Saudi Arabia faces more immediate threats than Arab Spring

Although some wonder if Arab Spring-type revolutions will spread to Saudi Arabia, this seems unlikely given that the kingdom is more strongly influenced by its Gulf neighbors than states like Egypt and Tunisia.

al-monitor A foreign worker reads instructions on the correct documents to submit for the repatriation procedure, Riyadh, Nov. 27, 2013. Economists say the reforms are an attempt to address a long-term challenge of youth unemployment. Photo by REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser.

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saudi society, saudi arabian economy, saudi arabia free speech, gulf states, arab spring

Jan 30, 2014

Since the Arab Spring revolutions first ignited, international media and research centers have constantly asked whether the Arab Spring threatens Saudi Arabia. While some consider Saudi Arabia immune to the events in some of the other Arab countries, others believe that revolutions will find their way into the kingdom. Since Saudi Arabia is a pivotal state — one may even say that it has become the pillar of the Arab region — the question is very important. We should ask and answer it with objectivity, before the others do, particularly since we Saudis best know our own people.

The revolutions sweeping through some of the countries around us have undoubtedly changed the reality of the region. Over the past three years, the Arab region has seen the rise of political Islam in an unprecedented way through the Muslim Brotherhood, which managed to arrive to power in several countries. This is in addition to political Salafism, whose parties were able to infiltrate those countries. On the other hand, the region has also seen unprecedented and growing freedom of expression and demands for greater public participation, where democratic discourse has gained a legitimacy that is hard to revoke. The Arab Spring has given a free hand to political ideologies, be they right-wing parties representing the Islamist movements or the leftist parties who identify with the slogans of the Arab Spring. It is clear that this issue, as a whole, pushes many of the Gulf countries to fear and believe that the Arab Spring is a threat to the stability of the state. We live in a society that has its own peculiarities, and we should move down the path of reform at a speed appropriate to the ability of society to accept change.

Saying that the Arab Spring is a threat to the kingdom or to the Gulf countries in general assumes that the historical experience and the current situation in the Gulf region is structurally similar to that of the Arab Spring countries, which is not the case. In general, countries that participated in the Arab Spring have similar historical experiences and ideas that differ from the ones adopted by their political regimes. In addition, the current situations in the Arab Spring countries are similar in terms of the economic control, security or political repression that those regimes are practicing. On the other hand, Arab Gulf countries have a different historical experience and current reality, particularly in the economic realm. Thus, the situation is different in these countries, which makes the evaluation of how threatening the Arab Spring dependent on factors that differ widely from those in the Arab Spring countries.

In the first place, the real threat to the Gulf countries does not stem from abroad, nor from the Arab countries that are currently suffering from instability, but our internal challenges. For instance, unemployment poses a threat that is greater than that of al-Qaeda in Yemen or Syria. The threat we face is from a society in which the youth — who represent two-thirds of the population — suffer from worsening economic injustice. This unsettled feeling is the result of the absence of outlets and opportunities for them to express themselves, and to the daily erosion of their financial capabilities. Young people find themselves incapable of getting a house or a job with an acceptable income, while hearing stories of new projects costing billions of riyals on an almost daily basis. These problems do not necessarily attract the youth to intellectual movements, be they religious or liberal, as much as they represent a common denominator between both situations. The youth start to feel helpless and hopeless, as reality drives them further away from their hopes and aspirations.

The real threat does not lie in the impact of the Arab Spring revolutions on Saudi Arabia’s internal scene. There is an enormous difference between those revolutions and the internal situation of Saudi Arabia. For instance, spreading news of the raising of public-sector wages by 60% in other Gulf countries is more dangerous than all the Arab Spring demonstrations. This is the reality of our street today. The Saudi man compares himself to the men of Gulf countries before looking to the people of Tunisia. Before calling for public participation, as is happening in Egypt, the Saudi man demands that his city keep up with Dubai, for example, and that his salary and financial benefits match those of the other Gulf nationals. Deep down, the Arab Spring does not represent a threat to the kingdom. The threat is actually represented by the developments in other Gulf countries. Saudis constantly compare themselves to citizens of Gulf countries, whose progress that they aspire to duplicate. We should realize that what is taking place in the United Arab Emirates, for example, is much more important than what is occurring in all the Arab Spring countries.

Efforts to address these challenges demand a readiness for reform and the general mobilization of all state agencies to accomplish Saudi Arabia's many delayed milestones. They require a radical set of laws to restructure the economy in order to create more opportunities, not mere ministerial decisions to encourage the employment of Saudis here and there, or to sanction those who curtail it. They require a redevelopment and an update of the state’s administrative apparatus, to adapt to the size of the kingdom and the challenges that require solutions within a limited time frame, not actions to manage and put off the problems. The social contract between the Gulf citizens and their rulers is still valid, and Gulf citizens in general seek stability, as political stability is an essential condition for the developments that will benefit them. The fear of the political impact of the Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia or in other Gulf countries does not reflect the reality of the street. On the other hand, conducting radical economic reform that corresponds to the needs of the times will be the real challenge that we should seriously consider, because it is ultimately the threat we might face.

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