Sooner or later the protests that have racked the Middle East and North Africa will finally affect the most undemocratic regime of them all, Saudi Arabia. Arguably that has already happened. Absolute monarch King Abdullah is now 86. Well aware of his own vulnerability, he gave away over $36 billion in benefits to lower and middle income Saudis last week. He also granted thousands of civil servants job security and said he would reshuffle the cabinet. Abdullah rushed back to the country after months of hospitalisation and recuperation in the US and Morocco to make these announcements. No one is under any illusion he wasn’t panicked into action by the wave of protests across the region that threatened to roll across his equally undemocratic border.
Abdullah’s bribery will likely keep the protesters at home for now and the illegality of political parties and public protest are a deterrent. Yet resistance to the power of the Sauds is growing slowly. The Saudiwoman blog says the country is “still on the train heading to revolution town.” The young are unhappy with large-scale unemployment and the conservative grip of the religious police, she said. Older generations are fed up with the corruption, nepotism and the disappearance of the middle class.
Activists are calling for protests on 11 and 20 March but may well be frustrated by police. They stymied two attempts to stage protests in Jeddah last month after they arrested 30 to 50 people. Saudi blogger Ahmed al-Omran said authorities were watching closely what people were saying on Facebook and Twitter. “They are anxious as they are surrounded with unrest and want to make sure we don't catch the bug,” al-Omran said.
Western leaders are also keen the Saudis don’t catch the bug. In 2007 then British foreign office minister Kim Howells infamously talked about Britain and Saudi Arabia’s “shared values”. Meanwhile in October 2010, the US Obama Administration kept the Carter Doctrine alive with the sale of $60.5 billion worth of arms to the KSA which was the biggest arms sale in American history. According to an Israeli study of the sale, the package was totally offensive in nature, with its attack planes, helicopters, and "bunker-buster" bombs, and designed to show the US would stand strongly by its allies. ‘US officials have also begun to refer to the "Persian Gulf" as the "Arabian Gulf," a hot-button issue for the Iranians,’ the study said.
The financial world is also less interested in the democratic desires of ordinary Saudis than they are in the fate of light sweet crude oil futures. Crude was trading at $97.25 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange yesterday having spiked since the start of the year. This has more to do with Libya and issues in Oman and Bahrain but Saudi Arabia remains pivotal to production with the world’s largest reserves. Saudi Aramco have stepped up production since the Libyan revolution started but as the Financial Times points out, oil-dominated economies create few jobs, “especially if they support a bloated royal family that affects not to understand where a privy purse ends and a public budget begins”.
Abdullah’s successor in the agnatic seniority preferred by that 7000-strong royal family is his half-brother Crown Prince Sultan. Sultan, 82 or possibly 86 is just as old, just as unhealthy and just as corrupt as Abdullah. Behind them comes the conservative autocrat Prince Nayef who abhors the idea of reform. The monarchy survived the 20th century thanks to the black gold they controlled and their alliance with the Wahhabists that control religious affairs. The end of the carbon economy would have killed them anyway but with everyday Saudis unwilling to wait, the days of authority of both these ancient institutions are likely to be numbered.