(photo credit: Michael Cohen)
Throughout the tumultuous eight months of the “Arab Spring,” Saudi Arabia has
been conspicuous by its domestic tranquility and regional assertiveness.
Facebook-organized protests attracted more journalists (and security personnel)
than demonstrators. The Women2Drive protests focused much attention on the
country’s hidebound policies regarding the status of women, particularly in the
public sphere, but involved only a few score individuals.
Yet, the Saudi
leadership has been deeply shaken by the region wide protests. In response, it
has devoted its energies to preventing a spillover of the protests into the
kingdom and thus ensuring domestic stability, and bolstering its regional
position to counter potentially negative geostrategic developments.
secret of Riyadh’s success thus far is, in fact, no secret – oil. Approximately
10 percent of the world’s daily consumption comes from Saudi Arabia (9 million
barrels a day), which also holds about 70 percent of the world’s spare
production capacity (4 million b/p/d) and 20 percent of the world’s proven
reserves. High oil prices during the last decade (currently more than $100 per
barrel) have left the kingdom awash in funds: its central bank is the world’s
third largest holder of foreign exchange reserves, over 2,000 billion riyals
(some $550 b. dollars). With low government debt and huge government savings,
the Saudis have money to spend, and they are doing so lavishly, at home and
To be sure, Saudi Arabia suffers from some of the same chronic
socioeconomic problems that have fueled the Arab Spring protests elsewhere,
along with some uniquely Saudi features: a huge “youth bulge” (60 percent of the
country’s nearly 21 million increasingly well-educated nationals are under the
age of 30), and high rates of unemployment and underemployment: fully 80 percent
of the Saudi labor force is nonnational, drawn from the country’s 5.5 million
foreign workers, and only 10 percent of all private sector jobs are held by
Saudi nationals, who prefer the security and comfort provided by the Saudi
But there are limits. For example, affordable housing for
the rising Internet savvy generation is high on the list of public
concerns. According to the Jeddah-based Capitas Group International,
rising land prices are a major obstacle to bringing affordable housing to the
market. The cost of a dowry and wedding, according to Ellen Knickmeyer in
the US magazine “Foreign Policy,” is $25,000, far beyond the means of young
Saudi males earning $800 per month selling phone apps in a shopping mall.
Official statistics place 13 percent of the population under the poverty
Keen to keep a lid on potential discontent, the government
announced in March a $130 billion package of measures to increase salaries and
benefits and to stimulate employment and housing construction. The regime’s
legitimacy and authority is both religiously and tribally based: consequently,
the religious establishment has also been showered with new funds. Saudi
analysts warn of coming challenges in the oil and fiscal sectors, but for the
next few years, matters are under control. This will make the succession process
easier, as the octogenarian leadership prepares to give way to a younger
generation of princes who will be required to reform and modernize Saudi
institutions in order to maintain social and political stability.
meantime, the regime initiated a series of draconian measures against the press,
bloggers, and anyone remotely suspected of supporting “terrorism”: Amnesty
International stated that they “in effect criminalize legitimate
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First and foremost among Saudi regional concerns is the looming
shadow of Shiite Iran, whose power projection in the Gulf, Iraq and beyond
includes a nuclear program that the Saudis fear will decisively alter the
regional balance of power. The upheaval in Yemen, its poor, populous and
fractured neighbor to the south, poses multiple challenges and requires constant
attention, centering on easing out the embattled President Ali Abdallah Salih
and preventing al-Qaeda’s entrenchment. The overthrow of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak,
a longtime ally, shook the Saudis deeply, as did the failure of his (and their)
strategic patron, the US, to stand four-square behind him.
the Saudis essentially drew the wagons around its fellow monarchies – the five
other Gulf Cooperation Council states, Jordan, to which it has offered $1
billion in aid and membership in the GCC, and Morocco, a longtime ally of the
Saudis, which has also been offered membership. Riyadh also reached out to
Egypt’s new rulers, tendering aid proposals of $4 billion, and helped provide
collective Arab legitimacy for NATO’s campaign to unseat Libya’s
While maintaining fundamental military-strategic ties, the
Saudis also put some distance between itself and the US. This was most strongly
demonstrated in Bahrain, where it played the sectarian card. At the peak of the
democracy protests there in March, Riyadh blatantly ignored US blandishments and
dispatched thousands of troops, as part of a GCC contingent, to secure key
installations and embolden the monarchy’s crackdown on mostly Shiite dissidents.
The Saudi-Bahraini connection is now being cemented in Solomonic fashion, via
the marriage of the daughter of King Abdullah to the son of Bahrain’s King
Khalid bin Hamid.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, a series of
meetings have been held in recent weeks between Saudi and Iranian diplomats.
Presumably they’ve discussed a whole gamut of issues, but no rapprochement can
be expected. Staving off a complete US withdrawal from Iraq and preventing it
from falling entirely under Iranian domination is a high priority.
immediately, all eyes are on Syria: as stability, the Saudis’ first priority, is
no longer an option, they are probably recalibrating. The fall of the Syrian
Baath regime, Iran’s primary ally in the Arab world, and its replacement by a
Sunni-dominated leadership, would be a cause for celebration in Riyadh.
author is the Marcia Israel Senior Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle
Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University.
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