Staggeringly corrupt and repressed, Saudi Arabia is ripe for revolution. But reformers are hesitant.
“Let us strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest,” the philosopher Denis Diderot said. The same phrase is now widely repeated across Arabia — or Saudi Arabia, as it is currently named under the dynastic autocracy. It is only a matter of time before the revolutions that have swept the Arab world reach the Saudi kingdom.
Most of the factors that led to the Arab uprisings are present in Arabia. The Saudi regime holds tens of thousands of political prisoners, most without charge. The scale of corruption is staggering. In the most recent budget alone, $100bn is unaccounted for. In this country with its huge oil revenue, unemployment rates are soaring, the average salary is less than $1,300 (£820) a month, and 22 per cent of the population live in poverty. Meanwhile the royal family treats the country and its people as its private property.
Furthermore, as elsewhere in the Arab world, the expansion in communication tools has deprived the regime of the secrecy and deception on which its legitimacy relied. Opposition-run satellite stations now voice an alternative message, while the internet and mobile phones allow easy interaction, making virtual debates more effective than real ones.
In the past couple of months, one anonymous Twitter account, @mujtahidd, has attracted more than 220,000 followers thanks to its ability to expose corruption in a detailed, accurate manner. @mujtahidd has already published thousands of remarkably well informed tweets about several royal family members, including the King. The popularity of @mujtahidd has gone beyond Twitter; it has become the talk of the nation. So much so that blocking his account inside the kingdom did nothing to stop the number of followers escalating.
Reformists from many different backgrounds are increasingly audible. Most are from the religious ranks. It is these religious reformers themselves, not the liberals, who repeat Diderot's call for a settling of accounts with both princes and their tame religious hierarchy.
It is this kind of apparent contradiction — along with the complexity of Arabia's geopolitical map — which makes many observers incapable of forecasting the kingdom's political future.
The western media, where they notice the ferment in Arabia at all, focus on the Shia revolt and the position of women. It is true that the Shia are very active in protest — their demonstrations are massive. However, they are a minority and the regime links them with Iran, so their protests are isolated. The regime has so far used these protests in its favour, by persuading the Sunni majority of a threat of a Shia “takeover.”
And within Arabia, where both sexes are deprived of their basic rights, the West's focus on women's rights has backfired, as it has become twinned with unpopular “western” values.
Paying attention exclusively to these two questions distracts from more far-reaching challenges that threaten the regime's very existence.
So why hasn't revolution yet reached Arabia? Despite the widespread conviction that a change of regime is necessary, reformers remain hesitant about declaring their views, let alone taking action. Scaremongering in the media associates change with chaos and bloodshed.
More significant still is the level of distrust between activists, making any collective act of protest difficult.
The royal family
This does not mean change is impossible. Even the heir to the throne, Prince Nayef, is regarded with so little reverence that there are calls from within the country to bring him to trial. One activist wrote an open letter to Nayef saying protests would erupt after the departure of the current king (who is 90). Meanwhile official religious scholars are being rejected in favour of independent ones because the religious establishment is seen as a partner in corruption.
The balance of factors in Arabia is clearly tipping in the direction of change. Change of such a scale is usually triggered either by an expected event — such as the death of the King — or an unexpected incident — as was the case with Bouazizi, whose self-immolation sparked Tunisia's revolt.
Two weeks ago, a tribe in Taif, near Mecca, prevented the security forces enforcing a royal order confiscating their land.
Across the country, people are asking: if one small tribe can regain its land through peaceful protest, why shouldn't the entire nation reclaim its rights? (Dr. Saad al-Faqih is the head of the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia.) — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2012