Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Last spring, a young Saudi named Muhammad al-Wadani posted a YouTube video of himself calling for democracy, human rights, and more jobs. Echoing Egyptian protesters, he declared, “The people want the downfall of the regime.” On March 7, shortly before a national day of protest planned online, he emerged from the al-Rajhi mosque in central Riyadh with a group of followers. Smiling and wearing an immaculate long white shirt, he held high a sign calling for peaceful demonstration. He was soon overwhelmed by plainclothes and bearded security forces who dragged him into their car and drove him to an unknown location.
Al-Wadani’s Dawasir tribal elders rushed to Riyadh to renew their allegiance to the regime. They issued a statement disowning their son as irresponsible and prey to outside influence. In the Arabian Peninsula, defying the aging leadership amounts to the rejection of parental authority and God. The consequences are banishment and withdrawal of family support, protection, and financial help.
The message was clear. March 11—the intended “Day of Rage”—came and went without mass protest. Al-Wadani disappeared without a trace.
Those Saudis expecting the Arab Spring to bloom in their country were no doubt disappointed. Using its classic strategies—anti-Shia religious rhetoric, a powerful and Western-trained security force, and economic handouts—the regime crushed any signs of an uprising.
The success of this carefully orchestrated response shows stark differences between Abdullah’s kingdom and the recently fallen dictatorships of the Arab world. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Saudi Arabia has no civil society of any significance. As a result, online calls to protest—beloved of so many “cyber-utopians”—had no place to take root.
This is how the revolutionaries were swept away with the sandstorms.
Frustration among Saudis has deep roots. Since the start of his reign in 2005, King Abdullah has promised reform. But, despite those promises, Saudi Arabia remains an oil corporation run by a large royal dynasty. The regime has much in common with a private family business: it subcontracts certain functions to outsiders, who in turn develop a vested interest in the firm’s success. For example, Saudi Arabia subcontracts its security to the United States and other Western players that rely on its oil.
At the age of 87, King Abdullah has assumed the role of the honorary patriarch. His half brother, Crown Prince Nayif, controls internal security. His other half-brother, Prince Salman, has controlled the Ministry of Defense since the death of Crown Prince Sultan last October. During the reign of King Faisal (1964–1975), Saudi Arabia was a highly centralized absolute monarchy, but in the last three decades it has become more diffuse, run by first-, second-, and third-generation princes, all descendants of the founder, King Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, who died in 1953.
The Al-Saud dynasty rules a country sitting on the world’s largest proven oil reserves. The regime bans political parties and independent civil society organizations; restricts human rights; directs the judiciary; and, with the help of Western expertise and surveillance technology, commands extensive security and intelligence services.
Al-Saud princes dominate major state and social institutions—not just defense and internal security, but foreign affairs, sports, literary salons, embassies, charities, and universities. The regime claims there is no need for representative government or a written constitution because Saudis have direct access to their leaders in informal open councils, majlis, and the constitution is the Qur’an. Appointed governor-princes who report to the minister of interior rule the provinces.
With the consolidation of dynastic rule, Saudi subjects have been increasingly marginalized and disempowered. Tribal chiefs, religious scholars, and regional elites, who once were strong enough to exert pressure on the ruling family, have become regime functionaries. Policy is largely the prerogative of senior princes who control state institutions, not of technocrats.
Between 2000 and 2010, as Saudi oil revenues grew, activists presented several petitions to the king and key princes asking for political reform. There was no response. The leadership has typically answered such demands by arresting activists, co-opting them, or simply ignoring them. Instead of economic reform, the regime prefers to distribute benefits through development schemes. This approach may have near-term political benefits, but it has failed to stem unemployment. The official unemployment rate is above 10 percent, with unofficial estimates as high has 30 percent.
Transparency International consistently ranks Saudi Arabia high on the list for corruption. On personal and religious freedom, Saudi Arabia’s record is equally bad; it even lags behind other Arab and Gulf countries, according to Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other human rights observers. Its universities remain underdeveloped, failing to prepare graduates for a competitive job market. The country hosts over 8 million expatriate workers. Despite successive “Saudization” programs aimed at increasing the employment of natives in the private sector, only 13 percent of private sector workers are Saudi. Women are hardest hit by unemployment; 78 percent of women graduates are unemployed, compared to 16 percent of men.
The Al-Saud dynasty runs the country much like a private family business.
