Sunday, March 3, 2013

How will Saudi Arabia Respond to the Arab Spring?

Small groups of protestors have sprung up in Saudi Arabia since the beginning of the Arab Spring, but these gatherings have been few and far between and have not been able to gain much more than a few hundred supporters at a time ( It is nearly impossible to get a sense of the preference falsification in Saudi Arabia from an outside perspective of the country, as the state still maintains strict controls over the media. The few protests that have taken place have been non-violent, as people understand how powerful the regime is. Protestors have also seen the effectiveness of non-violent protests elsewhere and hope to emulate their success. However, people are hesitant to organize, as the majority of the population is ethnically very homogeneous. The New American reports that small Christian groups have been kept from privately practicing within Saudi Arabia ( While the New American has an obvious pro-Christian agenda, reports of suppression on non-Islamic practices hardly seem doubtful. According to the state, Saudi Arabia is officially 100% Muslim (, and since the state is officially Islamic, alternative religions are not welcome by most of the citizenry.


Understanding how dissention can spread, the Saudi regime was not hesitant to send troops to Bahrain to quell the protests before they could inspire similar actions in Saudi Arabia ( While small protests have sprung up in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi regime has learned from how other countries have responded to protests inspired by the Arab spring. Instead of either allowing protests or violently oppressing them, so far the Saudi regime has broken up the small gatherings before they gain traction, and by controlling the media, has been able to downplay the support for these protests. The regime has also attempted to address potential grievances by preemptively pledging money to educate and train the youth to enter the progressing world market. Relying so heavily on a single commodity (oil) has left the Saudi people unable to compete on the world stage, the regime sees this and is attempting to appease concerns before they become worthy of a revolt. The regime “plans to spend $373 billion between 2010-2014 on social development and infrastructure projects” ( – in an attempt to settle the people’s concerns. The state has also used religion to warn of consequences of dissention ( With religion directly tied to the state, ethnic identity is directly connected to nationality. This creates a situation where dissention from the state is seen as dissention from Islam.

The diffusion process works for both civilians and regimes. While other countries have demonstrated how peaceful protests can be effective, these processes have also given the Saudi regime a map of what to do, and what not to do. While many in the West do not see a revolution as possible for Saudi Arabia, there exist many conditions that if one were to happen, it would seem obvious in retrospect. Saudi Arabia relies heavily on a single commodity, petroleum, for 90% of its export earnings (, satisfying the greed standard in the Boix model. As for grievances, another standard in the Boix model, political repression is high for both women and any religious group other than Muslims, and the wealth disparity is growing ( However, the state keeps the opportunity for revolt low; it is not a new country, is stable, and the GDP is not low. The regime recognizes the potential backlash for keeping women from publicly participating in society and so are promising changes. The state is also pledging to support education and plans to diversify their financial prospects. However, it remains to be seen if these are empty promises aimed at appeasing the masses, or if the Saudi regime is truly modernizing. While it is nearly impossible to predict revolutions, societal conditions and the Arab Spring have created an environment in Saudi Arabia that has the potential for dramatic changes.



1 comment:

  1. I tend to agree with most of what you said, but chalking the Saudi's spending on social projects up to "diffusion" is stretching it a little bit. Saudi Arabia has been subduing their population with social services and cash for years.

    For example, only weeks after the uprisings began, and far too soon for "diffusion" learning to have taken place, the Saudi government was throwing cash in the streets. One of my good Saudi friends received $5000 in his bank account from the government for absolutely no reason. Such spending, while the reason behind it remains obvious, is effective and has been effective in subduing Saudis for years.

    Another example, according to Jean-Pierre Filiu in the book "The Arab Revolution: 10 lessons from the Arab uprising," the Saudi government successfully used $36 billion dollars to socially subdue its people between 2003-2005 in light of a "jihadist" outbreak in the country, largely a response to the governments position on the Iraq war.

    Additionally, Filiu claims that the Saudis are the primary benefactors of their regional allies' social plans aimed at sating the rage of their local protesters. He claims that this is not due to diffusion, but rather the Saudi "oil-derived state largesse" that allows them to replicate their social spending in other countries experiencing higher degrees of discontent. Their spending then, is largely interest based, not necessarily a wholly reactionary policy to an event outside of their control.

    Beyond that, in a recent book by Karen Elliot House called "On Saudi Arabia," it is claimed that most Saudis do not even want democracy. So diffusion of ideas in this context is largely out of the realm of truth according to her. She believes instead, that as of today, Saudis want justice, increased freedom, and do not want to be subject to the royal whims of the multitude of Saudi princes. While she claims democracy will be the Saudi's path to such ends, she says it will be the responsibility of "generations unborn," suggesting that this "Arab Spring" is a long ways away for Saudi Arabia.

    Finally, as you noted, the protests in Saudi Arabia have been very small, disjointed, and largely Shi'a minorities. The general Saudi population--which is largely Sunni--is and has been very hesitant to align with any domestic or foreign Shi'a movement. This is due primarily to two reasons; 1) a successful domestic political campaign that has demonized Iran and its Shi'a "stooges" and (2) the actual meddling of Iran across the Arab world that has largely counteracted the majority of Saudi policy, both economic and political.