By Ian Black
Saudi Arabia shares many problems common to the Arab world but demands for change in the kingdom is relatively modest.
Al-Qatif in Saudi Arabia's eastern province has a harsh climate: summer temperatures often reach the mid-40s, though the winter is pleasantly mild. But it is not the weather that is exercising locals and the government in these days of political turbulence across the Middle East.
Residents say all seems calm, and see no sign that security has been reinforced. But there is a mood of expectation about Friday's Saudi “day of rage” and whether the “Arab spring” will spread to the conservative kingdom.
The city lies in the heartland of the country's oil-producing area, home to a restive Shia minority that has long complained of poverty and discrimination.
Tensions mounted last month when the neighboring island state of Bahrain saw an unprecedented uprising that left seven dead and set nerves jangling in a region already deeply unsettled by the turmoil in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.
Demonstrations are rare in Saudi Arabia — a country with no legal political parties or mass movements — and even committed reformists admit they are anxious about taking to the streets. “There is no history of public protests, even in support of the government,” said Jaafar al-Shayeb, a city councilor and businessman in al-Qatif. The Facebook organisers of Friday's event are breaking new ground. “No one knows who is behind the protests,” said Waleed Abu al-Khair, a human rights activist in Jeddah. Some fear a ploy by the secret police to entrap protesters. Last week, the security forces came out to forestall trouble after Friday prayers. A young Sunni teacher named Muhammad al-Wad'ani, arrested in Riyadh after a video of him calling for change was posted on YouTube, remains in detention.
But government strategy so far appears largely pre-emptive. An Interior Ministry ban on demonstrations was backed by the Council of Senior Clerics, who warned of violating Islamic law — a classic Saudi combination of state and religious power.
“Every citizen should cooperate with the authorities to maintain security and stability throughout the kingdom,” warned the appointed Shura council chairman, Abdullah Al-Asheikh.
Saud al-Faisal, the veteran Foreign Minister, weighed in: “Reform does not come via protests and [the clerics] have forbidden protests since they violate the Qur'an and the way of the Prophet.” Still, official nervousness has produced some positive gestures too. Twenty-five protesters were released in al-Qatif on Tuesday. Sheikh Tawfiq al-Amer, a Shia cleric who was detained after calling for a constitutional monarchy, was also freed.
Saudi Arabia shares many problems common to the Arab world — a youth “bulge,” lack of opportunities for graduates, precious few political freedoms, plus an absence of transparency and accountability by an absolute monarchy that includes 8,000 princes. Restrictions on women — who are not allowed to drive and cannot travel abroad without the permission of a male relative — are another big negative.
The notorious religious police are another. Torture is frequently used on detainees. Unemployment between the ages of 14 and 24 is 40 per cent — in a country where almost 70 per cent of the population is under 20.
Demands for change are relatively modest. Of three reform petitions circulating on the internet, one has gathered signatures from 1,500 prominent liberal and Islamist Saudis calling for a constitutional monarchy, an elected parliament and an accountable executive. Entitled ‘Towards a Country with Rights and Institutions,' it is couched in polite and formal language and starts by wishing the king good health. It is a far cry from the slogans heard in Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli. But online access was still quickly blocked.
A “youth petition” signed by 60 journalists and cyber-activists calls for political liberalisation and lowering the average age of Ministers to 40 and of Shura council members to 45. “There is a new generation of people who are more liberal,” says a senior Saudi journalist, “but they still respect the old red lines.” Many Saudi liberals insist the king is a well-intentioned reformist, if one limited by his age and experience. Khaled al-Maeena, editor of the Jeddah-based Arab News, is one of them. “People are adamant that the day of rage will not be about throwing stones and shouting slogans, so there shouldn't be an over-reaction.” With national income three times the level of Egypt's and control of 20 per cent of the world's oil reserves, the government's instinct is to throw money at problems. Last month, the king returned from a long convalescence in the U.S. and Morocco and announced a $37 billion package to boost salaries, tackle unemployment and provide affordable housing. Mr. Abdullah's generosity was hailed in the media but a princess who castigated people for their ingratitude at royal largesse angered many.
“The king has given a financial answer,” said Abu Khair, “but not a political one. People need more than money.” Riyadh is rife with rumours about a possible cabinet reshuffle, sacking under-performing officials or promoting younger princes to positions occupied by their ageing fathers. Another possibility is electing half the Shura council. But will such measures be enough to satisfy the critics?
“There is anger everywhere,” said al-Maeena. “We have had years of lethargy and inaction. We need to change the mindset. The king is loved. His personality is something people look up to and the House of Saud is a pillar of this kingdom. But they have to realise that times have changed and people have changed.”