Though Saudi Arabia hasn’t yet fallen victim to the Arab Spring, it may only be a matter of time, especially as the parallels between Iran under the Shah and present-day Saudi Arabia become alarmingly more apparent.
An absolute theocracy, Saudi Arabia has lived since its inception in September 1932 under the thumb of two very powerful forces: the House of Saud and the Wahhabi religious paradigm. Hejaz, which stretches along the western part of the Saudi kingdom, was fused with two formerly independent tribal-led sultanates — Nejd in the west and Asir in the south — to become a Wahhabi kingdom.
“Saudi Arabia is really the manifestation of the alliance of Mohammed Abdul-Wahhab, a late 18th century controversial religious figure, and Mohammed bin Saud, the forefather of Al Saud,” Mohsen Kia, an Iranian political analyst with a Ph.D. in Islamic History, told MintPress News.
“Saudi Arabia was very much engineered to subdue the Arabian Peninsula under the weight of both religious dogma and political despotism,” he said, noting: “Its structure sits on quicksand as related to the state’s ability to maintain its people into servitude.”
A relatively young monarchy, at least from an historical standpoint, Saudi Arabia is essentially a tribal patchwork united by one powerful tribe — Al Saud — under foreign patronage to act as a buffer against the Ottomans and the Persians. The rise of Al Saud of Nejd began in the 19th century, when a deal was struck with imperial Britain to create a counter-power to the expansionist and ambitious Ottoman and Persian empires in the Arabian Peninsula, a region that Britain has always understood to be too geostrategically important to let go of or lose sight over.
As tribes became bound, territories were fused and tribal borders disappeared, the world came to understand Saudi Arabia as a single functional entity, one united nation under the banner of Al Saud.
Yet that unity stands today as little more than a facade.
“The kingdom is not as stable as Western powers would like to think,” Kia said. “This projected stability is but a manifestation of Al Saud’s systematic repressive methods, it is artificial.”
This kingdom which both the United States and Britain have come to identify as an ally in the Middle East, this regional superpower which has manipulated the Arab world to its own benefit through an intricate web of financial, political and religious patronage, could soon unravel under the weight of its own brand of despotism.
Now, with democracy central to people’s demands and aspirations across the Arab world, Saudi Arabia has stubbornly isolated itself from the tumult of the Arab Spring. It’s pulling strings from behind the curtain to re-assert a political and institutional order that suits its agenda and will ultimately affirm its dominance over that of its immediate regional challengers – Turkey and Iran.
Just weeks into Tunisia’s uprising in February 2011, Rachel Bronson, vice president of programs and studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, wrote for the Washington Post: “Could the next Mideast uprising happen in Saudi Arabia?”
While Bronson noted that “the notion of a revolution in the Saudi kingdom seems unthinkable,” this idea that Saudi Arabia would come to experience its own democratic awakening has become a recurring theme in the media and political circles.
As Sultan Mubarak, an Egyptian political analyst based in Cairo, noted to MintPress: “If Saudi Arabia has so far appeared immune to the Arab Spring it is not to say that it will remain so. Al Saud’s very hand in the counter-revolution … officials’ determination to lay waste democracy by means of military intervention under the cover of fighting terror could actually become the trigger.”
He added that Saudi Arabia has “lost sight” of what is happening domestically because it’s been “so bent on controlling foreign developments.”
“Saudi Arabia exists only under repression, there is no real cohesion. This house of cards is bound to unravel, whether it happens sooner rather than later is up to the people.”
Immovable Saudi Arabia
Commenting on Saudi Arabia’s apparent institutional immovability, Jose Naffah, director of the Caracas-based geostrategic analysis firm Byblos Consulting, told MintPress: “The kingdom has projected this sense of political confidence and control over regional affairs as a defense mechanism, almost. The Saudi monarchy’s distastes changes as with changes come the unknown. The Arab Spring has exploded the Middle East and set in motion a chain reaction which Al Saud is fast losing control over because all it knows is repression.”
“The last time the kingdom faced such a threat to its ruling paradigm was under the influence of late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser,” he said. “In many ways the Arab Spring movement is but an extension of Nasser’s grand nationalism philosophy. Saudi Arabia might remain for now this oasis of calm, but what one needs to look at is how it stands cornered by fast-moving change – Yemen to the south, Iraq north, Bahrain east, Egypt west.”
