Day of Rage in Saudi Arabia: How much change can the Gulf expect?
Regime change may not come swiftly to Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, where protesters have called for a 'Day of Rage' today, but a revolution of a different sort is taking place.
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Dr. Jones calls Bahrain the “outlier.” A majority-Shiite nation ruled by the Sunni Al Khalifa family, it has less oil wealth, and what it does have is not distributed equally, in a system rife with corruption and abuse.Skip to next paragraph
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The government cracked down hard on protesters in February, killing seven. But protesters have camped out in the capital for nearly a month now, with tens of thousands rallying in the past few weeks. What began as a push for reform has grown into demands by some for the ouster of the royal family.
Kuwait also has a sizable Shiite population, though it is not a majority, and a vibrant political culture with an organized opposition and a parliament. Several hundred protesters gathered in Kuwait on Tuesday seeking the removal of the prime minister.
While the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt sparked the demonstrations in Bahrain and Kuwait, both nations have a history of political opposition and protest, and their parliaments, however weak, serve as an outlet for pressure. That is not the case for Oman or Saudi Arabia.
But there were rumblings of discontent in Oman a decade ago, when protesters demanded better concessions for residents from a natural gas venture in the coastal city of Qalhat.
The sultan was very surprised,” says Dawn Chatty, an Oman scholar at Oxford University who lived in the country for 15 years and returns periodically. “The elders were brought in. It was a stand-off, and eventually the youth pulled back and the company offered better conditions. That was the first time the youth in Oman had challenged authority. Some of us recognized that as the youth bulge got older this kind of thing was going to happen more and more.”
In Saudi Arabia, historically there has been no room for expressing dissent, though citizens have begun to challenge that recently with public petitions for change. Protests are banned in the country, but small numbers of Shiite citizens began protesting last week in the oil-rich east, where police reportedly opened fire on about 200 protesters in the city of Qatif on Thursday. Today, "Day of Rage" protests failed to materialize amid a heavy police presence in the capital of Riyadh, but about 500 protesters reportedly turned out in the eastern city of Hafouf.
“Saudis just aren’t as happy with their system and they don’t have avenues to express that openly or legitimately,” says Jones, adding that, like Egypt, many have aspirations that they’ve been unable to fulfill. Youth unemployment is 40 percent, and some segments of the population see little of the massive oil wealth enjoyed by the ruling family.
Why cash handouts may backfire
The Gulf nations have tried to apply the old formula by handing out benefits. Late last month, Saudi King Abdullah promised a package worth an estimated $36 billion. Oman promised to pay unemployed citizens about $380 a month. Bahrain said it would provide more jobs and offered every family about $2,600. And in January Kuwait announced it would pay every citizen about $3,500.
When protesters are railing against corruption, cash handouts may simply remind them of the vast wealth and corruption among the ruling families. “People aren’t buying it,” he says. “It’s transparently a political bribe, and people don’t like being bribed.”
Some of the rulers, such as Oman's sultan, have also made political concessions. Jones says the rulers are likely to offer enough concessions to diffuse the protests in the short term. But because sweeping change is unlikely, he says, the dissatisfaction will continue. And with the increasing willingness to protest, that means a new political reality for the Gulf royals.
“These [states] are laboring, lumbering, corrupt leviathans,” he says. “As a result, the instinct is to change in measured, conservative, very small steps – and that is not going to fix this.”