Staving off protests in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has witnessed low-level demonstrations throughout the year. The authorities have responded by toughening legislation. Published in MEED, 23 December 2011

As they look around the region, the Saudi authorities have good reason to be nervous these days. Uprisings have been happening on their doorstep in Yemen and Bahrain, and in Kuwait, protesters stormed parliament in mid-November, adding to the sense that Gulf monarchs are now under an uncomfortable amount of pressure.

In Saudi Arabia itself, there have been persistent protests this year among the Shia population in the Eastern Province. After a lull during the hot summer months, the demonstrations picked up in frequency in October and November. Hundreds of people have been arrested and several killed. There has also been a number of smaller protests in the capital during the year.

Maintaining stability in Saudi Arabia

Whether Riyadh can avoid wider discontent spilling on to its streets is an open question, although senior members of the royal family insist that the regime’s popularity remains undimmed. At a press conference on 1 November on the outskirts of Mecca, Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, interior minister and crown prince, insisted that the country was insulated from the protests happening elsewhere in the region.

“The people and leadership of the kingdom are tightly interconnected in a way that reflects the reciprocal trust displayed by each of them towards the other,” he said. “We live in tranquility and within political, social and economic stability in every domain.”

Nonetheless, the authorities are taking no chances. All public protests were formally banned on 5 March and the following month, the Printing & Publications Law of 2000 was tightened. Among other amendments, it now prohibits anything that damages public affairs in the country.

In addition, a new anti-terrorism law has been drawn up, containing sweeping injunctions against any activity, whether violent or peaceful, that might threaten the regime. A draft of the Penal Law for Terrorism Crimes & Financing of Terrorism was prepared by the Interior Ministry and subsequently leaked to the London-based human rights group Amnesty International, which published it in July.

In a report on Saudi Arabia, published on 1 December, called Repression in the Name of Security, the group made clear its concerns about the direction the country is now going in. “Since March 2011, the Saudi Arabian authorities have launched a new wave of repression in the name of security,” the report said. “At the same time, they are in the process of creating a new anti-terror law, which threatens to exacerbate an already dire situation for freedom of expression.”

For some observers, all of this is proof that, despite a great deal of talk of reform in recent years, the reality is that there is no modernisation under way in the kingdom. Power is held tightly within the ruling family and no dissent is tolerated.

“Calling King Abdullah [bin Abdulaziz al-Saud] a reformer is a mistake,” says Ali Alyami, executive director of the Washington-based Centre for Democracy & Human Rights in Saudi Arabia. “It’s mostly cosmetic pronouncements and decrees to silence local advocates of democracy and to appease [Riyadh’s] supporters in the West. Reformers have absolutely no influence on the decision-making process.”

It certainly appears that the hardliners have the upper hand, something that was exemplified by the promotion of Prince Nayef to the position of crown prince on 27 October. The 77-year old had been interior minister since 1975 and has played a prominent role in efforts to combat domestic opposition.

With King Abdullah having suffered several bouts of ill health in recent years, observers say that it is Prince Nayef and Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the defence minister, who are now the most important decision-makers in the kingdom. Both are also key figures in the Sudairi clan, the group of full brothers who are sons of King Abdulaziz al-Saud and Princess Hassa al-Sudairi, and whose number included the late King Fahd.

Conservative control

“The Sudairis are still in charge,” says Ali al-Ahmed, director of the US-based Institute for Gulf Affairs. “I think [Prince] Nayef is in the best position to control the points of power in the government because he has the largest security forces and he controls the Interior Ministry. Everything else does not matter as much. He understands how to control things.”

In part, the ability of Prince Nayef and his allies to maintain hardline policies is helped by the conservative nature of the country as a whole. In such circumstances, those looking for evidence of change do not have much to go on. However, there have been a number of tentative, if limited, reforms over recent years.

In September, for example, King Abdullah promised that Saudi women would be allowed to vote in the next elections for the municipal councils, which are due in 2015. They would also be allowed to take part in the Shura Council, although it is not clear in what capacity.

Two years earlier, he opened the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology in Jeddah as the country’s first co-educational university. He has also reined in some of the privileges of the royal family and appointed a non-royal, Adel al-Jubeir, as the Saudi ambassador to the US.

Many of these initiatives could be easily reversed through new decrees in the future. Indeed, King Abdullah himself appeared to ignore one reform this year when he named Prince Nayef as crown prince. This effectively bypassed the Allegiance Council that he had set up in 2006, which should have decided on the identity of the new heir to the throne. That decision led to Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who has had a long history of trying to institute reform, resigning from the council.

Popularity boosters

Nonetheless, the changes King Abdullah has brought in to date are significant and, according to Alanoud al-Sharekh, a corresponding senior fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in the UK, have helped to boost the popularity of the king and the regime.

“There is a lot of support for the royal family, but I think a lot of it is tied to the figure of King Abdullah,” she says. “He is seen as a genuine reformer. Even if the pace of reform is very slow, it is at least thought that he is doing the reforms in earnest. He has been somewhat of an innovator, although these terms are so relative when it comes to Saudi Arabia.”

However, there are many in the kingdom who urge caution in pressing ahead with further reforms, lest they gain a momentum that cannot be easily controlled.

At a security conference in Riyadh in early December, a succession of senior regime figures set out the challenges facing the kingdom and the wider GCC. One of the key risks was encapsulated in the speech by Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, head of the country’s General Intelligence Presidency.

“The Arab Spring has swept a number of Arab countries,” he told the Gulf & World Forum on 4 December. “This is a matter that indicates the important role of reforms. Arab governments and peoples should shoulder the responsibility together in order to prevent reform claims from transforming into chaos.”

Even if many of King Abdullah’s reforms do not stand the test of time, one change he has made is likely to have a deeper influence. Since he came to power, tens of thousands of Saudi students, including many women, have been sent abroad to study, particularly in the West, have gained exposure to a different way of life.

“The thing that cannot be easily rolled back is the huge number of young people going abroad to study and then returning,” says Al-Sharekh. “This programme has been going on for years now. If it continues, these young people will not come back and be okay with the status quo, in my opinion. You’re talking huge numbers from all sectors of society, Shia and Sunni, from the Eastern and Western Provinces, lower, middle and upper classes. It’s too soon to say what sort of an impact they’ll have.”

Meeting the expectations of the next generation of nationals is already a big challenge for the regime. For many locals, whether educated abroad or at home, the reality is that there are not enough jobs and housing is in short supply. Unemployment is above 10 per cent and far higher for younger citizens. The size of the population means that, even with its vast oil reserves, Riyadh cannot afford to simply throw money at the situation in the same way that smaller Gulf states have been able to.

At the same time as dealing with this, the regime has some in-house issues to deal with. The size of the royal family, which is now thought to include 10,000 or more princes and princesses, puts a huge burden on public finances. As those closest to the throne continue to age, the pressure to make a decision about succession to the next generation will increase, something that is likely to cause friction within the ruling family. In the meantime, the age of the current generation of rulers in a country where half the population is under 23 years of age, adds to the sense of disconnect between the rulers and their subjects.

And all of this is happening within the context of a region that has seen unprecedented levels of public protests this year.

Looming discontent

“The Saudi people watch and see what happens in the other countries,” says Alyami. “Even in the wealthiest of the Gulf states, the people want more than money, they want more than promises, they want liberty and this is something that is not going to stop on the Saudi border. Sooner or later it is going to come in. The Saudis are yearning for all these things just like the rest of the Arab people.”

How the hardliners that are now in control in Saudi Arabia cope with the domestic and regional pressures for reform will have a key influence on political developments, not just in the kingdom but across the Gulf in the years ahead.