March 11, which social-networking Saudi dissidents had chosen for a “Day of Rage,” has come and gone without the emergence—so far—of a massive and turbulent reform movement like those seen in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Demonstrations by members of the Saudi Shia community in the Eastern Province, where oil is plentiful and Shias are a majority, took place on March 10, in the Shia center at Qatif. They did not feature the sweeping demands for change seen in the North African “Arab Spring,” but called for release of nine Shia activists who have been imprisoned by Saudi authorities for 14 years. Police fired on the Qatif marchers, and three people were injured. But the next day, as dissidents assembled in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, a second round of Shia protests took place in the Qatif area without violence apart from some arrests.
The “Day of Rage” in Riyadh was also subdued, with massed police in the streets of the Saudi capital as one among other deterrents. Demonstrators in the Riyadh event were few. On Sunday, a smaller group gathered in Riyadh to call for release of Saudis held on terrorism charges. This illustrated one factor in the dampening of a Saudi democratization movement. That is, in addition to those discontented with the regime’s lack of parliamentary and other constitutional institutions, as noted in a blog item by James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation, Islamist radicals have mounted their own effort against the state.
This aspect of the Saudi political landscape was brought home by an interview with Saad al-Faqih, leader of the extremist Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA), posted in English on March 10. Commenting on the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Saad declared, in an absurd flight of radical rhetoric, “the Saudis are fully supportive of Western policy towards Israel and the Palestinians. A truly democratic government in Cairo would be supportive of the Palestinians, in particular supportive of Palestinian rights in the Gaza Strip.”
Fear that Islamist “reformers” would prove worse in power than the present monarchs is one incentive against the emergence of a significant democratizing trend in Saudi Arabia. The saber-rattling of Saudi Prince Nayef, half-brother of the king, minister of the interior, and a source of great anxiety among Saudis, may also have an effect. Nayef has reportedly dismissed calls for reform by saying “What we won by the sword, we will keep by the sword.” But a larger psychological element must be the spectacle of unrestrained repression and international passivity in response to the Libyan turmoil. Few observers of the “Arab Spring” should doubt that the high price paid by the Libyan resistance for their struggle against Muammar Qaddafi, the apparent success of the Tripoli dictator in repelling the challenge to him, and, above all, the shameful dithering of the so-called “international community” in dealing with him, will discourage many who yearn for democracy in the Arab lands.
In addition, trust in the reform sentiments of Saudi King Abdullah by the majority of Saudi Sunnis should not be discounted or disparaged. His effort for change has been slowed to a near-standstill by his isolation in the royal family as well as the continued status of Wahhabi fundamentalism as a state-sponsored sect. But King Abdullah’s aversion to the Wahhabis and desire for modernization of the country he rules are real. The “soft” police response to dissident activities is one bit of evidence for the king’s desire to move the country beyond its retrograde condition.
An example of Abdullah’s reformism that may seem trivial to Westerners but has great significance for the Saudi public occurred at the Riyadh Book Fair, which opened on March 2. For some years, the book fair has served as a barometer of trends toward easing of cultural and religious restrictions in the country. This year, it was disrupted on its inaugural day by a gang of up to 500 ultra-Wahhabis who denounced the presence there of “un-Islamic” love poetry and women journalists without the face-veil (niqab). The mob was expelled from the fair. In another example of the convoluted and self-contradictory nature of life in the kingdom, Saudi culture minister Abdul-Aziz Khoja, who attended the book fair and was confronted by the radicals, condemned them sharply.
Khoja first issued the incredible claim that “The Ministry of Culture and Information has never exercised suppression of any kind towards any one. . . . We have never censored writings that criticized the kingdom or silenced critics.” But the minister then derided the extremists, who castigated Saudi television channels for broadcasting “immoral and un-Islamic” programs. Khoja commented, “when we ask about the nature of this material or when it was seen, they reply that they don’t watch those channels. How can you judge something without seeing it?” Khoja described the fundamentalists as promoters of “exclusion under the umbrella of faith.”
Discontent in Saudi Arabia is marked by an essential difference from the revolutionary crises in other Arab states. Saudis do not face a dictator whose influence is limited to his family and a few parasites. Rather, as in China, Saudi subjects must contend with a powerful and long-established state ideological apparatus, in the form of Wahhabism. In this, Saudi Arabia more resembles Iran, except that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei do not enjoy the credibility with their subjects visible in the attachment of the ordinary Saudi populace to King Abdullah.
UPDATE: Saudi Arabian troops have now entered the neighboring state of Bahrain to support the reigning Sunni dynasty there.
Irfan al-Alawi is executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, based in the UK. Stephen Schwartz is author of The Two Faces of Islam and The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony.