th protests failed to materialize, King Abdullah announced another financial package worth more than $70 billion. By some estimates, the package allocated $66 billion alone for 500,000 housing units to address the country’s shortage. To be sure, this measure was long overdue; the Saudi population has been doubling every twenty years, and analysts expect it to reach 30 million by 2017. By some estimates, the government will need to construct two million housing units by 2014 to keep pace with demand. Additionally, the state injected $4 billion in healthcare infrastructure to revamp and construct new medical centers. Finally, the king’s cash infusion also covered raises and bonuses for government employees, more loan money to the average Saudi, and better unemployment and welfare benefits for those in need.
But the monarchy did not only pledge $70 billion to boost the Saudi people’s spirits. Some of that money bolstered the regime’s ability to subdue continued threats. Cash flowed to the religious establishment, military, and security forces. This included the creation of 60,000 security jobs within the Ministry of Interior, as well as promotions and salary hikes for all military officers. The religious establishment received some $300 million to build more offices around the country, construct and renovate mosques and Islamic centers, and promote Islam.
Not surprisingly, King Abdullah’s distribution of some $130 billion to preserve calm evoked both cynicism and criticism from voices at home and abroad. One user on the al-Jazeera Talk discussion board slammed the king’s decisions as a “failed attempt to bribe the constituents and an admission to the pressure exerted by reform movements.” The New York Times pulled no punches when it ran a piece in June titled, “In Saudi Arabia, Royal Funds Buy Peace for Now.” Professor Toby Craig Jones of Rutgers University concurred in the pages of The Nation, noting that the kingdom is “using its extensive wealth to buy off dissent.” Martin Indyk, writing for the Washington Post, predicted that these financial measures “can help postpone, for a time, the demands of unemployed Saudi youths. But political freedom… will not be assuaged by economic bribes or police-state suppression.”
As the Saudi regime consolidated its position at home, its position on Arab protest movements around the region shifted. For example, after initially disavowing the unrest, the Saudi government subsequently supported military action (through the Arab League) in Libya to overthrow Muammar Qadhafi. More recently, the Saudi regime led the Arab charge to diplomatically isolate the regime in Damascus.
This shift was also apparent among its clerics. Even those who first described anti-regime protesters as traitors seeking to undermine stability began acknowledging some protest movements’ “legitimate” demands. One could argue that this was a challenge to the standing orders of the regime, which largely remained silent. One could also argue that the clerics saw the wave of Islamist movements as a net advantage for the Wahhabi state. Either way, the clerics began backing the masses, while the regime stayed mum.
Salman al-Odah, one of the Sahwa (awakening) clerics who challenged the regime’s Islamic credentials in the early 1990s, was arguably the first major Saudi cleric to break rank when he expressed his support for the Egyptian demonstrators in early February. He openly advocated for Egyptian reform on Facebook and Twitter. However, it soon became clear that he crossed the line when the Saudi-owned MBC1 channel canceled his popular television show.
Other clerics also jumped in to denounce dictators. Some who initially frowned upon regional protests appeared to experience a change of heart. For example, Nasir al-Omar, whose early fatwa against self-immolation served to temper the enthusiasm of protest movements, called on the Yemeni regime in June to cease its “bloody crimes against defenseless people.” In July, the Association of Muslim Scholars, for which al-Omar serves as Secretary-General, condemned the “massacres” in Syria and called for the end of the Assad regime.
Abdul Rahman al-Barrak, who initially denounced protests in Yemen, appeared to reverse his position on Egypt. According to one fatwa, the protests in Egypt were “a testimony to God’s power… Praise the Lord for what happened, which was needed for the people of Egypt…the evil is removed…”
What prompted these clerics to reverse course and support the Arab protests is still unclear. However, the Saudi regime tolerated the clerics’ support for regional unrest, apparently comforted that their security was intact.
Women find their voice
Arguably, the Saudis’ most difficult challenge of the Arab Spring came not from protest movements but from its women. Manal al-Sharif was one woman who seized upon the momentum of region-wide protests as an opportunity to agitate for the right of Saudi women to drive. Her cause was made famous by a YouTube video of her breaking the law and driving on Saudi streets. She soon organized a bold campaign that challenged the state over its archaic law.
The debate was certainly not new to Saudi Arabia. In 1990, several dozen women held a public protest, calling for women to enjoy equal driving rights. As analyst Rachel Bronson notes, “The protests succeeded in capturing international attention, but also galvanized the Islamic opposition. The driving protest, and with it any hope for increased liberalization in Saudi society, was easily and effectively snuffed out. The same cannot be said for the increasingly radicalized Islamic opposition.”
