No spring in Saudi Arabia

By: Dr. Stig Stenslie, Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre (NOREF)

Stenslie is a researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies, Oslo, and visiting scholar at Columbia University, New York. He is author of Regime Stability in Saudi Arabia: The Challenge of Succession (Routledge, 2011).

How stable is Saudi Arabia?

The question raised is actualized by the “Arab spring”. Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Husni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar al-Qadhafi, and Yemen’s Ali Abdallah Salih’s are all history. In Syria the life of Bashar al-Asad is hanging by a thread.

A similar uprising in Saudi Arabia might have even greater consequences.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bears the family name of its rulers, Al Saud. The family – of almost 5000 members – manages the country as a family business. All state institutions are designed to the family’s own survival, and it controls the society through an ingenious alliance system. Tribes, religious leaders, and merchant families are all coopted. The loss of the royal family – the centre of gravity – would almost certainly lead to collapse, as in Libya.

Collapse will have repercussions far beyond the Arabian Peninsula, as Saudi Arabia is Islam’s geo-religious center as well as the world’s only oil superpower.

Out of the world’s known oil reserves, Saudi Arabia has one-fifth beneath its deserts. Historically, crises in the Middle East led to high oil prices, followed by global economic recessions. This was the case in the wake of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the revolution in Iran in 1979, the outbreak of the war between Iraq and Iran in 1980 and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The last year of unrest in the Middle East has not significantly affected oil prices, surprisingly, many people would argue. But the collapse of Saudi Arabia will trigger panic in the market.

So far there are few signs of spring in Saudi Arabia.

Minor protests have been held, but these have only been joined by a few thousand people – mainly in the Shia dominated cities along the east coast. In addition, there have been small markings outside government offices in cities such as Abha, Taif, Jeddah and Riyadh. And some women have defied the authorities by driving car. Under the calm surface, however, discontent is simmering, especially on social media like Facebook and Twitter. But as long as masses do not hit the streets, this will hardly rock the regime stability.

Three factors explain the absence of mass uprising in Saudi Arabia:

First, the royal family remains united.

Many experts claim that the family is deeply divided, but such contentions are misleading.

In fact, the princes at the very top of the royal family – those who control all key positions in the government – stand together. This benefits the regime. History has shown many examples of Arab dynasties that have fallen as a result of family feuds, often as a result of controversies about succession. While the princes fought among themselves, outsiders seized power. As long as the princes of Saudi Arabia are able to stand together, the opposition is less difficult to handle.

Second, the civil society is fragmented and coopted.

This undermines broad, national mobilization across sectarian, tribal-based and regional divides. It is a tradition of political activism in Saudi Arabia, and during the last few years, intellectuals – Shia as well as Sunni Muslims, liberals and Islamists, women and men, young and old have demanded reforms. But these demands have never been successfully coordinated. For example, Shia Muslims in the Eastern Province have not sought alliances with dissidents in the western province of Hijaz, where opposition against the royal family is deeply rooted. Thus, the opposition remains weak.

Instead of meeting the calls for reform, the royal family has rather responded by flexing its financial muscles and mobilizing its own networks.

The royal family has sought to coopt people by committing to invest $130 billion – in increased salaries for government employees, new jobs, improved social benefits and construction of houses, schools and hospitals.

At the same time, the family has mobilized its allies. The clerics have condemned the protests against the royal house. Demonstrations are destructive chaos as the enemies of Islam are behind, declared the country’s supreme religious leader. The wealthy merchant families have agreed to increase the salaries of their employees, corresponding to the upward adjustment that was made in the public sector. Both the clergy and trading families want the royal family in power, as a guarantor of their own privileges.

Third, the royal family enjoys support from Washington.

During the past year there have been tensions between Riyadh and the Obama administration, among other things related to the President’s demand that Mubarak should step down and public criticism of the Saudi military intervention to crush the riots in Bahrain.

Yet, the countries are not on a collision course.

The Obama administration has announced planned arms sales to Saudi Arabia worth up to $60 billion, and the countries are cooperating closely in the fight against terror. Both countries consider Iran as being a serious threat. The leaders in Washington know the potential consequences of an uprising in Saudi Arabia, and guard themselves well to fuel more protests by criticizing the regime.

No family dynasty has been around forever. But in the immediate future there is little evidence that the Al Saud is history.