A "Day of Rage" planned for March 11 in Saudi Arabia petered out without much protest, despite the turmoil throughout much of the region. While Saudi Arabia is tense these days, Saudi expert Rachel Bronson says popular reluctance to protest and a tough government warning about such protests have kept the Saudi streets relatively calm. Bronson says the Saudis are focused on the neighboring monarchy in Bahrain, where the king is trying to negotiate a deal with protesting Shiite groups. The Saudi leadership is concerned that a regime overthrow in Bahrain would encourage the minority Shiite population in Saudi Arabia to rise up and might also lead the Iranians to try to interfere, says Bronson. She adds that relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States have been strained because of the Obama administration’s decision to drop support for Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and comments by the State Department that Saudi Arabia should allow peaceful protests, even as the leadership has barred such activities. Finally, Bronson says, "If Bahrain is not handled well, it could really lead to a situation where the United States and Saudis are squared off, an outcome that would not serve either side well."
The "Day of Rage" seems to have lacked much rage. What happened?
There were certainly protests, but they were small and not to the scale of the rest of the region. The government had been very clear that it would not sanction protests. As of now, there is not the kind of unified opposition across the country--across classes and groups--that we saw in other Middle Eastern countries. People and groups have their grievances, but it is not organized or broad-based.
With all the unrest in the Arab world, how would you describe the situation right now in Saudi Arabia?
Things are tense. The Saudis themselves are trying to figure out whether to organize, how to protest, and what should be their response in the mix of revolutions around them. The fighting and bloodshed in Libya have affected calculations in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region. It doesn’t look as easy to overthrow regimes as it did when the examples were confined to Tunisia and Egypt. Anyone who may have thought of going out and joining a demonstration will think a lot harder about it. The costs of doing so are potentially higher across the whole region. And since Saudi Arabia is coming to the idea of organized demonstrations later than many in the region, the Libyan example--and the costs of opposition--could matter a lot.
The Saudi leadership has been quick to try to prevent any trouble. What have they been doing?
The fighting and bloodshed in Libya have affected calculations in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region. It doesn’t look as easy to overthrow regimes as it did when the examples were confined to Tunisia and Egypt.
The leadership’s done a number of things to try to prevent the revolutionary fervor sweeping the region from heaving up onto Saudi shores. When King Abdullah returned to Saudi Arabia last month after being away for three months for health reasons, one of the first things he did was announce a $37 billion program of assistance. That comes on top of efforts the Saudis have been undertaking over the last number of years in funding education and economic development. Of course, $37 billion is a huge amount of money. It was offered to raise the salary of government workers, to increase job opportunities, to increase housing subsidies, to increase opportunities to study abroad. These will be meaningful to people on the street. There have been arrests of a number of Shiites in the Eastern Province, where most Shiites in Saudi Arabia live. The leadership has issued statements that protests are illegal in Saudi Arabia. And religious clerics have issued edicts that demonstrations are un-Islamic.
King Abdullah, who took over in 2005 and before that was running affairs as crown prince, is old and ill. Who would succeed him?
When the king passes, the rule is expected to pass to the crown prince, Prince Sultan. The crown prince, in his late eighties, has been reportedly quite ill for a number of years so there’s always a chance that it passes over him. After him, rule would likely pass to the second deputy prime minister, Prince Nayaf, the minister of the interior. All three men are sons of the kingdom’s founder. Ironically, given how much attention we give to the question of who’s next in Saudi Arabia, power transfer seems more predictable there than in many places such as Egypt, recently, under Mubarak.
Prince Nayaf , as head of the Ministry of Interior, led the fight against the al-Qaeda uprisings of 2003, right?
Yes, he’s been very active in going after al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia.
I’ve been fascinated by King Abdullah’s launching a new university, King Abdullah University, which has co-ed classes. It’s unique in having men and women in the same place, isn’t it?
