Policy analysts, scholars, and other talking heads have been grappling with the question of stability in Saudi Arabia.
Since the start of the 2011 Arab uprisings, there has been visible and unprecedented agitation in the country among families of political prisoners, members of the Kingdom’s marginalized Shiite communities, and women.
This unrest has stirred nascent hopes that the Gulf behemoth may be compelled to scale back its repressive policies.
In response to this developing internal political contestation, the Kingdom has deployed an ingenious strategy to quell dissent. Rather than responding directly to political demands, Saudi Arabia has leveraged the political chaos unfolding in Syria—and now Egypt—to its own advantage.
By investing in Egypt’s revolution, Saudi Arabia has reaffirmed its role as the savior of security and stability in the Middle East, allowing it to cast its own domestic protest movements as chaotic and counterproductive. Moreover, the ouster of Mohamed Morsi enables Saudi Arabia to reclaim ground lost to the populist Muslim Brotherhood, and ensures, with the support of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Force’s (SCAF), that oil keeps flowing through the Suez Canal.
Though this strategy is clearly advantageous for the Saudi monarchy, it ultimately undercuts efforts at pursuing the deep democratic restructuring that Egypt so badly needs.
By “shorting” Egypt’s new interim government, Saudi Arabia is banking on the failure of Egyptian activists to fully wrest control of the economy away from the military and demand fiscal transparency and accountability.
Wahhabi Worries: The Challenges of Change in the Kingdom
As a paradigmatic rentier state, Saudi Arabia has long struggled with institutional deficiencies and an inadequate administrative structure. Thanks to the revenues generated by petroleum reserves, Saudi Arabia has been able to offset its inchoate bureaucracy and placate its citizenry.
Increasingly, however, the long-term prospects of this arrangement have been called into question.
The Saudi population has grown at an outrageous pace, increasing from 6 million inhabitants in 1970 to 28 million today. This has created higher demands for energy, scarce natural resources (water), social welfare benefits, and employment opportunities.
Despite increased oil revenues, employment and social welfare provisions have been unable to keep pace. Approximately a quarter of Saudis now live below the poverty line. High youth unemployment has also sparked concerns. According to government statistics, more than two-thirds of Saudis are under thirty, and nearly three-quarters of all unemployed Saudis are in their twenties.
Besides demographic shifts, skyrocketing use of social media over the past two years has also raised government concerns.
Saudi Arabia now has the highest number of YouTube and Twitter users per capita globally. As reported by Diana Sayed: “Between 2011 and 2012, the number of Twitter users in the Kingdom grew by 3,000 percent, posting an average of 50 million messages monthly, most of them in Arabic.”
The October 2011 YouTube premiere of “Maloob Alayna (We’ve been cheated): Poverty in Saudi Arabia,” a documentary by dissident Saudi videographers Feros Boqna, Hussam al Drewesh and Khaled al Rasheedin, sparked massive popular interest. By December 2011, the Arabic version of the video had been viewed 1.5 million times. .
The rise of social media has coincided with an increase in human rights activism in Saudi Arabia, with organizers coordinating protests via Skype, Facebook, and Twitter. For the regime this has been a significant development, given social media’s role in bringing about political change in other regional countries.
To counteract this threat, the government has arranged for members of the religious and political establishment to condemn social media usage. In April, the government-appointed imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca declared Twitter a “threat to national unity.” Sheikh Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, affirmed that anyone using social media, particularly Twitter, “has lost this world and his afterlife.”
The government response to tweeting has fueled more activism, and demonstrated the lengths to which the kingdom is willing to go when its power is contested, even if on the Internet.
In March, Mohammed Al-Qahtani and Abdullah Al-Hamid, co-founders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, were sentenced to ten and five-year prison terms, respectively, for using Twitter to criticize the government. The popular backlash to these disproportionately harsh charges was instrumental in reviving popular solidarity, if only briefly.