It is in this context of repression and economic hardship that planning for the ill-fated Day of Rage commenced. It was preceded by two online petitions that began circulating after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. The regime moved quickly to censor the sites hosting the petitions, but hundreds rushed to sign them. Echoing a 2003 petition, the 2011 “Declaration of National Reform” demanded the regime’s gradual evolution toward constitutional monarchy with a written constitution, independent civil society, and elected local government in the provinces.
The demand for independent civil society demonstrates a lack of faith in existing organizations, such as the government-appointed human rights associations. And the interest in regional autonomy reflects recent corruption scandals related to land development and confiscation, which led to serious flooding and deaths in several Saudi cities. In February of last year, ten people drowned in Jeddah and hundreds of houses were swept away.
Immediately after this petition was posted, a diverse group of moderate Islamists and activists released a second. Reiterating a commitment to Islamic principles, this petition made no call for constitutional monarchy or regional government. The new petition, “Toward a State of Institutions and Rights,” asked for an elected national assembly, an independent prime minister, an end to administrative corruption, freedom of speech, independent associations, release of all political prisoners, and the lifting of a travel ban applied to activists. Within days, the petition attracted more than 5,000 signatures.
While the first petition attracted a “liberal” constituency, the second one had more Islamists among its signatories. The first appealed to civil and human rights while the second invoked Islamic rhetoric.
Both petitions were moderate. Neither called for the overthrow of the regime. Nor did they call for public demonstrations. In each case, authors were careful not to involve open opposition outside Saudi Arabia—for example, from the U.K.-based Sunni Islamist group MIRA, the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia.
Reformers told me that they refrained from taking a more radical stance to avoid arrest and accusations of sewing chaos or working with “outside agents.” Signatories insisted on staying close to previous reform agendas and pledged allegiance to the king. Most of the activists were either well-known veterans of reform, such as Muhammad Said al-Tayib and Abdullah al-Hamid, or young people who spread the petitions on Facebook and Twitter.
The protests reflected a growing sense of disappointment with King Abdullah, who has failed to implement a single political demand from previous petitions. However, in spite of their disappointment, reformers from a wide range of political ideologies—Islamists, nationalists, leftists, and liberals—are being cautious because the future could be worse. Many intellectuals and professionals are haunted by the prospect of losing their positions when Crown Prince Nayif becomes king. Abdullah has developed a quasi-liberal constituency and cultivated its interest in the state, business, and media. Reformers nonetheless loyal to Abdullah fear that Nayif’s iron fist will come down on them: functionaries of the ancien régime to be replaced.
While the two petitions were circulating, digital calls for demonstrations were attracting a broad range of activists.
Some, representing the Shia of Eastern Province, sought public protest to free Shia prisoners and establish equality with the Sunni majority. A Shia religious scholar, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who in 2009 first called for the secession of the oil-rich Shia region, played a leading role in mobilization efforts. In London, MIRA—which had been unsuccessfully pushing for demonstrations since 2003—asked its supporters to assemble on March 11 and identified meeting points outside major mosques in Saudi cities.
Around the same time, a new party, Islamic Omma, emerged suddenly. It too joined the call for demonstrations, demanding justice, equality, and representation. Omma, whose Salafi program diverges from the official Salafi-Wahhabist line, suffered a blow when four of its founding members were arrested immediately after announcing their party to the Saudi leadership with several more arrested later. But it continued to support the demonstrations and published two religious treatises debunking the official religious scholars who argued that peaceful protest is illegitimate in Islam. Omma has intellectual and possibly organizational links throughout the Arab world, especially in the Kuwaiti Salafi movement.
Another group, the National Coalition and Free Youth Movement, formed on Facebook and Twitter in spite of having no offline organizational presence. Their Web pages would disappear amid government censorship only to reappear at different addresses. Many pages gathered thousands of supporters, but it is difficult to claim that all were authentic. Cyber-warfare pitted activists and non-ideological young men and women against regime security, complicating the headcount.
The virtual opposition included a mix of Islamists, liberals, non-Saudis, and others. Some youth had clear political visions for the outcome of protest, but others simply expressed frustration at their limited economic opportunities. Young activists directed anger at the older generation—tribal, religious, and royal elders—and portrayed members of the royal family and their bureaucrats as corrupt and morally bankrupt. Young women in particular expressed frustration over their marginalization. These voices of digital protest would be tested on the ground on March 11.
