No Saudi Spring: Anatomy of a Failed Revolution
Last spring, a young Saudi named Muhammad al-Wadani posted a YouTube video of himself calling for democracy, human rights, and more jobs. Echoing Egyptian protesters, he declared, “The people want the downfall of the regime.” On March 7, shortly before a national day of protest planned online, he emerged from the al-Rajhi mosque in central Riyadh with a group of followers. Smiling and wearing an immaculate long white shirt, he held high a sign calling for peaceful demonstration. He was soon overwhelmed by plainclothes and bearded security forces who dragged him into their car and drove him to an unknown location.
Al-Wadani’s Dawasir tribal elders rushed to Riyadh to renew their allegiance to the regime. They issued a statement disowning their son as irresponsible and prey to outside influence. In the Arabian Peninsula, defying the aging leadership amounts to the rejection of parental authority and God. The consequences are banishment and withdrawal of family support, protection, and financial help.
The message was clear. March 11—the intended “Day of Rage”—came and went without mass protest. Al-Wadani disappeared without a trace.
Those Saudis expecting the Arab Spring to bloom in their country were no doubt disappointed. Using its classic strategies—anti-Shia religious rhetoric, a powerful and Western-trained security force, and economic handouts—the regime crushed any signs of an uprising.
The success of this carefully orchestrated response shows stark differences between Abdullah’s kingdom and the recently fallen dictatorships of the Arab world. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Saudi Arabia has no civil society of any significance. As a result, online calls to protest—beloved of so many “cyber-utopians”—had no place to take root.
This is how the revolutionaries were swept away with the sandstorms.
Frustration among Saudis has deep roots. Since the start of his reign in 2005, King Abdullah has promised reform. But, despite those promises, Saudi Arabia remains an oil corporation run by a large royal dynasty. The regime has much in common with a private family business: it subcontracts certain functions to outsiders, who in turn develop a vested interest in the firm’s success. For example, Saudi Arabia subcontracts its security to the United States and other Western players that rely on its oil.