Another key—though often underappreciated—development affecting stability in Saudi Arabia is increased mobilization among the Kingdom’s eight million migrant workers. Most were brought in from Southeast Asia and Africa through the kafala (sponsorship) system. Long subject to horrific human rights abuses, some migrant workers have begun to see the light.
In July 2012, 180 Saudi-based overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) staged a hunger strike in Riyadh to protest at the unwillingness to address migrant grievances, including non-payment of salaries, contract violations, poor working conditions, illegal salary deductions, and non-renewal (or non-disclosure) of iqamas (residence permits).
More recently, migrant workers have demonstrated against the Nitaqat program, a labor localization effort introduced in late March to offset Saudi unemployment by deporting unauthorized foreign workers.
The program allows Saudi nationals to assume expat-held positions in the private sector while silencing the political demands of the Kingdom’s increasingly vocal foreign employees. Workplace raids under the program commenced in early April, resulting in the deportation of more than 200,000 workers.
Importantly, groups like Migrante International have sought to call attention to the Saudi government’s political motivations in implementing this policy:
The public’s discontent with the Saudi Royal Family… continues to grow. Crackdowns are being implemented to prevent future protests against unemployment and to dispel … oppositionist groups against the Royal Family… believed to be led by expats and migrants in Saudi. This is not simply Saudi implementing a…more rigorous immigration policy. This is political discrimination, repression and prosecution of migrants in Saudi.
Without an adequate internal infrastructure for managing the growing foreign worker population, Saudi Arabia could face serious problems, especially if there is a major decline in oil prices.
Should violence erupt over economic difficulties in the Kingdom, much of the country’s private sector activity would come to a halt, since foreign workers comprise almost 80% of the total workforce.
Consolidating Control and Coordinating “Coups”: Saudi’s Strategy
The Saudi monarchy has embraced an inventive dual strategy to stave off the convulsions of revolution: divide internal opposition to the regime, and highlight the failures of reform efforts elsewhere in the Middle East.
Divide and Conquer
Protest movements in Saudi Arabia share a restricted political space. It has consequently been easy for the monarchy to play various groups off one another—a tactic that has been especially useful during escalating political activism over the past year.
The current religio-political pie in Saudi Arabia is split between the following groups: Islamic political activists, who are themselves divided into the Sahwists (al-sahwa ‘l-islamiyya), an Islamist group that embraces a strict Salafi value system and political Islam, and militant jihadis; liberal modernist protesters who criticize the sacrosanct alliance between the ulama (religious elite) and the ruling family; and the Shia, who seek full recognition of their status and integration into the state.
The Saudi regime has worked to create conflict between these groups to keep them from uniting against the government. As succinctly articulated by Ondrej Beranek, “All of these actors have only a limited space within which to operate, and once they cross certain boundaries and become intolerable to the regime, they are curbed.”
With regard to Sunni-Shia relations, the regime’s divisive tactics are not new. Shiites in the Eastern Province have historically been excluded from the formal political and socioeconomic landscape, and marketed to the broader Sunni majority as Iranian co-conspirators and religious deviants seeking to destabilize the “true” Islamic state. Speaking to this point, a Riyadh-based activist emphasized:
…it’s the system. From a very young age we are taught that our identity should be two things; a ‘pure’ Saudi and ‘real’ Muslim… rather than celebrating our diversity, we are taught to hide any differences and to fit into the status quo… to conform to societal expectations and to follow the government interpretation of Islam… Anyone who does anything different…is written off as either not ‘pure Saudi’ or not a ‘true Muslim.’
Simultaneously, the Saudi monarchy has sought to fracture the Shiite movement internally. As described by Frank Wehrey, “The regime has responded with a timeworn strategy of handing out economic subsidies, co-opting Shia clerics to dampen the protests, launching a media counteroffensive that inflames sectarianism, and undertaking a campaign of arrests and detentions.”
The escalation of violence in Syria has further complicated these tensions. Syria has become the symbolic site of geostrategic grappling between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Increasingly, the relevance of Saudi’s proxy policies in Syria has impacted Bahrain, Saudi Arabia’s Shiite majority neighbor. As Toby Jones has described:
The decision to intervene in Bahrain is linked…to anxieties…about the potential for a democratic demonstration effect…if there were popular uprisings or… a successful regime change in Bahrain, that might somehow sweep across the Saudi borders and encourage Saudi citizens to pursue a similar path. But there’s also another element… There is a deep sense of anti-Shiism and sectarianism in the Kingdom. So, the specter of Shia political power in Bahrain, so soon after Iraqi Shias came to enjoy predominance and power in Saudi Arabia’s most powerful northern neighbor, was too much for the Saudis to bear…they preemptively intervened, militarily occupied Bahrain… to stamp out the possibility of Shia empowerment there.
Shiites within Saudi Arabia who rally against the regime are strategically differentiated from other protest groups, and framed as foreign conspirators by government authorities. This past July, two Shiite demonstrators participating in anti-regime protests in Awamiya were sentenced to nine years in prison for sedition, having been accused of possessing “anti-kingdom and anti-rulers pictures on his mobile phone… and of knowing dissidents in Qatif and covering up their activities.”
Authorities have also accused non-Shiite protesters of acting on behalf of “deviant groups” — usually the Al-Qaeda jihadist network, as well as Shiite groups.
This line of argument became increasingly relevant over the past year as protest movements spread out from the predominantly Shiite region of Qatif, and Saudi authorities could no longer claim that only Shiites were advocating for reforms:
Government propaganda quickly attempted to discredit any groups… pushing for human rights: protesters in Qatif became heretics serving a “foreign nation” (implying Iran), demonstrators in Qassim were deemed terrorists who were a threat to… security…, and liberal activists… “brainwashed by infidels”… were attempting to “westernize” the country.
This invocation of joint nationalistic and sectarian loyalty has kept the disparate protest movements separate and competitive with one another.
At the same time, the de facto and de jure outlawing of NGOs, through a restrictive legal framework, heavy censorship, and absence of NGO transparency, has conditioned these groups to understand one another as competitors, rather than allies that can change the system together.
The lack of NGOs to act as mediating bodies and promote meaningful interaction between sect-segregated protest groups continues to be an obstacle to meaningful collaboration.
Consequently, the initial activism that characterized much of 2011, from the Day of Rage and subsequent demonstrations in cities of the Eastern Province, has significantly plateaued.
Those protests that have taken place this past year in Saudi Arabia have been isolated from one another. Popular demonstrations against anti-Shia policies in the Eastern Province, protests by families of detained prisoners, and the well publicized women’scar-ban protestin July 2012 signify largely discrete, rather than unified popular dissent.
Even in those rare instances where there has been coordination, sectarianism appears to get in the way of greater unity.
The Twitter facilitated “Sit ins for Freedom,” which galvanized small groups of women to oppose the arbitrary detention of family members, may have demonstrated that women’s groups can create their own space within the broader movement to release political prisoners.
Nevertheless, the sit-ins also demonstrated that it is unlikely these groups will endorse the country’s Shia movements. Despite mutual interests in opposing arbitrary detentions, these women’s demonstrations were specific to non-Shiite detainees. The cities where the protests took place, Riyadh, Mecca, Aljouf, and Hilal, all lie outside of the Shiite dominated Eastern Province, reflecting the sectarian and geographic demarcation of political protest in Saudi Arabia.
“Shorting” the Revolutionary Market
In addition to its oppressive authoritarian tactics, the Saudi monarchy has highlighted external struggles elsewhere in the Middle East to legitimize its own rule.
In pointing to on-going conflicts in other regional countries, the government has suggested that without the stability afforded by the monarchy, the state would collapse.
Admittedly, all Saudis would have a lot to lose in an unstable political environment. No matter how admirable or righteous protests may be, the prospect of unfettered sectarian violence, absence of rule of law, and economic devolution, is unpalatable.
