The decades-old winter of frozen and fossilised structures and systems in the Arab world are thawing.
The term exceptionalism in the Arab context harks back to Samuel Huntington's thesis that envisages the progression of democracy in waves. The third wave was frozen after its initial advances in the 1970s. It never washed the shores of the Arab/Muslim world, according to this thesis. Hence the Arab exceptionalism. Today, the term has been reinvented in the context of the Arab Spring. The Spring is a year old, and not a single crowned head has rolled so far. Hence, the monarchical exceptionalism.
The institution of monarchy does provide a buffer between the monarch and his subjects in the form of a government structure. The king has the privilege of sacking a besieged government and still remaining in power. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the oil-wealth, a small population, huge government patronage, welfare economy, etc., provide additional immunity. On the other hand, an ageing leadership, internet-savvy and educated youth, assertive women, sectarian divisions, and a contagious “Arab Spring” all around in the neighbourhood indicate a partial and potential vulnerability of the Saudi King.
Youth, women & minorities
The condition of the youth, women and the minorities is the barometer of a country's socio-political health. A closer scrutiny of these three segments of Saudi society is necessary to understand the general ethos in the country. There is no uniform mobilisation and there have been no widespread protests in the country so far. The Saudi youth, women and the Shias in the east of the country have voiced their grievances separately, nonetheless.
In view of the tightly secured Saudi streets, cyberspace has provided an alternative platform to mark the popular protests. Internet activists have resorted to it in a big way. Blogs have appeared to express the anger; documentaries have been made to expose poverty that has never been acknowledged. Petitions have been signed to call for a constitutional monarchy. There was an attempt at forming a political party. The founders were arrested almost immediately.
Saudi women live under the guardianship of their male relatives. Their decisions to get education, to work, to travel or to receive health care must be endorsed by their guardians. They are not permitted to drive or ride in a vehicle driven by someone who is not a close male relative or an employee. King Abdullah evoked a flurry of expectant speculation, when he stated that the Saudi women would “one day be able to drive.” That was soon after he inherited the Saudi monarchy. After waiting several years for that “one day,” the women have become restive. Late last year, some drove and posted the videos of themselves behind the wheels on YouTube and other social networks. Their cases are pending before the courts and they will not go unpunished.
Late last year, King Abdullah announced in a five-minute speech televised live that he was granting women the right to vote in future municipal elections, the right to run as candidates, and that they would be appointed to the Shura Council, the 150-member body that advises the King on legislation and policy. This time around, fewer Saudi women are reported to be excited about it. Some are sceptical, and many more cynical.
All Saudis follow Islam. There is a major sectarian cleavage between the Sunni and the Shia interpretations of Islam. The Shias are the largest minority in the country, constituting anywhere between four and 15 per cent of the population and numbering anywhere between one and four million. What makes the Shia situation crucial is the fact that the oil wealth is located under their soil and in the water around their land. Left to themselves, theirs could be the richest state in the entire region. Protests erupted in the Eastern Province on the “Day of Rage” in mid-March last year, and have continued since then. A hundred people have been arrested, scores have been shot dead.
Survival, sectarianism & Iran
The Saudi responses to the Arab Spring in its neighbourhood can neatly be summarised in three words: survival, sectarianism and Iran. Zainul Abedin ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Qaddafi did not survive the onslaught of the Arab Spring. The signs of its nascent arrival in the Kingdom are already evident. An active foreign policy to claim leadership of the Sunni Arabs, therefore, is an imperative for the royal survival. Iran, a Shia non-Arab power across the Gulf waters, to that extent, is the prime target of Saudi activism.
The Saudi involvement with the Arab Spring has seen a progression with each case. The Saudis were reportedly disappointed by the U.S. abandoning the besieged Hosni Mubarak and offered to restore the monetary assistance that the U.S. withdrew from him. King Abdullah came out in support of Mr. Mubarak from his sickbed in Morocco. The Saudis' response to the Libyan developments was one of reticence, even as they went along with the Qatari lead in inviting foreign intervention.
Yemen is a complicated and multi-layered conflict situation. The Saudis have three major concerns. One, the Saudi-born-and-bred al-Qaeda has found a safe haven in Yemen. Two, the long and uncontrolled border has been a regular route for illegal immigration, arms smuggling and narcotics trade. Three, the Saudis fear waves of Yemeni refugees, if the situation deteriorates. The Saudis have sought to manage the Yemeni situation, first by granting the former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, political asylum, and then facilitating his exit.
It was the Spring in Bahrain that jolted the Saudis into action. A small island Kingdom with a Sunni ruler and roughly 70 per cent Shia population, Bahrain has always been divided along the sectarian cleavage. The Spring, predictably, turned into the Shia struggle for equality. Political stability and a compliant regime in Bahrain are of utmost importance to the U.S., as the American base on the island is considered the most important strategic territory outside the U.S. proper. Any disturbance in the country would be unacceptable to the U.S. and its Saudi ally.
As the violence erupted beyond the Bahraini authority's capability to tackle it, the Saudis stepped in. A convoy of 150 armoured troop carriers and about 50 lightly armed vehicles carried about 1,000 Saudi soldiers across the King Fahd Causeway into Bahrain in mid-March.
The Saudi stand on Syria, unlike on Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, is to support the uprising. Lest there be a doubt about its motive in castigating President Bashar al-Assad's repressive policy, the Saudi Prince, Turki al-Faisal, explained it thus: “The impending fall of Mr. Assad's barbarous regime provides a rare strategic opportunity to weaken Iran. Without this vital ally, Tehran will find it more difficult to foment discord in the Arab world. Today, there is a chance for the United States and Saudi Arabia to contain Iran and prevent it from destabilising the region.” The quote is an open admission; even an assertion. The Saudi path to Iran runs through Syria.
Tunisia, Libya and Egypt in North Africa have been the harbingers of the Arab Spring. All three of them have witnessed regime changes and are in the process of taking stock and moving forward at their own individual pace. Whether the Spring will spread eastward in a typical domino fashion to the rest of the Arab world remains to be seen. Whether it eventually brings about a comprehensive reshaping of the region is uncertain at best. What is certain is that the decades-old winter of frozen and fossilised structures and systems in the Arab world are thawing. And Saudi Arabia is no exception.
(Professor Gulshan Dietl is at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.)