Wahhabi religious scholars warned that the wrath of God would be inflicted on demonstrators.
Days after the resignation of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak on February 11, Saudi Facebook activists announced their March 11 Day of Rage, dubbed thawrat hunayn, invoking a symbolic battle between belief and blasphemy at the time of the Prophet Muhammad. Everyone knew that demonstrations were forbidden. In the past activists who announced their intentions to demonstrate were quickly arrested.
That activists relied so heavily on online recruiting and petitioning speaks to one of the fundamental challenges facing reformers in the Kingdom. There are essentially no non-state institutions in the country. Saudi Arabia has not had trade unions since the 1950s, when the government banned them in the oil-rich province where the then-American oil company ARAMCO was based. Likewise, there are no legal political parties, youth associations, women’s organizations, or independent human rights organizations.
The question for the protest organizers, then, was whether online enthusiasm would translate offline, where Saudis have little experience of solidarity.
While calls for demonstrations were gathering momentum in the virtual world, a different reality was unfolding on the ground. On February 14, thousands of Bahrainis, whose island state is linked to Saudi Arabia via a causeway, marched to the center of the capital, Manama, and took over Pearl Roundabout, their equivalent of Tahrir Square. The protesters represented the extension of the Arab Spring into the Arabian Peninsula. They called for real constitutional monarchy, a more powerful elected parliament, and genuine separation of powers. They also demanded an end to sectarianism and discrimination in employment.
The events there, which saw a Shia majority rise up against the Sunni Al-Khalifa royal family, left the Saudi leadership nervous. But Abdullah’s propagandists were able to take advantage.
After Bahraini security forces killed at least four demonstrators on February 17, protest intensified. The Al-Khalifas felt threatened and called upon the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and in particular Riyadh. Meetings between several Gulf foreign ministers and GCC officials resulted in the dispatch of mainly Saudi troops—supported by a tactically insignificant but symbolically meaningful United Arab Emirates commitment—to rescue the Al-Khalifa family. Peninsula Shield, a GCC military force, would be used for the first time, not to defend the six founding member states from external enemies but to quash a rebellion against one of their ruling families. Kuwait and Qatar eventually sent troops, while Oman refrained but voiced their support for the Al-Khalifas.
On March 14, Saudi troops crossed the causeway, hands raised with victory signs from the hatches of tanks. Red cars followed carrying intelligence and security personnel to protect the ruling family and tighten their grip on the area. Three days later the protesters were chased out of Pearl Roundabout at gunpoint. Within a week, bulldozers flattened the iconic monument that had stood there.
By intervening, the Saudis hoped not only to protect their Bahraini ally, but to split their internal opposition using sectarian politics. As the protests grew and the GCC deliberated, the Saudi official press peddled the regime’s line: an Iranian-Shia conspiracy was targeting the Sunni heartland. The champions of Sunni Islam would save the Gulf from the Iranian-Shia takeover. The Saudi regime proved not only to its subjects, but also to Western governments, a determination to crush protest and expel Iranian and Shia influence from the peninsula. The message to President Obama was to think twice before supporting democracy and human rights in the Arabian Peninsula. The message to Saudis was that critics would be tarred as traitors to the nation and enemies of the faith.
Inside Saudi Arabia, the regime’s first line of defense against the planned March 11 protests was to mobilize anti-Shia sentiment and official Wahhabist religion. Religious leaders supported the regime in two complementary ways.
First, Wahhabi religious scholars warned from the minarets that the wrath of God would be inflicted on demonstrators. On March 7, the Council of Higher Ulama, the senior official religious authority, issued a fatwa against protests. Thousands of hard copies were distributed in mosques and neighborhoods, and digital versions made the rounds online. All local newspapers reported on it favorably.
Second, official religious scholars warned of an Iranian-Shia conspiracy directed by Saudi exiles in London and Washington and the Shia in the Eastern Province to cause fitna (chaos) and divide the country. The officials relied on conventional Wahhabi condemnations of the Shia, historically depicted as heretics and more recently as an Iranian fifth column. They reminded the believers of the need for ijma, consensus around the pious rulers of the country, and warned that protests would lead to fragmentation and bloody civil war. Neo-Wahhabi scholars—not directly associated with the official Council of Higher Ulama—had more freedom to denounce the Shia in local mosques, lectures, and sermons, all recorded and publicized on YouTube. Veteran Sheikh Nasir al-Omar joined the call against the Shia, thus adding weight to the opinions of the younger neo-Wahhabi scholars. Many in the younger generation are critical of the regime’s repressive gender policies, but they support its opposition to the Shia as alien, heretical, and loyal to Iran.
