Saudi Arabia’s “day of rage” planned for last March failed to gain ground, and protests concentrated in the Eastern Province fell short of producing a national consensus around demands for political reform. The country’s domestic stability has been attributed to a combination of three factors: the regime’s ability to rely on an influx of oil reserves to buy-off political unrest, its domestic alliance with a conservative religious establishment and powerful tribal groups as a means of dividing and controlling sources of dissent, and the long-standing support of Western powers for external security. While in recent years growing economic challenges have weakened some of the regime’s most reliable pillars of stability and pockets of opposition inside the country have grown, the inability of such groups to mobilize collectively or otherwise offer a unified vision of reform has hindered the growth of serious challenges to the current order.
The reality for most Saudis is far-removed from the Kingdom’s reputation for extravagance. Official unemployment stands at 10 percent, but unofficial estimates place it as high as 20 percent. The latest official figures reveal that 670,000 families—approximately 3 million out of a total population of 18 million—live in poverty. Nor is hardship restricted to rural areas: a recent documentary on poverty in Riyadh, Maloub Alayna (The Joke’s on Us) recorded testimonies of families living on one meal a day, with as many as twenty people living in the same home.
Saudi Arabia’s position as the leading exporter of oil is threatened by unrestrained domestic fuel consumption, which grows at 7 percent annually. At this rate, the Kingdom is set to become a net oil importer within the next twenty-five years. Long-term plans to diversify the economy have made little impact: the government derives almost 75 percent of its revenue and 90 percent of export earnings from oil, and the country still has the lowest GDP per capita within the Gulf Cooperation Council—lower than Oman or Bahrain. Economic handouts to quell unrest—such as the $130 billion spending package announced last year to increase welfare benefits and construct 500,000 new housing units—are unsustainable and likely to lead to growing discontent over distribution of the country’s oil wealth.
While Shi‘a activists and liberal reformists have faced the brunt of the state’s crackdown, the government has also been careful to check the power of even its most loyal constituency. In mid-January, King Abdullah sacked the head of the moral police amidst growing complaints that that organization was growing too aggressive. This follows the sacking of a prominent cleric from the country’s Higher Council of Ulama in 2009 for denouncing the King’s decision to allow gender integration in a new science university. Wary of losing their privileged status, the country’s most conservative elements have also criticized the King for granting women the right to vote in municipal elections, accusing the regime of floundering to Western influence. Occasional public disagreements, however, have not disrupted the roots of the alliance which both sides recognize as critical to checking other potential sources of unrest, including that stemming from militant fundamentalists who question the ruling family’s claim to govern according to shari‘a.
While Saudi’s opposition remains deeply divided along sectarian (as well as tribal and ethnic) lines, the country faces a host of challenges that may provide the opportunity for the formation of cross-sectarian and cross-political alliances along a common set of demands, as demonstrated in 2003 when a group of liberals and Islamists from various sects signed a petition calling for democratic change. The deteriorating economic situation and growing unemployment are additional challenges atop questions regarding the line of succession, which does not define a process for passing power beyond the first generation of the Kingdom’s founders. Disputes within the second and third generation of the royal family—who have competing visions on the pace and direction of reform—might provide the opportunity for a reshuffle of alliances as new leaders seek to develop their own spaces of power. While sustained opposition movements continue to battle for their own Saudi Spring, their success hinges on their ability to unite around a common and national set of political demands—and lay to rest the demons of tribalism and sectarianism.
Elham Fakhro is a research associate for international law at the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Middle East.