BY MADAWI AL-RASHEED in Foreign Policy
…Saudi Arabia is ripe for change. Despite its image as a fabulously wealthy realm with a quiescent, apolitical population, it has similar economic, demographic, social, and political conditions as those prevailing in its neighboring Arab countries. There is no reason to believe Saudis are immune to the protest fever sweeping the region.
Saudi Arabia is indeed wealthy, but most of its young population cannot find jobs in either the public or private sector. The expansion of its $430 billion economy has benefited a substantial section of the entrepreneurial elite — particularly those well connected with the ruling family — but has failed to produce jobs for thousands of college graduates every year. This same elite has resisted employing expensive Saudis and contributed to the rise in local unemployment by hiring foreign labor. Rising oil prices since 2003 and the expansion of state investment in education, infrastructure, and welfare, meanwhile, have produced an explosive economy of desires.
Like their neighbors, Saudis want jobs, houses, and education, but they also desire something else. Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in 2003, they have expressed their political demands in their own way, through petitions that circulated and were signed by hundreds of activists and professionals, men and women, Sunnis, Shiites, and Ismailis. Reformers petitioned King Abdullah to establish an elected consultative assembly to replace the 120-member appointed Consultative Council Saudis inherited from King Fahd. Political organizers were jailed and some banned from travel to this day. The “Riyadh spring” that many reformers anticipated upon King Abdullah’s accession in 2005 was put on hold while torrential rain swept away decaying infrastructure and people in major cities. Rising unemployment pushed the youth toward antisocial behavior, marriages collapsed, the number of bachelors soared, and the number of people under the poverty line increased in one of the wealthiest states of the Arab world. Today, nearly 40 percent of Saudis ages 20 to 24 are unemployed…
Meanwhile, scandal after scandal exposed the level of corruption and nepotism in state institutions.
Like other falling Arab regimes before them, the ruling Al-Saud will inevitably seek to scare the population by raising the spectre of al Qaeda and warning against tribal, regional, and sectarian disintegration. They will try to thwart political change before it starts. Saudis may not believe the scaremongers. The command centers of the Arab revolutions today are not the caves of Tora Bora or Riyadh’s shabby al-Suwaidi neighborhood, where jihadists shot BBC journalist Frank Gardner and his cameraman in 2004. They are the laptops of a young, connected, knowledgeable, but frustrated generation that is rising against the authoritarian public and private families that have been crushing the individual in the pursuit of illusions and control…
…Now is the time for the United States and its allies to understand that the future does not lie with the old clique that they have tolerated, supported, and indulged in return for oil, security, and investment. At a time of shifting Arabian sands, it is in the interest of America and the rest of the world to side with the future not the past.
I used to think that the population of Saudi Arabia was more extreme, more Wahhabi/Islamist than the royals, but when I hear the voices of the people who hope to overthrow the regime there, it seems that there was a large part of the population that was ignored by our foreign policy ‘experts’ and all media – for decades.
I also thought that the Muslim Brotherhood was more powerful than it actually is – and I’ve been to the Middle East. Through discussions with people in Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, I knew that the many Arabs/Muslims hate the authoritarian elements in the region (terror groups and governments) more than they hate Israel – I knew the current system was bound to fail, but didn’t predict where the rage would be directed.
The fact that our media and our foreign policy experts were also surprised by these revolts is a sign that most of our information (and interpretations) are flawed. There’s a lot of free floating rage and hate in the Middle East/Arab Muslim world, a lot more willingness to take risks, more heroism, more prejudice and more of a feeling that they have nothing to lose. We and the people of the Middle East have no idea what will happen next..