By Nawaf Obaid
March 10, 2011
The past few months have seen unprecedented turbulence in the Middle East. Leaders in Tunisia and Egypt have been forced from power by popular uprisings, Libya is careening toward civil war, and widespread unrest has rattled Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq, Iran -- and to a lesser extent, Jordan, Algeria, Oman, and other countries in the region. Yet at the geographic center of all this chaos is Saudi Arabia, a country untouched by turmoil. This fact has led some pundits to the conclusion that the kingdom has only temporarily muffled the latent discontent of its people and that ultimately the domino of dissatisfaction and regime change will fall in Riyadh. These analysts, however, are highly likely to be proved wrong, as they fundamentally misunderstand the unique strengths of the Saudi monarchy and the current system of governance.
What their assessments fail to take into account is that though the kingdom shares several characteristics with the Middle Eastern countries listed above, it has a number of features that render it exceptional. Saudi Arabia is not ripe for revolution. Not even close.
Unlike many of the regional governments currently facing unrest, the kingdom has a strong record of fiscal responsibility. Revenues from energy exports and the more than $500 billion in foreign reserves (the third-largest in the world) amassed during King Abdullah's rule have been tapped to fund development projects that benefit the kingdom's surging population. In fact, the Saudi government has spent tens of billions in the last several years alone to build universities, schools, hospitals, rail links, and housing developments. King Abdullah recently announced a financial amelioration package, which had been in development since December 2010, to coincide with his return from abroad. These include $29.5 billion in extra expenditures that will benefit the poor, aid the unemployed, provide housing assistance, and support a real estate fund and bank of credit. Another program will raise the salaries of public employees and military personnel and give part-time public-sector employees full employment and benefits. Another aims to help those impacted by inflation. All these programs will be augmented by a further series of initiatives that will be announced later this year and included in the 2012 budget, with a focus on social security, unemployment, and housing. It is precisely these types of programs that were lacking in those countries that have witnessed revolution or are now facing unrest.
In addition to its social spending, the kingdom has invested extensively to shore up the defenses of its energy infrastructure, including several billion dollars for its 35,000-strong Facilities Security Force, and has spent a similar amount on its various armed services to protect its borders. Finally, the Saudi government has made considerable investments in internal security to root out al Qaeda from the kingdom; domestic safety and stability have been a key pillar of support from the general population.
Of course, the kingdom is not immune to economic problems. Greater efforts at fighting poverty and youth unemployment, as well as investing in infrastructure and public services, are still drastically needed. All Saudis receive housing assistance and free health care and education; the kingdom has a GDP per capita of about $18,500; and relatively few live in extreme poverty. Nonetheless, there is a widespread acknowledgement that the standard of living is not commensurate with a country as resource rich as Saudi Arabia. For this reason, the leadership has undertaken various economic reforms. A plan is in development to raise the minimum salary for civil servants to about $1,500 per month. The bureaucracy is being streamlined to improve the delivery of health care and other services. And several years ago, the government launched an office with the mandate of reducing the number who lives under the poverty level ($1,015 per month) from 13.3 percent in 2010 to 2.2 percent in 2020. Another initiative will successfully reduce to zero the 1.63 percent of Saudis living in "extreme poverty" (less than $450 per month) by the end of this year. Compared with the world poverty line of $1.25 per day, the kingdom is doing very well. But because Saudi Arabia is no ordinary country, such numbers are an embarrassment and have been met with large-scale government action.
Although there are some cultural similarities between Saudi Arabia and some of the states that are currently experiencing unrest, the dissimilarities are more important. First, no Arab country possesses a culture so rooted in change-resistant conservatism, which is in many ways derived from the kingdom's unique role in Islam and the Arab world. Not only is it the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed and the home of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, but it is also the largest provider of Muslim charitable contributions worldwide. And the fact that the Saudi monarchy has acted as a responsible custodian of the two holy sites gives it enormous legitimacy, both at home and abroad.