Naffah’s assessment of Saudi Arabia was echoed by human rights activist Hussein Hareeshi, based in Qatif, Saudi Arabia. Hareeshi said, “I would say this – Al Saud’s meddling and systematic reactionary stance is what will erode at its powerhouse. You cannot keep a people together artificially.”
“Saudi Arabia is not our country — this is Al Saud’s creation. Under Al Saud we all have known, Shia and Sunnis alike, repression, oppression, brutality and injustice,” Hareeshi continued. “Saudi Arabia’s revolution is as inevitable as people’s desire for freedom is inherent to their nature.”
With the Middle East being swept up in a revolutionary torrent, swallowed by fast-moving change and instability in the forms of radicalism and terror, Saudi Arabia has undergone its own internal battle against change — a battle it’s waged out of the media eye.
Against repression we stand
Many experts have theorized that Saudi Arabia’s wealth is what has shielded its regime from falling victim to the Arab Spring. Lorraine Swartz, an independent researcher and political analyst based in London, is one of these experts.
“While Saudi Arabia is as repressive – if not more – than its former counterparts in the region,” Swartz said, naming Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Col. Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, “it has enjoyed greater economic stability. The economic factor is what has prevented people this far from rebelling against the regime.”
“They have not yet been pushed beyond the tolerable.”
She continued, explaining: “There is a key psychological and social factor to any revolution. Once people have nothing left to lose rebellion comes easy. But the Saudi regime is fast approaching this invisible barrier of ‘tolerance.’ Aggravated repression has exacerbated popular hatred toward the regime, poverty and unemployment are on the rise, and a state-run sectarian campaign against the minority Shia community in Qatif has led to the fragmentation of the kingdom alongside religious lines.”
She noted that in terms of stability, “It’s not looking good.”
In January, Saoud Kebelli wrote in Al Hayat that increased friction between the old Middle Eastern order, as defined by Al Saud and its foreign allies, and the people had given birth to a regional revolutionary movement — traction for which is being fed by repression. He argued that the very structure of Gulf monarchies is what has delayed the revolutionary movement and kept regimes immune from dissent, referring to relative economic stability and employment opportunities.
Kebelli posited that the real threats Saudi Arabia and Gulf monarchies currently face are solely internal — particularly, depreciating economic factors and social injustice — and not immediately related to the Arab Spring, though it acted as a trigger. “The real threat does not lie in the impact of the Arab Spring revolutions on Saudi Arabia’s internal scene,” he wrote.
If Saudi Arabia’s wealth has indeed held back the revolutionary tide, state-supported oppression could ultimately arouse what many have already called the “sleeping revolutionary giant,” comparing Al Saud’s battle against political and religious dissent with the Shah of Iran and the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The Shah, the king and the revolutionary
Kia, the Iranian political analyst, said that whether Al Saud cares to admit it, parallels between Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and the budding uprising that is slowly taking shape in Saudi Arabia have become too apparent to ignore.
“While Saudis and Iranians are very different in terms of how they envision their religious and political environment, at their core both people yearn for freedom of expression, social justice and political self-determination. If Iranians never questioned their national identity as the Saudis seem to be doing, they too grew wary of the Shah’s obscene show of wealth, his repressive stance and keenness to put foreign interests before that of his people.”
“The Shah was too an American ally and asset, the Shah, like Al Saud, conducted his own religious indoctrination — only he thought to secularize Iran, where Al Saud has worked to radicalize its people under the Wahhabi school of thought. The Shah paid no heed to the people’s calls for reforms, and the Shah, too, used the sword to crush activists,” he explained, adding: “We all know how it ended.”
With dissent on the rise in the Saudi cities of Hijaj and Qatif — regions which have never truly fused with Nejd due to deep-seated social and religious incompatibilities, Saudi Arabia could soon face a border backlash with its unruly Yemeni neighbor, as the Houthis have called for the return of Asir, a Saudi province formerly belonging to Yemen.
With the old Middle Eastern order in complete freefall and the ever louder revolutionary cries being heard in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia’s real troubles may very well have only just begun.