Apparently only a fool would dare question Saudi Arabia’s susceptibility to revolution. Every attempt offers as many excuses and qualifiers as shots fired against the Kingdom. But why ask an analyst, or a local for matter, when the King’s actions tell no lies?
Having banned all protests and marches, he too feels the heat of revolution licking at his borders, from Egypt, Yemen, and Oman to Bahrain, Iraq, and Jordan.
King Abdullah’s track-record speaks for itself. Guarding Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from extradition, who stands accused of fleeing Tunisia with over 100 pounds of gold, and entertaining thoughts of Hosni Mubarak, the King warned President Barack Obama on January 29th that he would replace U.S. military aid to Cairo if necessary. Economists dispute whether Saudi Arabia’s increased oil output is directly attributed to Libya’s present shortage, however they concede the fact that King Abdullah hoped to improve market perceptions over Libya. Finally the King and his Crown Prince Sultan, both ill in health, returned from Morocco on February 23rd to oversee the regional crisis.
First came $36 billion in incentives - pay raises, debt clearance, low-mortgage homes, financial and unemployment aid - plus an additional $400 billion for education and health care services. Then, with Facebook rallies set for March 11 and March 20, came new police deployments and the order to stay inside. Any attempt to cause public disorder will be prevented by “all measures.”
The sweeping efficiency of a monarchy is something to behold. While we understand the historically conservative nature of Saudi Arabia, the King seems to be playing a majority of his deck to block his people from following the transforming Muslim world.
There’s no need to qualify because the question isn’t whether Saudi Arabia will experience immediate and rapid turmoil. Two factors beyond the personal nature of Saudi Arabia’s diverse populace, and “low” 10% unemployment, hold the revolutionary virus at bay. One naturally takes shape in a fifth of the world’s oil reserves, generating a $622 billion GDP and an estimated $250 billion war-chest. On top of unleashing financial windfalls to sap economic discontent, Saudi Arabia accounts for most of the world’s “spare production capacity” - new oil production within 30 days and sustained over 90 days.
The country’s general wealth allows it to throw its weight behind regional dictators, a strategy that worked until February 11th and is trying to revive itself.
The second and more sinister obstruction to a revolutionary outbreak once more proves the irony of U.S. policy. Famous for its own world-altering revolution, America now stands a good chance of becoming infamous for impeding a revolutionary period in human history. At a time when Obama promised "change," no less. He hasn't hesitated simply out of oil, but hundreds of billions in arms contracts, decades of joint military exercises, leverage against Hezbollah and Hamas. And both Washington and Riyadh realize that, in the grand scheme, the Saudi Arabian mothership cannot show any sign of unrest.
Because if it happens in Saudi Arabia, no state is safe from the revolutionary spirit demanding democracy, human rights, and possibly regime change. Egypt's uprising barely registers compared to the same events played out in Saudi Arabia. Revolution in Riyadh would collapse U.S.-Israeli policy in an instant, rather than the gradual decay at work now.
"With Egypt in chaos, the kingdom is Washington's only major ally left in the Arab world and the Saudis want the Americans to remember that," said a source in Riyadh as Mubarak neared his end.
But the country’s fate becomes less certain over time. What happens when these advantages erode, especially America’s unquestioned allegiance to its heavyweight ally? How long can Washington support “no protests," along with the King's attempts to undermine a regional shift towards an opening system? And how long can the King insulate his people from the monumental change occurring beyond their borders? What if a democratic spirit sweeps the region over a period of five or ten years?
Will Saudis begin to feel as though they missed out?
Maybe not if the revolutionary cycle produces more instability. But some are already prepared to sacrifice in the name of freedom, enough to keep the system agitated. If democracy finally pays dividends in the Middle East, even the most conservative Saudi may find a hard time denying the progress of such awesome cultural forces.