Why Saudi Arabia is stable amid the Mideast unrest

By Nawaf Obaid
Friday, March 11, 2011

Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have toppled their regimes. Unrest continues in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Algeria and Oman. Yet the host of the world's largest energy reserves and the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia, remains conspicuously quiet.

Saudi Arabia shares some characteristics that have been causes for unrest - such as high unemployment among its youth and public-sector corruption - but the kingdom has strengths its neighbors lack. Its strong economy and weak opposition are clear. Less understood in the West is another critical element: a nationalism that has been fostered by and is strongly linked to the monarchy. These qualities make it highly unlikely that the unrest in other Arab countries will spread to the kingdom.

Economically, Saudi Arabia is able to fund projects that satisfy the needs of its growing population. Record revenue from energy exports has been invested in infrastructure and social services. It has spent tens of billions the past several years on universities and other schools, hospitals, rail lines and housing developments. An additional $29.5 billion in financial benefits to poorer Saudis - including help for the unemployed - was recently announced, as were raises for public servants and efforts to mitigate inflationary pressures. Last year, the salaries of all soldiers and military officers were increased.

Although Saudi Arabia has amassed more than $500 billion in foreign reserves during the reign of King Abdullah - a measure widely seen as representative of the government's fiscal responsibility - the kingdom still faces economic challenges. By world standards, Saudi Arabia is wealthy; the global poverty line is $1.25 per day. All Saudis receive housing assistance and free health care and education; per capita income is about $18,500. Yet many Saudis feel that this standard of living is not commensurate with a country so rich in resources. To address embarrassment and unhappiness, the government launched a national strategy a few years ago to combat poverty, aiming to reduce the number of those living below the poverty level ($1,015 per month) from 13.3 percent in 2010 to 2.2 percent in 2020. Another initiative is on track to help the 1.63 percent of Saudis living in "extreme poverty" (less than $450 per month) by the end of this year.

The culturally conservative Saudi society is also resistant to revolution. This reticence toward unpredictable change helps explain why the grass-roots "liberal" movement in the kingdom is just a few scattered groups that carry little support among the general population. Islamist reform movements are also small and fragmented. Five recent petitions by these groups gathered fewer than 4,500 signatures.

Historically, Saudi Arabia has been dominated by allegiance to tribe and region. The most serious threat to Saudi leadership in the past decade may have been posed by al-Qaeda, but that group lost whatever public support it had after a series of bombings in Riyadh in 2003. A concerted counterterrorism effort, supported by the population, wiped out the group's network in the kingdom by 2006. Meanwhile, over the past two decades, a growing nationalist sentiment has been binding together Saudi society. External threats, such as Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and, more recently, the rise of Iran and its anti-Arab policies, coupled with internal crises such as the al-Qaeda bombings have bolstered this patriotism.

Saudi leaders have pursued domestic policies to unify the population, including the 1.5 million minority Shiites, who have long harbored grievances over discrimination and lack of opportunity. Loan programs have been expanded to bring students from outlying tribal areas to urban schools, shifting their allegiance from local to national leaders. The military has been recruiting from across the social spectrum. Restrictions against free expression have been loosened. Vibrant debates and government criticism are common in the press, as coverage of the disastrous Jeddah floods and the government's initial inept response recently showed. Huge celebrations were held during the last Saudi National Day, whereas in the past, conservative religious authorities had opposed any expressions of fidelity to the state. The country's soccer league and national team have also formed important catalysts for fostering a strong sense of pride in being Saudi.

Another simple but critical factor is that King Abdullah is a deeply popular leader of a monarchy that the vast majority of Saudis view as legitimate. The "Allegiance Commission" - which chooses the next leader from the sons and grandsons of King Abdulaziz, who united the kingdom in 1932- ensures that transitions are smooth and popularly supported.

Satisfaction with the leadership, economic strength and nascent nationalism mark a unity in Saudi Arabia that is of a different fabric than those that are tearing across the Arab world. While other regimes reap the bitter harvest of irresponsible fiscal policies, social disunion and unpopular leadership, the Saudi monarchy is likely to remain a bulwark of regional stability and security.

The writer is a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies and is pursuing a doctorate on the rise of Saudi nationalism at the Department of War Studies at King's College, London.

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