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Ed Webb

Boston Review - Madawi Al-Rasheed: No Saudi Spring - 0 views

  • 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.
  • The protests reflected a growing sense of disappointment with King Abdullah, who has failed to implement a single political demand from previous petitions. However, in spite of their disappointment, reformers from a wide range of political ideologies—Islamists, nationalists, leftists, and liberals—are being cautious because the future could be worse. Many intellectuals and professionals are haunted by the prospect of losing their positions when Crown Prince Nayif becomes king. Abdullah has developed a quasi-liberal constituency and cultivated its interest in the state, business, and media. Reformers nonetheless loyal to Abdullah fear that Nayif’s iron fist will come down on them: functionaries of the ancien régime to be replaced.
  • Another group, the National Coalition and Free Youth Movement, formed on Facebook and Twitter in spite of having no offline organizational presence. Their Web pages would disappear amid government censorship only to reappear at different addresses. Many pages gathered thousands of supporters, but it is difficult to claim that all were authentic. Cyber-warfare pitted activists and non-ideological young men and women against regime security, complicating the headcount.
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  • There are essentially no non-state institutions in the country. Saudi Arabia has not had trade unions since the 1950s, when the government banned them in the oil-rich province where the then-American oil company ARAMCO was based. Likewise, there are no legal political parties, youth associations, women’s organizations, or independent human rights organizations.
  • By intervening, the Saudis hoped not only to protect their Bahraini ally, but to split their internal opposition using sectarian politics. As the protests grew and the GCC deliberated, the Saudi official press peddled the regime’s line: an Iranian-Shia conspiracy was targeting the Sunni heartland. The champions of Sunni Islam would save the Gulf from the Iranian-Shia takeover. The Saudi regime proved not only to its subjects, but also to Western governments, a determination to crush protest and expel Iranian and Shia influence from the peninsula. The message to President Obama was to think twice before supporting democracy and human rights in the Arabian Peninsula. The message to Saudis was that critics would be tarred as traitors to the nation and enemies of the faith.
  • All local newspapers reported on it favorably.
  • Many in the younger generation are critical of the regime’s repressive gender policies, but they support its opposition to the Shia as alien, heretical, and loyal to Iran.
  • the “liberal press”—also officially controlled—published articles denouncing sectarianism. Liberal authors attacked sectarian preachers of hate and instead celebrated national unity, wataniyya. Not that these liberal authors favored political protest or close ties with the Shia. Rather, they offered Saudis an alternative discourse that still served the regime’s interests. With society divided between supposedly liberal intellectuals and hateful preachers, the regime confirms in the minds of people that it alone can broker between the fiercely opposed groups.

  • Protesters avoid arrest by supporting the king and demanding that bureaucrats respect his royal decrees. Anger is therefore channelled toward low-level civil servants without challenging the regime directly or insisting on royal intervention. As long as protests do not question the policies of senior members of the royal family, they are tolerated, perhaps to some extent welcomed as a means to vent public anger.
  • The press has dubbed the wave of small-scale demonstrations “protest fever.” Importantly, women are uniting in pursuit of their interests and rights, suggesting that this is the beginning of a civil rights movement. Saudi women have agitated before—in 1990 some were arrested for violating a driving ban—but the 2011 protests are different. At local and regional levels, women’s demands are more fundamental than before. They want employment, the right to vote in municipal elections, and freedom of speech.
  • When protesters agitate for the end of the regime, they are shown no mercy. As of this writing, seven demonstrators have been shot and killed by Saudi security forces. In the virtual world, government agents continue to use propaganda, counterarguments, and rumors against calls for protest.
  • should pressure start coming from the West, the Saudi regime knows how to exploit its allies’ weak spots: fear of terrorism and an insatiable appetite for oil and military contracts.
  • Digital activism will continue to provide an outlet to a population denied basic freedom. But with popular unrest largely under wraps and the West silent, the regime faces no threat in the short term.
  • The economic and social deprivation, political oppression, and corruption that triggered revolutions elsewhere are all present in Saudi Arabia, but these alone are not sufficient to precipitate an uprising. Saudi Arabia does not have trade unions—the majority of its working population is foreign, which has stunted the growth of organized labor—a women’s movement, or an active student population, three factors that helped to make protests in Tunis and Cairo successful. Elsewhere in the Arab world, in the absence of these important factors, revolt stumbled, turned violent, and could not progress without serious foreign intervention. Libya is a case in point.
  • where the state is the only institution that matters, effectively bringing people together offline may be impossible
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