The key slogan in Tahrir Square in Egypt was “the people want the downfall of the regime”. When it comes to Saudi Arabia, it’s more like “the House of Saud wants the downfall of its people”.
Which brings us to the US\$36 billion question; can an ailing monarch (Saudi King Abdullah) bribe his subjects with oil money (including a last-minute, Hosni Mubarak-style 15% pay rise to public servants) and thus escape the furious freedom winds of the great 2011 Arab revolt? The world will be able to watch a preview this Friday, as a Facebook-organized “Day of Rage” hits the globe’s largest gas station.
Yet don’t expect to see much on al-Jazeera – because the coverage won’t be anything like Egypt and Libya; it has already been pre-empted by a princely visit to the emir of Qatar; al-Jazeera is based in Qatar, while the al-Arabyya news channel is a mouthpiece of the House of Saud. Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates all belong to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Obviously none of these GCC kings and emirs want to be swept away by democracy; revolution is only for “others”, like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Rage is here to stay
It’s official; for the House of Saud, everyone opposing them is an Osama bin Laden, as a hack working for Saudi Prince Salman and his son, who’s the editor of the Ash-Sharq al-Awsat paper, made sure this week (in doubt, he also added Iran). The juicy part is that the House of Saud itself gave birth to the original bin Laden – no to mention 15 of the 19 jihadis on 9/11.
This branding of all Saudi opposition as al-Qaeda (Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi, they all did it) followed the Saudi 舒拉 (council) praising a ruling by Medieval Wahhabi clerics in favor of banning any demonstrations – on religious grounds (even though a lot of Saudis on Facebook stressed the country is a signatory to an international treaty recognizing the right of people to demonstrate).
Whatever Wahhabis rule, the House of Saud won’t get rid of the underlying rage permeating a mass of unemployed youth wired to the world by Facebook and Twitter (almost half of the total population is under 18). They won’t get rid of a demographic boom (from the current 19 million to 30 million in a decade); an overall unemployment rate of 20% compared to 9 million employed foreigners; a monoculture dependent on oil; a paltry education system that can’t train people for useful work; and the fact that Saudis are hip to neighborly Bahrain on fire, yearning for democracy.
King Abdullah seems to be certain his billions in handouts will do the trick. He’s certainly not listening to Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud – arguably the West’s favorite Arab investor, who told the New York Times, “Arab governments can no longer afford to take their populations for granted, or to assume that they will remain static and subdued”. He forgot to add that the House of Saud is absolutely blind to politics – and does not understand the meaning of dignity or democracy.
The demands carried by the Day of Rage are straightforward; a constitutional monarchy; end to corruption; the right to elect at least some of their rulers; freedom for women; and the release of thousands of political prisoners. But like in Bahrain, the demands could easily escalate to “Bring down the House of Saud”.
Echoes by Facebook and Twitter from the streets of Riyadh, as well as comments in Saudi newspapers, are uplifting. Apparently Saudis of all ages and professions are following the great 2011 Arab revolt to the minute, wondering if the same could happen “here” – and blaming the House of Saud for unemployment and corruption – in public places; this in a country where any public gathering is strictly forbidden, and punishable by lashings and jail (from several months to two years).
Saudi media have reported on two people who have burned themselves in protest. A nasty crackdown last week in the city of Qatif – including attacks on Shi’ite women – related to a protest for the release of political prisoners, turned even more people against the monarchy. Last week after Friday prayers in Riyadh, protesters gathered in front of al-Rajhi mosque and chanted anti-government and anti-corruption slogans.
Meet the Hunayn revolution
The fact that this is being branded the Hunayn revolution makes the House of Saud freak out even more. Hunayn is a valley near Mecca where Prophet Mohammed battled a confederation of Bedouins in the year 630. The Prophet’s forces won. A reference in the Koran, 9: 25-26, reads like a direct message to the House of Saud: “God gave you victory on many battlefields. Recall the day of Hunayn when you fancied your great numbers. So the earth, with all its wide expanse, narrowed before you and you turned tail and fled. Then God made his serenity to descend upon his Messenger and the believers, and sent down troops you did not see – and punished the unbelievers.”
It doesn’t take a PhD in Koranic studies to see “the unbelievers”, in this Hunayn revolution remix – as King Abdullah and his court.
For the Day of Rage, at least 10,000 security goons have been deployed to the key northeastern Shi’ite-majority provinces – where the oil is, and which congregate around 10% of the kingdom’s population. There’s a risk of serious confrontations. In this case, according to the organizers, women should march as human shields in front of the protesters; this may not work, as it did not dissuade the goons in Qatif.
Trying to defuse the tension, and building on King Abdullah’s \$36 billion bonanza in state handouts, Saudi Minister of Labor Adel al Faqih now seems to have seen the light as well – and is promising all sorts of economic plans that he says will finally erase unemployment, inflation and poverty. He even promised to end all restrictions on women’s employment (but then he had to backtrack). Most Saudis are not convinced – in a society where only those with 浪费 (connections) can get some sort of privilege.
Moreover, this is a society where for many “reform” is a sin, and with the rulers handing out education to fanatic clerics, constructive criticism and intellectual debate are also widely considered sins.
People for instance still vehemently defend the medieval Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice as essential for good governance. The Saudi Minister of Religion is always a member of the al-Sheikh family (descendants of Ibn Abdul Wahab). Wahhabism is rigid as a rock, allows no interpretation, no “idolatry”, veneration of statues, or even works of art. Not to mention no smoking, no shaving of beards, and very few rights for women. And if you don’t follow it, even if you’re a Muslim, you’re the enemy. No wonder this society produced al-Qaeda and jihadis – and no science or ideas.
Make no mistake; for all their glitzy skylines and investor-friendly self-image, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries are all ruled by secrecy and fear. No political parties, no trade unions, no defense of workers safety, no defense of immigrant rights, no women’s groups, and very few legal organizations to ensure a fair and independent judicial process. If you’re branded as an “al-Qaeda” opposition (or an Iranian agent) you can be detained indefinitely without trial – Guantanamo-style. Or you disappear in jail after a grotesque trial. Torture is of course endemic. And foreign workers – especially non-Muslims – live in perpetual fear.
Washington and European capitals are shaken to the core with the prospect of those northern African winds producing a freedom storm in Saudiland – and the Persian Gulf.
So forget about “democracy” or “human rights”. Enter the brand new Barack Obama administration “regime alteration” doctrine, where popular aspirations in the Gulf – from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain and Oman – are ditched to the benefit of the “stability” afforded by “key allies”, swing producers House of Saud and hosts of the 5th Fleet the al-Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain. Moreover, the House of Saud has told the al-Khalifa that if they do not crush their own Shi’ite-majority revolt, Saudi forces will. And Washington won’t bat an eyelid. As it won’t bat an eyelid if this Day of Rage turns into a bloodbath.