Importantly though, the Kingdom’s scare tactics vis à vis other “rebellious” countries in the region—namely Egypt, Syria, Libya and Iraq—have recently moved beyond backroom rhetoric to direct diplomatic and financial involvement.
Rather than simply highlighting the unpleasant economic and political consequences that have befallen other revolutionary states, Saudi Arabia has positioned itself as stabilizing savior, seeking to salvage its domestic legitimacy by building credibility elsewhere.
Particularly instructive in this regard is the Saudi regime’s political maneuvering regarding Egypt.
Toying with Egypt
Perhaps the most troubling iteration of Saudi Arabia’s deflective diversions is its recent investment in anti-Morsi activism. Saudi Arabia has offered Egypt’s new military-backed interim government $5 billion in aid, $2 billion of which is already being transferred.
This beneficence betrays a far less altruistic motive. As Richard Spencer highlighted in July, the Gulf monarchies (exempting Qatar) “regard the [Muslim Brotherhood’s] reformist, populist brand of political Islam with suspicion and, in the case of the UAE, loathing.”
In addition to the Kingdom’s longstanding concerns over a potential grand bargain between the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran, the prospect of Brotherhood agitators fomenting unrest in Saudi Arabia poses a risk for the monarchy.
Indeed, since the 1991 Gulf War and the rise of Al-Qaeda, Saudi Arabia’s contingent of Wahhabi clerics and groups have vied with the Brotherhood’s populist political Islam for influence over the region.
Self-interested motivations aside, by providing financial support to Egypt’s interim government, Saudi Arabia has reasserted its image both internally and regionally as a savior of stability.
A successful Egyptian political transition, one that genuinely reflected deep state reforms and rejected both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, would threaten the Saudi kingdom’s conservative reformist claims.
If Tamarod protestors in Egypt could succeed in divorcing themselves entirely from Egypt’s convoluted political history, to actively embrace a “third way,” it could represent an attractive model for Saudi protestors who have not yet consolidated their mutual dissatisfaction with the monarchy or Muslim Brotherhood.
As Marc Lynch perceptively observed:
Gulf leaders no doubt calculated that Egypt would return to its rightful place in the official Arab order. But their vision of Egypt’s political reset is not to 1954, no matter how much they want to see the Brotherhood crushed. They would like to prevent, not encourage, the emergence of a new form of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s independent foreign policy that could challenge their own. A reset to the late 2000s, with Egypt playing a subservient supporting role to Saudi diplomacy, will suffice.
What is so confounding about this funding game is that Saudi Arabia was strongly opposed to the initial Egyptian revolution in 2011, defended Mubarak and, at least initially, refused to acknowledge the revolution’s legitimacy.
The danger for Egypt lies in the fact that pro-Morsi advocates see acceptance of Saudi aid as proof that the protest movement that ousted him was orchestrated by old Mubarak cronies. While the anti-Morsi coalition does represent a broad swath of people, including the anti-Mubarak contingency, disenchanted Muslim Brotherhood supporters, and regular people upset with the state of the economy, conspiracy theories still abound.
Ultimately, Saudi Arabia is banking on the fact that Egypt’s activists, who partnered with SCAF to overthrow Morsi, will fail to contain the country’s deeply entrenched military machine—in other words, the ultimate “short sell.”
With familiar stakeholders like General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and former military attaché and now interim president Adly Mansour in place, Saudi Arabia can rest assured that the Muslim Brotherhood will remain underground, the Suez open, oil flowing, and money rolling in.
In the Middle East and North Africa, the game of political musical chairs is more fluid than most foreign governments, particularly the United States, are prepared to handle.
For now, Saudi Arabia’s divisive and diversionary tactics have effectively stifled calls for reform from inside the Kingdom. What lies ahead for the regime will continue to be affected by broader events in the region.
Whether the Saudi government will be able to hedge its bets further, however, remains to be seen.
*Melissa Dzenis is a Cairo-based researcher and international development consultant currently investigating the intersection of Islamic legal reform and Egypt’s economic landscape. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed @melissadzenis.