While religious leaders promoted obedience and sectarianism, the “liberal press”—also officially controlled—published articles denouncing sectarianism. Liberal authors attacked sectarian preachers of hate and instead celebrated national unity, wataniyya. Not that these liberal authors favored political protest or close ties with the Shia. Rather, they offered Saudis an alternative discourse that still served the regime’s interests. With society divided between supposedly liberal intellectuals and hateful preachers, the regime confirms in the minds of people that it alone can broker between the fiercely opposed groups.
Only hours before the Day of Rage, Shia demonstrators staged peaceful protests in Qatif, Awamiyya, Sayhat, and other towns and villages in the Shia-dominated Eastern Province. Security forces quickly moved to suppress and arrest demonstrators. Shia notables from the province hurried to Riyadh to express their allegiance to the king and to demand the release of political prisoners. In a gesture meant to calm the situation and demonstrate good will, some prisoners were released.
And then on March 11, the day of the planned demonstrations, things were quiet. Helicopters flew low in the skies over Saudi cities, mirroring the intimidation of protesters in Tahrir Square and Pearl Roundabout. Security forces spread through every corner and street.
When Shias began protesting, their leaders hurried to Riyadh to express their allegiance to the king.
An unannounced curfew loomed over Riyadh and Jeddah. At noon, Saudis prayed as usual, then they got into their cars to drive home for lunch and the usual siesta. One man dared to defy the curfew. The lone demonstrator, Khalid al-Johani, told BBC journalist Sue Lloyd Roberts and her camera crew, “The royal family don’t own us. . . . I need freedom; all the country is a jail. . . . We need a parliament.” Al-Johani anticipated that he would be arrested. “I demonstrate because it is worth it,” he said, “I am doing this for my four children.” He gave Roberts his mobile number, but after that day, al-Johani stopped answering his phone. Like Muhammad al-Wadani, he disappeared.
Since the aborted Day of Rage, small-scale protests outside government buildings in Riyadh, Jeddah, and the Eastern Province have become daily events. Protests appear to form spontaneously, aided by the speed of online and cell phone communication. Demonstrators raise cardboard signs demanding employment and the release of political prisoners, many of whom have been held without trial for more than ten years. At night in Awamiyya, heavily veiled women carry candles in memory of martyrs and prisoners and march in the Zaynabiyya procession, the name derived from Zaynab, the Prophet’s granddaughter, whose brothers Hasan and Hussein are symbols of Shia martyrdom. The marching women support their Bahraini Shia coreligionists, demand the end of Saudi occupation of Bahrain, and remember young men long disappeared. Women teachers ask for secure jobs. Women students assemble in university halls protesting unfair grading of their exams and calling for the “downfall of the principal.”
Protests are becoming common among private sector workers too. Security forces usually turn up, surround protesters, and force them to disperse. But they return another day. Meanwhile, the highest religious authority, Mufti Abd al-Aziz al-Shaikh, tours the country lecturing students about the sinful nature of peaceful protest and the obligation to obey the rulers.
Whatever sins the protesters may be involved in, disobeying rulers isn’t one of them. Protesters avoid arrest by supporting the king and demanding that bureaucrats respect his royal decrees. Anger is therefore channelled toward low-level civil servants without challenging the regime directly or insisting on royal intervention. As long as protests do not question the policies of senior members of the royal family, they are tolerated, perhaps to some extent welcomed as a means to vent public anger.
Even minor protests are astonishing in a country where trade unions, civil society, and other modes of organization and mobilization are banned. The press has dubbed the wave of small-scale demonstrations “protest fever.” Importantly, women are uniting in pursuit of their interests and rights, suggesting that this is the beginning of a civil rights movement. Saudi women have agitated before—in 1990 some were arrested for violating a driving ban—but the 2011 protests are different. At local and regional levels, women’s demands are more fundamental than before. They want employment, the right to vote in municipal elections, and freedom of speech.
But both online and on the street, the regime still has the upper hand. When protesters agitate for the end of the regime, they are shown no mercy. As of this writing, seven demonstrators have been shot and killed by Saudi security forces. In the virtual world, government agents continue to use propaganda, counterarguments, and rumors against calls for protest.
