King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
(photo credit: AP)
Young Saudis are enthusiastically endorsing the anti-government uprising in Egypt filling Facebook and Twitter with postings supporting the demonstrators at Cairo’s Tahrir Square. But their enthusiasm for rebellion doesn’t extend to their own country.
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Blogger Fouad Al-Farahan, who was detained by Saudi authorities three years ago for his on-line activities, Twittered, “Democracy is the Solution!” Even an eight-year-old Saudi girl calling herself “Juju” lectured Mubarak to resign on a YouTube video that has gone viral.
But much of the enthusiasm was tempered last week when King Abdullah announced through the Saudi Press Agency his support for Mubarak. He accused Egypt’s young anti-regime demonstrators of “tampering with Egypt's security and stability ... in the name of freedom of expression.” For many Saudis, publicly contradicting the king is disloyal to the kingdom.
Yet following a lull in Saudi postings, Facebook and Twitter lit up
again on Wednesday when violence broke out between anti-government and
pro-government factions in Cairo. Virtually every Saudi commenting sided
with the anti-regime demonstrators. Nevertheless, young Saudis say that
the situation in Egypt can’t compare to Saudi Arabia.
“What is happening in Egypt has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia,”
Muhammad Al-Asmari, 19, a student in Jeddah, told The Media Line.
“Mubarak has done absolutely nothing for Egypt in three decades. You
can’t say the same for Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah has done a lot for
Saudi Arabia and Egypt do share similar problems: high unemployment,
inflation, an absence of democracy and a directionless youth. Unlike
Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth enables it to build schools, hospitals
and infrastructure and provide social services that Egypt cannot.
Norah Shayib, 21, of Jeddah, said Saudi Arabia’s deeper Muslim identity
is what has enabled it to avoid the turmoil that has spread from Tunisia to
Egypt, Jordan and Yemen over the last several weeks.
“This is not meant to be an insult to Egyptians—I have high regard for
my brothers and sisters there—but they are a country of 80 million
people who have varying attitudes about Islam,” she told The Media Line
“It’s a secular country. At the end of the day, Saudi Arabia is about
being Muslim and we have nothing but affection for our king who has been
good to us. We identify first as Muslims and second as Saudis.”
She added that Saudis take seriously the hadiths –words and deeds
attributed to the prophet Mohammed that are often used as the basis for
Islamic law. They demand loyalty to a Muslim ruler who has been “fair
and just” to his people, she said.
However, some Saudis expressed a more cynical view. “I think Saudis are
asking themselves, who would be better [than King Abdullah]? The answer
is nobody,” said one Saudi who didn’t want to be identified.
Indeed, the Saudi king’s popularity among Muslims outside of the kingdom
far outstrips other Muslim leaders, including Hezbollah’s Hassan
Nasrallah, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Palestinian Authority
President Mahmoud Abbas and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.
In a 2010 Pew Research Center poll, 92% of all Jordanians and 83% of all
Egyptians expressed confidence in the Saudi king. In contrast, only 32%
of Jordanians and 26% of the Egyptians expressed confidence in
Ahmadinejad. A third of Jordanians and Egyptians had confidence in
Abbas. The Saudi government, however, is not without its domestic
Perhaps the most well known demonstration occurred when nearly 50 women
defied the country’s driving ban by driving cars throughout the streets
of Riyadh in 1990. Religious conservatives staged a demonstration in
2009 when Norah Al-Fail, the first woman named deputy minister of the
Saudi Ministry of Education, visited a boys’ school. The demonstrators
demanded the government enforce its gender segregation laws. More
recently, about two dozen Saudis took to the streets of Jeddah to protest
against the government’s failure to improve infrastructure that led to
flooding that killed 10 people.
Last week’s floods in Jeddah were the second massive flooding in 14
months and enraged local residents. During the November 2009 floods,
which killed more than 100 people, Saudi authorities initially blamed
the deaths on people failing to follow government instructions to reach
safety. A news blackout followed, which prevented the Saudi media from
reporting on the damage and death toll. Jeddah residents skirted the
blackout by posting mobile phone video images on Facebook and YouTube.
The graphic images of floating bodies angered Saudis.
“It was a huge change for Saudis,” Al-Asmari said. “We could make a change just by using the Internet.”
Public reaction to the floods prompted King Abdullah to order the arrest
of about 50 Jeddah municipal officials and construction contractors. It
also led to mass resignation of the city’s engineers. It was the first
scandal of alleged corruption made public.
“This is the kind of change we can do on the Internet and I think it’s
more effective,” Al-Asmari said. “I can’t imagine Saudis in the streets
like what I see in Egypt on Al Jazeera. It’s not the right way to do