King Abdullah has been pushing through a number of very slow but steady reforms, trying to increase the oxygen in the system, including building King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, a place where gender mixing is allowed. Under his leadership, the Saudis have pulled back the religious police, who used to be more ubiquitous, and no longer allow them the free rein as they used to have. He was the one who helped bring Saudi Arabia into the World Trade Organization. Over the last decade, he has brought attention to the fact that there was real poverty in the kingdom, alongside the kingdom’s massive wealth. He brought together Sunni and Shiites in a national dialogue the early 2000s. This national dialogue received some attention in the West because there were women involved, but what was really interesting in Saudi Arabia was that there were Shiites involved. You hear from Saudi watchers that the king has support, probably more so than many of his counterparts in the region.
Talk a bit about eastern Saudi Arabia, where the majority of the Shiites live. What are the problems for the Shiites? What are their main concerns?
A majority of Saudi Arabia’s Shiites live in the Eastern Province. Although they are not a majority there, they are heavily concentrated there. It is also the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil production. The Eastern Province abuts the Persian Gulf and is less than twenty miles from Bahrain through a causeway. Iran is not far away, either. This makes the Saudis nervous. Back in 1979 during the days of the Iranian revolution, some Shiites in the Eastern Province did agitate for change, raising for the Saudis concerns about Iranian influence. But the tension between the Sunnis and the Shiites in Saudi Arabia is longstanding. It is part of the fabric of the kingdom’s founding. Back in the 1910s and 1920s, religious zealots aligned with the kingdom’s founders sought to destroy the Shiites in the East. Some of that bigoted extremism continues today. The Eastern Provence is the location of the most recent protests as well.
What are relations like these days between the United States and Saudi Arabia? I’ve seen reports that the Saudis were upset that the United States didn’t back Hosni Mubarak long enough, and the State Department spokesman made a statement the other day saying Saudi Arabia should permit demonstrations, which may have annoyed the Saudi leadership.
We get so consumed by the question of how stable are they, that it prevents us from seeing and planning for other events that could cause real problems. For example, events in Bahrain could become very problematic and spill out of control if they are not handled with considerable skill and diplomacy.
Yes, the Saudis were reportedly furious that we did not back Mubarak for longer. But in the United States, of course, critics of the Obama administration said we didn’t [support the protestors] fast enough. And part of the American delay was, in fact, trying to buy some time to convey to our allies that we were supportive of them until their population forced them out. The administration did a fairly good job of trying to be very clear that this was a regime that was finished and it was time to move on. The Saudis did not welcome the American statement that the Saudis must permit peaceful protests.
I think the Saudis are also using the implied U.S. criticism in their own arsenal of responses to potential protests. They have offered a host of reasons not to agitate for change--don’t protest because it’s anti-Islamic; don’t protest because you’re just a tool of the West; don’t protest because look at all the economic benefits we have to offer. They’re using it for their own internal purposes, just as we’re making these statements for our own internal purposes.
Any last thoughts?
We focus so much of our attention on the stability of the regime, for good reason given what’s going on around the region. A month ago, nobody thought Mubarak would be gone and he’s gone, so it’s hard to say that regime is stable. Most analysts think that by any measure the Saudis will weather this. But we get so consumed by the question of how stable are they, that it prevents us from seeing and planning for other less pivotal but more likely events that could cause real problems.
For example, events in Bahrain could become very problematic and spill out of control if they are not handled with considerable skill and diplomacy. The Saudis are very concerned about what happens in Bahrain. It’s right on their doorstep, and they are worried about Iranian intervention. Bahrain is within twenty miles of Saudi Arabia. It’s a monarchy, and the Saudis don’t want a monarchy to fall. Bahrain is a Shiite majority state, and a radicalized Bahrain could incite, and become a sanctuary for, Saudi Shiites. Imagine a scenario in which it is revealed that the Saudis are sending in material support to suppress the opposition there. The United States would not be able to remain quiet, and Saudi Arabia and the United States would find themselves on opposite sides. This would rattle the oil markets to a greater extent than what we are seeing now in response to events in Libya. For now, the Bahraini king is doing an impressive job of navigating his country through a very rough and tense time. Bahrain is a very split country at the moment. Bahrain is getting overtaken by Libya in the world’s media. But we should really be watching it carefully because events there have the potential to be really problematic. If Bahrain is not handled well, it could really lead to a situation where the United States and Saudis are squared off, an outcome that would not serve either side well.