No kingdom is an island, particularly when it sits in a sea of revolution. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, watching the assault on Libya’s strong man Muammar Gaddafi with his monarchy’s usual complacency, thinks he can buy off protests with the promise of gifts.
Of course, the scale of the bribes the king offered last week to his country’s alienated young generation – £22bn – is something only an oil-rich monarch could deliver. The Saudi king speaks as a father to the youthful population – after all, this is the only royal family to give its name to its people – and he expects them to obey the name al-Saud as they would their own father.
But the king has compromised his authority by combining it with the role of “sugar daddy”. Nowhere else are subjects promised such largesse to not rock the boat.
Throughout the Arab awakening that began in Tunisia, the 86-year-old monarch and several of his elderly royal brothers have watched the turmoil across the Arab world convinced that the traditional pillars of their political control would see them through: oil revenues, US protection and custodianship of the holy places.
But Abdullah’s kingdom is surrounded by waves of revolutionary rage lapping at the fortress: Yemen in the south, Bahrain in the east, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya in the west. Even the usually docile kingdom of Jordan is racked by the spectre of change. Saudi Arabia’s royals have no doubt been shaken to their core by these disturbances and feel threatened by the successive, swift revolutions that have put paid to their cronies in Cairo and Tunis. How is it possible, they ask, for a few hundred shahids [martyrs], in just two to three weeks, to bring down their fellow autocrats so quickly?
The Saudi royals want to both resist and buy off these demands for political change. But the problem is that they do not grasp what their people are demanding. The internet, Facebook, Youtube and Twitter are all strangers to men raised in an age when the telephone was a novelty. That some 70% of the kingdom’s population is under 30 compounds the problem.
So it is no surprise that they mistake public demands for dignity and a genuine voice in government for petulant cries to be silenced with bribes and bread and circuses.
The king and his brothers have not considered making any serious political concession, as many hope they might: the creation of a constitutional monarchy, parliamentary elections, releasing up to 8,000 political prisoners being held without trial or representation, ending royal corruption, reform of the judiciary and cutting the privileges afforded all 22,000 members of the house of Saud, and curtailing the influence of the religious establishment.
Instead, they offer bribery to appease the restless and troublesome: a 15% pay raise for public employees, aid for students and the unemployed, and sports clubs. Let them kick footballs seems to be the royal’s motto!
But financial handouts are no substitute for genuine reform.
The demands now being made by the country’s youth are of an entirely different type. What Saudi youth are boldly expressing on their websites and on Facebook is the quest for real citizenship rights, and to be treated by their government with dignity. Many have announced 11 March as the day for “revolution”. Should such public protests take place, they will constitute a sign of ultimate defiance, because all political demonstrations are illegal in Saudi Arabia, punishable by lashing and imprisonment.
In 1979, indeed, the kingdom’s ground and air forces shot at protesting Shia in the eastern province, killing dozens and wounding hundreds.
Denial remains the dominant state of mind of the Saudi rulers. The royals believe that they have a special status in the Arab world and that no revolution can touch them. And if one tries, they will follow the words of Prince Naif: “what we took by the sword we will hold by the sword.”
In Saudi Arabia, the technologies of globalization have been deeply felt. When people are awakened in this way, the view that economic development would automatically produce political stability has been shown as a lie by the events in Tunis and Cairo, Bahrain and especially Libya. There is no automatic stabilizing factor in either economic or the social bribery that King Abdullah is now engaged in.
To preserve their throne, the Saudi royals must embark on a political evolution commensurate with the country’s accidental economic modernisation. Today’s inchoate unrest can still evolve in the direction of a constitutional monarchy. Now is the time for King Abdullah to act and not to bribe.
Mai Yamani is the author of Changed Identities: The Challenge of the New Generation in Saudi Arabia