The Three Products of Saudi Arabia – God, Oil, and Security
Change is coming to the Middle East in the form of the “Arab Spring.” At least that is what we keep hearing about. An immolation in Tunisia, a corrupt leader in Egypt, and an oppressive Syrian state are all crumbling under the weight of non-viable political systems. Successful democracies are a pipedream in many countries but the creaking in clanking of structural change continues. One country seems to be immune from these changes and has found a package of promises that continues to satisfy citizens.
Saudi Arabia, as a protection against social upheaval, has handed out billions of dollars in economic aid in order to head off discontent. It remains the case that many Saudi citizens are frustrated about unemployment, housing, and health services but the economic handouts have softened the blow. But there is nothing so strong, nothing that cements a society more than religious coherence and the successful spreading of obligation. The Saudi leaders, their voices ringing out from the minarets and mosques, regularly remind their people of their godly duties, which include allegiance to the house of Saud. The message is clear: the present Saudi leaders have returned civil obedience and purity to the land by reminding the people of their obligation to God. They warn the country against chaos and glorify themselves as the voice of Islam. The rhetorical strategy is very effective. Any call for demonstrations or suggestion of civil disobedience is characterized as a conspiracy and as a violation against Islam.
The Saudis also use the Sunni-Shia divide as a weapon in their cold war against Iran. They are convinced that Iran wants to increase its penetration into other societies and see the Arab spring as an opportunity for Iranian influence. The Iranians on the other hand have tried to use pro-democracy movements to advance their own position, even though their intentions may be less than honorable. Saudi anti-Shiite religious traditions are an effective policy against Iran and other threatening countries.
When the bonds of religious commitment loosen and citizens begin to ask questions and engage in debate and challenge conventional wisdom, the Saudis deploy their third foreign-policy strategy which is to tighten security. If God and oil are not enough, then security must be.
A group of activists called for a “digital day of rage” in Saudi Arabia and the goal was to gather momentum for democratic processes in the underground digital world. But above ground, in the real world, Saudi security forces were repelling the few demonstrators that showed up for the day of rage. A few petitions were passed around but to no avail and the Saudi government responded by invoking criminalization of any criticism of the King.
These three strategies of God, oil, and security are working fairly well for the Saudi’s at the moment. So far anyway, they have held off the weather by pushing back the Arab spring. To the credit of protesters looking for more individual freedom they have maintained their digital activism. The underground web networks are serving an important function to a population denied most basic freedoms. The Saudi leadership will have none of it. They continue to use oil money and religious doctrine to prevent protest. Democracy advocates have a difficult path ahead of them. They must face a wealthy government that tailors economic payoffs that would make Tony Soprano blush with envy. Tight security and an aggressive police force certainly cause citizens to think twice about real protest.
The prospect for revolt in Saudi Arabia is slim. The structural conditions do not exist to stimulate real mobilization and real protest. It is not a society that has developed trade unions, activist student populations, or other protest movements that can possibly play a role in leading revolt. Moreover, because of oil money most Saudi citizens do not suffer economic deprivation. So the cycle continues – security protects the oil money which is anointed by God.