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Saudi Arabia: Stifling revolution with riyals Add to ...

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has laid down a $37-billion bet that his fabulously rich ruling family can avert getting caught in the wave of uprisings sweeping aside authoritarian Arab regimes.

Whether Saudi's monarchy can successfully segue - perhaps over decades - into a constitutional kingdom or will simply be the last Arab domino to fall is unknowable.

Cocooned by wealth while imported foreign labour does most of the dirty work, Saudis are constantly watched by pervasive and ruthlessly tough security forces. So far, the relatively prosperous Saudis have seemed immune to freedom's contagion or - perhaps - too scared to take up the pro-democracy torch in this bastion of conservative Islam sitting astride the planet's biggest oil and gas reserves.

A Saudi state in collapse or - even worse in some doomsday scenarios - swept up by Osama bin Laden's wish of an Islamic caliphate seems remote, almost unimaginable. But then, three months ago, so too was the notion of repressive rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in exile, in disgrace and in extremis.

Mark this date: March 11. Several hundred anonymous Saudis have endorsed a Facebook page calling for a "day of rage," just the sort of spark that ignited uprisings in Egypt, Yemen and - more ominously for the Saudi royals - in neighbouring Bahrain, where another royal family dispensed wealth in place of freedom.

Saudis, even more than Egyptians and Tunisians, are Internet savvy. Facebook has millions of subscribers and almost every Saudi has a cellphone or two. But shutting down both the Internet and cellphone networks should pose no problem for the omnipresent security forces.

"There's ferment, no doubt," said Gregory Gause, a political science professor at the University of Vermont and specialist in Middle East politics. But like many Saudi watchers, Mr. Gause expects the Saudi royal family to placate simmering discontent with big spending and "some cosmetic political reforms."

Prof. Gause expects long-promised elections for municipal councils to be dusted off.

After three months away, convalescing in Morocco, the 80-something-year-old returning king dispensed billions (estimates ranged as high as $37-billion) upon arrival at Riyadh airport, while hundreds of acolytes danced with swords on fine carpets to demonstrate their fealty. Thousands more lined his motorcade's progress, dutifully paying homage. The king's latest largesse, on subsidies, unemployment benefits, pay raises and housing promises, hardly dented the hundreds of billions in Saudi coffers filled by an estimated fifth of the world's pumpable oil.

There's no guarantee the billions in handouts will buy political peace, but many analysts believe the desert kingdom, with its holy cities of Mecca and Medina, may survive the immediate contagion sweeping aside other sclerotic regimes across the Arab world.

A few, however - mostly outside the kingdom - expect Saudis will rise up.

"People don't revolt because they are hungry," Saudi expat Ahmad al-Omran wrote on his blog, Saudi Jeans. "Money won't solve our issues. We need true political and social reform."

Like other Arab states, there's a huge under-25 population of under- or unemployed Saudis. But unlike the impoverished tens of millions in Egypt, Saudi youth are pampered, if not bored.

While disadvantaged Shia majorities rail against ruling Sunni minority elites in most wealthy Gulf states - including Bahrain - the Saudi royals share Wahhabism, a strict brand of Islam, with their Sunni subjects. Barely one million of Saudi Arabia's 18-million population are Shiites.

"The political power of a dominant religious group means that any threats to the monarchy may be perceived as threats to the religious identity of the Saudi state," Raj Desai, a Brookings Institution fellow, said during an online discussion of turmoil in the region.

The powerful Saudi military, far better equipped and with an officer corps even more pampered and privileged than Egypt's, has plenty of the royal family's minor princes and seems less likely to serve in a transitional role.

Still, Saudi jails are full of political prisoners. A handful were released earlier this week in what was widely regarded as another token gesture.

"Recycling political prisoners won't appease demands for democratic change," said Christoph Wilcke of Human Rights Watch. "While Arab rulers topple and reforms get under way elsewhere in the region, Saudi princes have offered no concessions."

Follow on Twitter: @PaulKoring

 

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