The conservatism of the Saudi population also explains the lack of any true "liberal" movement in the kingdom, with just a few groups that attract little support among the general populace. In addition, Salafism, the conservative strain of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, forbids opposition to earthly rulers, which is why Islamist reform movements led by radical clerics are also small and fragmented. Five recent petitions by such groups, which organizers hoped would attract millions of signatories, have come nowhere close: only a few thousand have signed. And so far protests organized on Facebook and other websites have yielded only a handful of individuals: Last Friday, March 4, a group called the "March 4th Youth Revolutionary Movement" brought out 12 demonstrators to a Riyadh mosque, despite inflammatory media coverage in the West of Saudi protest pages on various social networks. Shiites in Qatif and Hasa staged three protests together and brought out about 500 protesters combined.
As for the most serious threat to the leadership in the past decade -- al Qaeda -- it has lost whatever public support it may have had after a series of horrific bombings in the kingdom in 2003. Indeed, after a coordinated counterterrorism campaign, fully supported by the population, the al Qaeda network in Saudi Arabia has been decimated.
Most of these factors that make Saudi Arabia unique in the Arab world are relatively well known. But an equally important element is less often discussed, especially in the West: the prevalence of a robust nationalism that has been nurtured by and is firmly linked to the monarchy. Over the past decades, Saudis' allegiance to region and tribe has been largely superseded by a commitment and attachment to an emerging nation-state, thus greatly reducing the possibility of revolt.
The two main drivers of this rising nationalist sentiment have been external threats (most importantly Iraq's invasion of Kuwait) and internal crises (especially the fallout from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the 2003 al Qaeda bombings in Saudi Arabia). Another important factor is the rise of Iran and its anti-Arab policies, to which Saudis have responded with growing national solidarity. The leadership has also been aggressively pursuing domestic policies to unify the population (including the 1.5 million Shiites in the kingdom, who have long-held legitimate grievances over discrimination and lack of opportunity). For instance, the Saudi school system increasingly encourages students from the outlying tribal areas to attend urban schools, thereby shifting their allegiance from the local to the national level. Saudi Arabia also runs the world's largest foreign scholarship program, which provides full college tuition to over 110,000 students from all classes and regions to study abroad, and these foreign-trained students overwhelmingly return to the kingdom with feelings of dedication to the emerging nation-state, as evidenced by the fact that the majority of the first batch of returning students sought work in the public sector.
Restrictions against freedom of expression have been loosened, and vibrant debates and government criticism are now common in the local press (as was seen in the recent coverage of the disastrous Jeddah floods and the government's initial inept response). Further, the military has drastically expanded its recruitment scope to include eligible young men and women from across all regions for the armed forces, security services, and National Guard. As a result of these opening and unifying factors, there has been an increase in public expressions of supratribal Saudi nationalism among the people, something unseen in the country until recently. For instance, during the last Saudi National Day on Sept. 23, huge celebrations erupted across the country, whereas in the past, conservative religious authorities had opposed any expressions of fidelity to the state and regional and tribal allegiances trumped national fervor.
Just as important, however, is the widespread view that King Abdullah is a deeply popular leader at the head of a monarchy seen as legitimate by the vast majority of Saudi citizens. For example, a visiting Shiite delegation from Qatif headed by a highly esteemed Shiite cleric and judge came to pay their respects to the king this week and used this occasion to reaffirm their loyalty to the kingdom by thanking God for the king's safe return. "You have been in the hearts of your people since you left," they said, "and we do not want anything other than your presence, which protects the kingdom's security and safety."
Many analysts worry, however, about what will happen to Saudi Arabia in the event that the king passes away. They shouldn't. The kingdom recently set up a group called the Allegiance Commission to deal with all succession issues. It is composed of the living sons and one grandson of every dead son of King Abdul-Aziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, and its mandate is to choose a ruler (from among his sons and grandsons) who has the best qualities to lead. The process is designed to ensure that any upcoming transition of power will be smooth and result in another leader who garners widespread legitimacy and respect. So, while other governments in the area reap the bitter harvest of irresponsible fiscal policies, social disharmony, and unpopular leadership, the Saudi monarchy is very likely to continue for many more decades in its role as the bulwark of regional stability and security -- as well as a responsible steward of the largest oil reserves in the world.
Nawaf Obaid is a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies and is pursuing a doctorate on the rise of Saudi nationalism at the department of war studies at King's College London.