Some two decades later, the debate resurfaced in the same space where much of the Arab Spring debates were raging: online. By May 2011, a popular Facebook campaign was in full force. “I will drive my car myself on June 17th” encouraged female Saudis to violate the country’s laws and drive.
Top brass from the Saudi state weighed in on this issue. Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Prince Ahmed ibn Abdulaziz confirmed that the ban was “still in effect” and those who “violate the ban will be severely punished.” Cleric Abdul Rahman al-Barrak described female drivers as opening “the gates of evil, seeking to westernize the country.”
While there was some dissent within the state’s clerical and official hierarchy, the majority held firm. In December 2011, the Permanent Committee for Research and Ifta, a sub-committee of Council of Senior Ulema (CSU), drafted a report on the potential impacts of repealing the driving ban. The report suggested that allowing women to drive would “provoke a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce,” and further stated that within 10 years, there would be “no more virgins.” One woman, 34-year-old Shaima Jastaniya, was sentenced to 10 lashes in September for defying the driving-ban, though King Abdullah later commuted her sentence.
Women’s rights issues continued to dog the regime throughout the year. In the late spring, web users engaged in vociferous debate over a new fatwa by the CSU banning gender mixing at work. Concerns stemmed from the fact that a woman cashier “meets with tens of men in a single day, talks to them, and hands things to them…” The CSU responded that a “Muslim woman should not work in a place where there is mixing with men. It is her duty to stay away from grouping with men and looking for a job that is allowed [by Islam], which does not expose her to lust… if men lust after her it is haram (forbidden), and her employment by these companies is helping her commit a haram act.”
Debates also emerged over Saudi laws that banned female clerks from working in lingerie stores. As Ellen Knickmeyer wrote in Foreign Policy in June 2011, female consumers were forced to consult with “male clerks about cup sizes and overflowing muffin tops.” The debate underscored the inherent challenges of a Saudi social system under strain. Arguably, these debates came to the fore because of protests and dissent taking place around the Arab world. Nevertheless, as was the case with the planned protests in March, the Saudi state prevailed.
Stability, for now
At the start of the Arab protests, the Saudi state clearly reacted with alarm, took steps to shut down dissent at home, and even moved to mitigate challenges in its immediate sphere of influence, in places like Yemen and Bahrain. However, as it became increasingly clear to the monarchy that its grip on power was secure, Saudi policy shifted. Through their leadership roles in the GCC and Arab League, the Saudis pushed for regime change in Yemen, Libya, and, more recently, Syria. Given its longstanding track record of risk-averse policies, the state likely shifted in this direction because it felt insulated from the broader Arab protest movements.
It is further interesting to note that the clerics served as a harbinger of this change. While they initially circled the wagons around the Saudi state, the clergy soon weighed in on other regional protest movements. In some cases, they were vociferous advocates for precisely the kind of change that the Saudi regime fears.
Given that regional protests continue, and that spasms of unrest have been reported in the Shi’a strongholds of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, it is entirely unclear if the House of Saud can continue to withstand the storm. Indeed, the draconian laws and lack of meaningful participation in the monarchy have not changed. Thus, the underlying reasons for future unrest remain in place.
FDD’s research on social media yielded one particularly relevant finding that could further impact the security of the Saudi state in years to come. As the unsanctioned clerics increasingly turn to various online platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, the Saudi regime may find it more difficult to control their messages. Despite the restrictive media laws, these clerics could yet pose a direct challenge to the regime. During the 20th century alone, Saudi Arabia had three major confrontations with elements of the religious establishment: during the 1920s, when the zealous Ikhwan rebelled against King ibn Saud; in 1979, when the Grand Mosque in Mecca was held captive by the Salafi separatist group al-Jama’a al-Salafiyya al-Muhtasiba; and in the early 1990s, as the Sahwa clerics denounced the Western military presence in the Gulf and demanded a more Islamic Saudi government and society. In all of those situations, the government was able to quell dissent with a mix of draconian measures and co-opting strategies.
But Saudi Arabia, like the rest of the Arab world, is now dealing with a political environment that looks nothing like the past.
Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Steven Miller is a research associate. They recently authored the monograph Facebook Fatwa: Saudi Clerics, Wahhabi Islam & Social Media (FDD Press, 2012), from which portions of this article were drawn.
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