Saudi Islamists and the potential for protest

Stéphane Lacroix writes:

Saudi Arabia has remained fairly quiet during the recent months of Arab uprisings. A few demonstrations did take place, mostly in the Eastern province, but never gathered more than a couple of thousands. As for the Facebook calls for a “Saudi revolution” on March 11th, they had no real impact on the ground. Some observers found this surprising, given the fact that many of the causes of revolutions elsewhere in the region exist in Saudi Arabia. There is corruption, repression and, despite the country’s wealth, socio-economic problems that particularly affect the youth — it is said that at least 25 percent of Saudis below the age of 30 are unemployed.

Some observers argued that nothing had happened, or even could happen, in Saudi Arabia because the Kingdom possesses two extraordinary resources in huge quantities. This first is a symbolic resource, religion, through the regime’s alliance with the official Wahhabi religious establishment, while the second resource is a material one, oil. These resources, however, have their limits. The real reason that Saudi Arabia has not seen major protests is that the Saudi regime has effectively co-opted the Sahwa, the powerful Islamist network which would have to play a major role in any sustained mobilization of protests.

Neither Islam nor oil wealth necessarily shield the Saudi state from criticism. Religion can be, and has been, contested by opponents of the state, particularly by Islamists. The Wahhabi religious establishment is currently led by relatively weak figures. The current mufti Abd al-Aziz Al al-Shaykh lacks the strong credentials of his predecessor, sheikh Abd al-Aziz bin Baz. Oil money, however abundant, inevitably creates frustrations because its distribution follows established networks of patronage that favor some over others. This is especially notable at the regional level, where Najd receives much more of the state’s largesse than does the Kingdom’s periphery. What is more, the announcement on March 18th, 2011 by King Abdallah of a $100 billion aid package wasn’t only met by cheers as some expected. It also provoked angry reactions in some intellectual circles, who saw this as an insult to the Saudis’ “dignity.”

Saudi Arabia has more of a history of political mobilization than many realize. A pro-democracy current has evolved over the last 10 years. Its core component has historically been the dozens of intellectuals, Sunnis and Shiites, of Islamist and liberal backgrounds, who have come together since 2003 to repeatedly demand, through increasingly provocative petitions, the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in the Kingdom. Among the latest, and boldest, moves made by members of this group have been the creation in October, 2009 of the Kingdom’s first fully independent human rights organization, the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, and the establishment in February, 2011 of the Kingdom’s first political party, Hizb al-Umma. Although members of this group have been repressed, many have pledged to continue their activism.

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