Will the Arab revolutions only impact those totalitarian regimes which attained power following the national liberation movements? And will the oil-rich, tyrannical, dynastic regimes survive the tidal wave of change affecting the region?
Those monitoring the conduct of such regimes will notice that they have only responded to the aforementioned questions by using foreign powers as a scapegoat in order to avoid the popular uprisings affecting their internal affairs. That being said, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — the most dominant regional powers — have failed to contain events in their neighboring countries. Protests in Bahrain have picked up once again, and the clashes between police and protesters have grown in intensity. Protesters used to chant slogans calling for a constitutional monarchy. Now they call for the fall of the regime, an indication that the crisis is blooming. The “Gulf initiative” might have had intentionally ignored some of the main problems facing Yemen, such as the Houthi movement, the Southern Mobility Movement and the weakening of central power in Sana’a. The initiative also failed to meet the demands of the youth, who were calling for a new democratic system that would guarantee a civil state and political transparency. The US and Saudi Arabia-brokered GCC initiative was not able to ensure Ali Abdallah Saleh departure from politics, or from Yemen. However, it was able to grant this same fallen leader immunity from prosecution. Yemen is witnessing an unprecedented movement, one characterized by protests and strikes organized by thousands of military personnel demanding the dismissal of commanders of the Navy, the Air Force, and other military branches — all either relatives or supporters of the toppled president. What’s more, Yemen is witnessing a proliferation of Al-Qaeda attacks throughout its southern governorates.
This all begs the question: Will the Saudization and the Qatarization of the Islamic movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria exempt those countries from the effects of the change taking place in Qatar and Saudi Arabia?
If we look at Saudi Arabia, the Arab Peninsula’s largest state, it is possible to notice that all of the factors, such as unemployment, suppression, and corruption, which set off the popular movements and revolutions in other Arab countries are also present in the Kingdom.
One might claim that oil-rich Qatar — the richest country in the world in terms of per-capita income — has proven capable of satisfying the grumbling crowds. However, the truth of the matter is that the need for change does not stem from deprivation alone. It has become clear that growing economies and increases in oil and gas wealth have actually created new problems for ruling regimes in these countries. These factors actually push people to seek better livelihoods and call for their rights, not the other way around.
In Saudi Arabia, the unemployment rate for twenty-something Saudi youth reaches 35%, while 60% of Saudis are under the age 21 — the highest rate out of all Arab countries. It is true: The government is implementing Saudization policies, which require companies to hire a minimum 30% of Saudi employees. Following the Arab uprising, the government announced projects to create 3 million jobs over the next three years. In both cases, it is still too early to assess the outcome of these policies.
Unemployment is taking its toll on the youth’s future. It has been accompanied by the usual forms of isolation, suppression and social control that the Saudi regime has demonstrated a knack for, and which it uses to control the lives and freedoms of its people. It does not stop there The authorities watch the people’s every move. Mounting anger is being directed towards the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, due to the organization’s blunt interference into people’s personal lives. This has pushed the king to replace the head of the committee with a reformist.
The alienation of women and gender segregation continues to be common practice in Saudi Arabia. The authorities have upheld their ban on women driving, and have recently banned women from voting in municipal elections, through claims that difficulties arose in organizing sex-segregated polling stations. Gender segregation is also present in the workplace: Female workers perform their duties in separate rooms away from men, in spite of the fact that the percentage of women in the workforce has seen remarkable increases.
On another note, human-rights violations have increased over the past year in Saudi Arabia. One blogger was forced to flee the country after the state dubbed him an infidel. He began to receive death threats and the Saudi state has called for his extradition. Amnesty International is demanding the release of six prisoners who have been held without trial over claims that they were intending to protest on March 11 2011. Let me repeat: They were detained simply because they intended to protest! Three Saudi filmmakers were arrested because they dared to make a movie about poverty in Saudi Arabia. Poverty in the oil-rich heaven that is Saudi Arabia was further exposed after a Saudi national announced on Facebook that he was ready to sell off one of his children in order to provide for the other members of his family.
One website was blocked after it published news reports about the suppression of demonstrations in Saudi Arabia’s eastern areas, Al-Awamiyyah and Al-Qatif. Students had organized several strikes to protest the education system, and some had gone on a hunger strike to protest the imprisonment of Muhammad al-Bajadi, a human-rights activist. Al-Bajadi had reported on how Yemeni national Sultan Abdu died while being tortured when he was detained by Al-Qasim’s General Investigation Department.
A number of young activists have mocked the Saudi regime’s propaganda against the suppression of the Syrian uprising, pointing out that Saudi authorities have adopted the same approaches against the people of the Kingdom. Crown Prince Nayif, Saudi Arabia’s strongman, actively makes use of the Syrian regime’s tactics. For example, he has imposed a travel ban on those who oppose the government, accused them of terrorism and threatened to crush them with an iron fist.
One of the slogans sprayed across the walls of Al-Qatif, which was the site of suppressive measures that led to the death of four Saudi nationals, is “Where is the oil money?” This is a new question raised that has been raised by the Saudis.
The answer to this question can be summed up by the following: Every prince out of the nearly 20,000 that make up the ruling family (out of a population of 25 million citizens) receives $120,000 each month. However, even this income is not equally distributed. WikiLeaks revealed information on the Saudi ruling family’s finances stating that the profit generated by the one million barrels of oil sold every day day goes entirely to five or six princes. At current oil prices, this means that their joint income lies between $100 and $120 million. It is worthwhile to note that the Kingdom produces 10 million barrels of oil on a daily basis.
Furthermore, it is important to take into account the astronomical numbers of petro-dollars that are being sent to European and US capitals. These bank deposits are being used to pay off the debts of the US and Europe and lend support to their volatile currencies. In addition, this Saudi money is also being used to prop up the US and European real-estate market while serving as investments for a number of companies. The list goes on. Even when this has not been the case, these oil profits have been used to finance Gulf wars and billion-dollar arms deals — recent military contracts for US warplane sales have been worth $60 billion. On top of that, it leads to exaggerated consumer imports.
A new facet of this revolutionary era has emerged: Oil wealth has become the main revealing indicator of the corruption of the rulers, most of whom are businessmen. For this reason, the public is demanding a level of control over their countries’ wealth and natural resources, as well as a say in their distribution and the sovereign wealth funds associated with them. Today, the most important issue is that the oil wealth and its revenues have become something in common for the people of the region. Global money is interfering in a way or another in the affairs of the Arab countries, finding its way into local economies, investments and politics. It has been chanelled to these activities instead of ensuring work opportunities, food and freedom for the people. Oil money is currently being used as a lethal weapon to modify the path of the revolutions from one of democracy and development into one which upholds the Islamic and Salafist —not to mention jihadist — movements.