On March 18 frail King Abdullah—hoping to head off the spread of Egyptian-style protest and to stem frustration at the lack of housing, jobs, health facilities, and other welfare services—announced a package of twenty economic gifts to the people, worth an estimated $93 billion. While many Saudis expected serious political response to their patience and obedience, they received economic largesse.
Autocrats usually give the population what belongs to them, and this is exactly what King Abdullah did. Immediate handouts included an extra two months’ salary to public sector employees, promotions for high-ranking military personnel, thousands of new hospital beds, and a minimum wage of approximately $260 per month for the unemployed. (Tight restrictions were later imposed on 18–35 year olds trying to access those funds.) Benefits promised over the next five years include 500,000 houses and 60,000 new jobs in security and military services. The expanded recruiting of soldiers and police and lavishing of rewards on security personnel who policed the protests all seem geared toward militarizing Saudi youth.
In addition to these secular gifts, the king funded new religious centers to spread the Wahhabi message and Hanbali jurisprudence, the predominant school of religious law among Saudi Sunnis. The new facilities will encourage the memorizing of the Qur’an and missionary work inside and outside Saudi Arabia. The goals are not solely pious. The religious police, who saw their own slice of the extra funding, don’t only monitor public morality—they also spy on the population. And, with more jobs available, the religious bureaucracy will be able to absorb religious graduates who are of no use to modern economies.
About two weeks after the failed mass protests, Chas Freeman, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, gave a lecture at the Asia Business Forum in Riyadh.
He unequivocally asserted that there is no great power other than the United States capable of defending the Gulf. He called the Bahraini protesters an “unruly mob” and applauded the Saudis for their quick response to the Iranian challenge. As a retired diplomat, he does not represent official American views. But having seen that the United States could not save Mubarak once popular protest was in full swing, Saudi leaders took heart in Freeman’s commitment to the status quo in Bahrain.
So far Washington has remained silent on political reform in Saudi Arabia and maintained its special relationship with its most important regional ally. But should pressure start coming from the West, the Saudi regime knows how to exploit its allies’ weak spots: fear of terrorism and an insatiable appetite for oil and military contracts. The Bahraini episode, in which the West stood idle as the Saudis overran protesters, demonstrated clearly that the United States, Britain, France, and other Western countries still prefer security to democracy in oil-rich regions. After Bahrain, there can be no doubt of the hypocrisy of these liberal democracies. Authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia’s thrive on it.
So far Washington has remained silent on political reform in Saudi Arabia.
For the moment, the Saudi regime has avoided real turbulence. Religious bans on demonstrations, anti-Shia sectarianism, heavy policing, and economic rewards effectively halted the momentum toward mass protest. Digital activism will continue to provide an outlet to a population denied basic freedom. But with popular unrest largely under wraps and the West silent, the regime faces no threat in the short term.
Saudi Arabia’s experience of the Arab Spring demonstrates that it lacks the structural conditions for mobilization, organization, and protest, let alone revolution. The economic and social deprivation, political oppression, and corruption that triggered revolutions elsewhere are all present in Saudi Arabia, but these alone are not sufficient to precipitate an uprising. Saudi Arabia does not have trade unions—the majority of its working population is foreign, which has stunted the growth of organized labor—a women’s movement, or an active student population, three factors that helped to make protests in Tunis and Cairo successful. Elsewhere in the Arab world, in the absence of these important factors, revolt stumbled, turned violent, and could not progress without serious foreign intervention. Libya is a case in point.
And that foreign intervention won’t come in Saudi Arabia, where oil ensures unconditional support from Western governments. Tunisia and Egypt were Western allies too, but they lack the kinds of resources that deter foreign meddlers. The same resources that also enable the Saudi king to appease the people.
Finally, the Saudi case attests to the limits of cyber-utopianism, the optimism surrounding the so-called Twitter and Facebook revolutions. The Web is useful for publicizing action, but where the state is the only institution that matters, effectively bringing people together offline may be impossible.
If the delayed Arab Spring eventually reaches Saudi Arabia, it will likely be a bloody affair. Violent opposition is nothing new in Saudi Arabia, where jihadis have fought the state since 2003, and regime opponents took up arms in 1927, 1965, and 1979. In the absence of a tradition of peaceful protest and in the face of religiously sanctioned bans on even nonviolent activism, aggression against the regime and its enablers may again become the only option.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.