Leading intellectuals in Saudi Arabia have warned that grand financial gestures are no substitute for meaningful political reform, after King Abdullah unveiled a $36bn (£22bn) social welfare package in advance of planned anti-government protests next month.
In a statement released on Thursday, a group of Saudi scholars called on the royal family to learn from recent uprisings in the Gulf and North Africa and to start listening to the voices of the kingdom’s disenfranchised young people, some of whom are planning a “day of rage” on 11 March. Several Islamic thinkers, as well as a female academic and a poet, are among those adding their names to the declaration.
“The Saudi regime is learning all the wrong lessons from Egypt and Tunisia,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre. “The unrest in the region is not fundamentally economic, it’s fundamentally about politics. Economics plays a role but what the events of the past few months have shown us is that Arabs are looking for freedom, dignity and democracy – and if the Saudi leadership can’t see that, then they’re in trouble.”
Saudi Arabia’s 86-year-old monarch returned home this week from three months in hospital abroad, and immediately announced a vast package of welfare measures including new education and housing subsidies, the creation of 1,200 jobs and a 15% pay rise for all government employees.
But analysts believe the king – who promised far-reaching political reform when he ascended to the throne in 2005, only to make little effort in tackling the political status quo – has misjudged the grievances of his population.
The kingdom remains an absolute monarchy with few outlets for dissent, with public policy-making concentrated almost entirely in the hands of the ruling family.
“We’re seeing a lack of vision on the part of Saudi leaders right now,” said Hamid. “They’re trying to bribe people into quietude. It’s cynical, predictable, and it’s not necessarily going to work, at least in the long run – I don’t believe anyone thinks Saudi Arabia is going to fall tomorrow, but it’s not immune from unrest. It’s actually quite surprising that King Abdullah hasn’t taken this opportunity to move faster on political reform.”
Despite its oil wealth, Saudi Arabia features many of the underlying demographics that have helped spark rebellions in other Arab nations. Almost half the population is under the age of 18 and, unlike in other Gulf states, some of which boast close to full employment, 40% of 20- to 24-year-old Saudis are out of work.
Many young people are turning to online social media sites to exchange information and ideas.”The level to which young people in Saudi Arabia are connected to the rest of the world, and particularly the Arab world, is staggering,” Mai Yamani, a prominent Saudi author, told the Guardian.
“The flow of ideas being shared amongst this generation has no borders. The same anguish and demands being voiced by Arab youth elsewhere is inspiring youth in Saudi Arabia as well. In this climate, the days of using oil money to secure the subservience of citizens is over.”
So far the announcement on Facebook of a day of protest next month has been met with little open enthusiasm; in contrast to similar calls in Egypt and Tunisia which garnered tens of thousands of supporters, the Saudi web page is followed by only a few hundred supporters.
But in a kingdom where the current laws and social mores work predominantly to the benefit of ethnically Saudi males following the Sunni branch of Islam, some analysts have estimated that up to 20 million of the kingdom’s 27 million people – including women, Shia Muslims and some 7.5 million guest workers from Asia – feel dangerously detached from the state, amounting to a potentially potent groundswell of opposition.
“Saudi Arabia has had an undercurrent of unrest and anger towards the regime for decades now, it’s always been there bubbling underneath the surface,” claimed Hamid. “The question is when it’s going to explode.”
But he added that calls for a complete overhaul of the monarchy remained unlikely. “We have two regional models of change: one is the Egyptian, Tunisian and Libyan model of overthrowing the regime, and the other is the Moroccan and Jordanian model of shifting from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy, and that applies to Saudi Arabia as well. I don’t think there’s a hunger for a complete break in the system.”