By Robert Herr
[JF note: Robert Herr is the pseudonym of a Westerner who lives and works in Saudi Arabia. He files this special bonus Guest Blog chronicle on how the events of recent weeks have seemed from inside the Kingdom. He also provided the photos, showing this week's joyful observance of the return of King Abdullah after his months of medical treatment and recovery in the United States and Morocco.]
THE RETURN OF THE SAUDI KING TO THE RESCUE!
Riyadh: I was at the lunchtime canteen of my office in January when I watched a "BREAKING NEWS" on the Al-Jazeera TV station, showing a crowd of people around a street with smoke rising from some automobiles. With my lousy Arabic reading abilities, I was confused by the references to "M" and "S", and figured that this was a broadcast from Iraq ("Mosul?"). The more I looked at the screen, I realized it was "Misra": Oh my God this is not Iraq, this is Egypt! This came after the much-surprising news in early January of the toppling of the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali (who, all the Saudis joked, flew to his exile in Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia on the Red Sea - my friends in Riyadh pointed out that Jeddah has a nice tradition of hosting deposed dictators, beginning with Idi Amin when he fled to Saudi in 1980).
The events of January and February in the Middle East have been fascinating for everybody in Saudi, especially for the local population at the moment of joy when The Egyptian People Won! The achievement was to topple the Mubarak regime in a relatively peaceful manner in only a few week's time). What joy! Finally Arabs could be proud of their own rise to international standards of democracy and respectability. Local newspapers derided old comments by Western observers that "the Arabs aren't ready for democracy". The peaceful Egyptian revolution provoked a big moment of pride for Saudis, something shared spontaneously on the streets and in the elevators and offices for the next few days after Hosni Mubarak stepped down suddenly in the night of February 11. The comments shared by all were "Mabrouk!" ("congratulations"), with a nuance above all of "congratulations to all of us Arabs! We did it!!".
Over the last few weeks, one has the sense of things getting uglier and uglier (especially now with open warfare in Libya). You hear colleagues and people on the street in Riyadh ask "where is it next?" "where does it end?" In Saudi, the most troublesome case has been Bahrain, because of its geographical proximity and close family ties and above all because most of the protesters are Shiites whereas the Power Regime in Bahrain is Sunni. The Shiites are an important part of the population in the Eastern Region of Saudi (on the Arabian/Persian Gulf facing Iran) and the Saudis (dominated by the Sunni branch of Islam) have much sensitivity about Iranian influences through Shiism translating itself into anti-Sunni unrest. Bahrain seemed to have the potential to quickly tip off a proxy battle between Iran and Saudi in the region, in the same way that Shiite/Sunni contests have vexed the development of a new government infrastructure in Iraq. Most Saudis I know point to Iran as the source of the problems in Bahrain: apparently Iranian sympathizers (who are also Shiites) have been the main instigators for the demonstrations.
Some pundits have predicted that "the real battle for Arab democracy" will be in Saudi, "once demonstrations come over the Bahrain Causeway to the Kingdom". In fact they already started, last week in Qatif, the Shiite stronghold city in Eastern Province Saudi. As in Egypt, there are real issues indeed for the Saudi mass: the country shows huge discrepancies in wealth in this vastly rich Oil Giant. Although Saudi Arabia has risen in stature to become one of the G-20 countries, there is much poverty in this country. Just like Egypt with a mass of unemployed youth, Saudi has a huge population of youngsters: nearly half (47%) of the Saudi population is 18 years old or younger. Although the national unemployment figure stands at 10%, the jobless rate is nearly four times higher (39%) for Saudis aged 24-24 years. And if the Egyptians and Bahrainis complained about the absence of liberty in their own country, these countries seem clearly liberal in comparison to Saudi in terms of freedom of the press.
Despite these possible sources for unrest, most of us living in Riyadh doubt that the demonstration wave will spread to Saudi Arabia. Instead, Saudi seems a bastion of stability in the midst of the Middle Eastern turmoil.
The absence of protest in the streets of Riyadh says a lot about the kind of government and rulers we have in the Kingdom today. The monarchy is very popular here in Saudi, the people seem proud of the history of the House of Saud which unified the country in the early Twentieth Century. Foreigners can sense a tribal bond between the King and his people. The Saud family is not at all "remote" from the people - there are roughly one thousand members of the Royal family with real power and wealth, but the "Saud" family as a "tribe" apparently numbers more than 50,000 people! Nor is the monarchy "remote" from governing institutions as there is the Shura Council with 150 members - this advisory body meets often and issues policy statements on a broad range of government matters. The Saudi government has a number of ministries which function much as one would expect in any modern country today. In short, this is a benevolent monarchy and King Abdullah is revered by many in Saudi as a good-hearted and progressive guardian of the people.
(Continued, with more photos, after the jump.)
In the words of a Bahraini friend I know, "the demonstrations can't happen in Riyadh because the people are too much in a celebratory mood, the King is back and all Saudis are happy". King Abdullah (now 86 years old) flew to New York City for back surgery in November and had spent the last months recovering in New York and Morocco. Now at last he has come back to Riyadh. To celebrate the King's return, schools were closed on Saturday. The Saudi national flag are displayed all around the city, with giant posters of King Abdullah smiling to his people.
Upon his return to Riyadh last Wednesday, King Abdullah announced a massive $ 37 billion social welfare program including pay rises, unemployment benefits and affordable housing. The King's new social welfare package notably includes unemployment insurance for one year for all Saudis looking for work (the first ever form of unemployment benefits in Saudi).
Most friends I know from Bahrain indicate that the protest movement is now calming down, as the Bahraini government has begun a "National Dialogue" which seems to have met most of the public's major demands. Similarly, last Wednesday's gesture by King Abdullah of new social welfare in Saudi seems a smart move to anticipate the issues and head off dissent. So the chances of street demonstrations in Riyadh are remote, above all now that the return of the King has given a mood of optimism for the Saudi public. The stock market is expected to strengthen. Saudi has a very legitimate regime which seems a combination of the Queen of England and Singapore: a benevolent monarch who spreads the wealth to the people while denying civil liberties.
The Saudis seem to have an affection for King Abdullah which does not depend on his policies. Recall that the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques (his official title) was outspoken in his support for "no regime change" in Egypt and offered to replace any funds of US Aid if Obama were to take it away from Egypt. King Abdullah is also a strong backer of the Khalifa family in Bahrain. This man is not a fan of the democratic movement! But the Saudi people see no contradiction between their joy of seeing the Egyptian peaceful revolution, and their affection for their benevolent monarch.
But one can never be sure about these things...today a Saudi friend explained his own fears: "those young teenagers [the "shebabs", the same Arabic name for the Somali pirates] who were dancing in the streets waving Saudi flags and cheering for the King's return, they didn't really care about the King, These kids are bored. This isn't Cairo or Bahrain, there is nothing to do here. They have no movies, they have no means of having fun, they don't work, how can they pass their time? So they were dancing in the streets, not for the King but instead to have fun. Blowing off steam. Who knows what they will do next."
Robert Herr wrote occasionally for the New Republic during his stay in Moscow in 1978-79. Today he works in finance in Riyadh.