The Arabian Peninsula has not been immune to the wave of recent demonstrations in countries across the Middle East. Notably, protests have been ongoing in Saudi Arabia's Shiite-concentrated Eastern Province for more than a year. Recently, however, unrelated demonstrations began in parts of the country where such unrest is rare, including a March 19 protest by female students demanding changes in university regulations and an improved infrastructure and academic environment at the Women's College of Art campuses in Asir province and Qassim province.
Historically, the Saudi monarchy has employed a series of tactics and sophisticated religious and tribal networks of influence to shut down -- or at least maintain control over -- the relatively few demonstrations that have developed outside the Shiite-majority region. But the new, Sunni-led protests are primarily youth-driven and supported by modern tools such as the Internet -- factors that could erode the monarchy's reliable methods of dissent suppression and potentially lead to an unprecedented escalation of demonstrations.
The protest that sparked the recent string of demonstrations in Saudi Arabia began March 7 at an all-female campus of King Khalid University in Asir province. Hundreds of students reportedly protested against discrimination and mismanagement at the university before security forces dispersed the crowd with batons, injuring dozens. The incident reportedly spurred similar gatherings by both men and women in solidarity with the King Khalid University students -- as well as in demand for better facilities -- at several other universities across Saudi Arabia, including in Riyadh. According to social media and news reports, additional demonstrations are planned for the coming weeks.
Protests are banned in Saudi Arabia, making the recent events quite anomalous. Thus far, the demonstrations outside Eastern Province have not called for political reform or involved slogans expressing grievances against the government. The demonstrations could cease to gain traction, or be satisfied with minor concessions and die out. However, small human rights protests often lead to larger demands for political change.
There are several key differences between the protests in Eastern Province and those in other parts of the country. Since February 2011, eastern Shiite demonstrators have demanded political reforms, the release of political prisoners and increased recognition of human rights. In contrast, the recent protests outside Eastern Province are Sunni-led and have called primarily for better university facilities. The demonstrators have not yet called for political reforms, which could threaten the Saudi government.
Suppression and Stability Strategies
The Saudi royals fear that a nascent reformist faction will gain traction due to the rise of political Islamists elsewhere in the Arab world. These concerns are growing at a time when the Saudi rulers are also facing upcoming challenges in the royal family succession. At this point, the demonstrations do not pose a serious threat to the stability of the monarchy, and the royals still have a number of well-established mechanisms to contain the dissent.
The monarchy maintains a tight security apparatus, which can be quickly dispatched to break up demonstrations. However, unlike other regimes, Saudi authorities avoid using brute force against protesters. Instead, to maintain their hegemony and social stability, the Saudi authorities isolate instigators from wider society (often through a series of arrests) and seek to use their entrenched influence among the Saudi tribal and religious networks to quell public dissent before it spreads.
To keep the population and local leaders happy, the monarchy provides a combination of cash handouts, subsidies and benefits. It also regularly marries into and develops relationships with nearly every tribe and province. And it cultivates varying degrees of influence in the country's ulema, or religious networks, by instilling fear of religious condemnation and arrests into both religious leaders and the general population. This nexus between local and religious leadership and the al-Saud family provides the monarchy networks that can be wielded to exert influence among a wide array of Saudi citizens. The networks also help perpetuate a norm among Saudis that public dissent, especially protests, is a taboo Western tactic and is fundamentally un-Islamic.
Cultural Shifts and Challenges
It is important to watch for signs of erosion of this norm, which is a possibility considering that the demonstrations have occurred primarily among Saudi youth, who might not be as influenced by the hierarchies of Saudi tribes and families. In addition, the youth have access to previously unavailable tools, such as the Internet, which is used by some to discuss current circumstances and continue to explore ideas even when demonstrations are shut down. The frequency and growing geographical diversity of the protests suggests the monarchy cannot rely on Saudi norms and networks to pacify dissent.
If demonstrations strengthen and become more political, authorities might decide that stronger suppression tactics, similar to those employed to manage the simmering unrest in the Eastern Province, are necessary. Indeed, tactics such as arrests, a heavier security presence, the use of rubber bullets and tear gas, and controlling the clerics through ulema networks have allowed authorities to largely contain the demonstrations and prevent them from undermining governance and the economy in the Eastern Province. If the new protests escalate, how the demonstrators respond to the government's tactics -- and whether the spirit of protest endure -- will be increasingly important to observe.
- Death Penalty Stalks the Middle East and North Africa
- Arms Appetite in Middle East and North Africa Remains Strong
- Web Grows in Middle East and North Africa But So Does Censorship
- Al-Assad Revives Father's Torture Techniques
- Military Intervention in Syria is a Bad Idea
- The Great Syrian Divide
- Syria's Systematic Torture
- The Screws Tighten on Syria's Assad
- Assad Is Not All That's Toxic About Syria
- Tales of Horror From Syrian Refugees
- A 'New Humanitarianism' at Play in Syrian Crisis
- Collapse of Syrian Pound Echoes Across Jordan
- Syrian Unrest Affecting Entire Communities
- Iraq and the Limits of U.S. Power
- New Protests Test Saudi Monarchy's Control
- Saudi Women on Their Way to London Olympics
- What's Wrong with Containment
- Iranian Angst: Not Israel, But Domestic Discord
- Israel: Water Being Used to Coerce Bedouin Villagers
- Israel: Joining Start-Up Nation
- Film Aims to Shift Narrative About Israel
- Israel's Shrinking Middle Class
- Egypt's Liberals Shun Constitutional Assembly
- In Egypt, A cellphone is a Wireless Lifeline
- Egypt: Livestock Disease Puts Food Security at Risk
- Copts Debate: Fighting Pope or Peacemaker
- Sick and Tired of the Middle East
- The Arab Spring at One
- Arab Spring Democracy: A Win for Women?
- Iran's Ahmadinejad Down But Not Quite Out
- Attack on Iran Would be a Mistake
- School Debate Shows Deep Divisions in Israel
- Youth Aren't Being Served in Saudi Arabia
- Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood: Unexpected Adversaries
- Saudi Students Stage Rowdy Protests
- Netanyahu Fails to Convince Israelis on Iran Threat
- Iran's Domestic Struggle Continues
- Crisis-Managing United States - Iran Relations
- The Iraq We Left Behind
- NATO's Victory in Libya
- If America Won't Lead Against Iran, It Should Get Out of the Way
- United States and Israel Need to Agree on Strike Against Iran
- Israeli Attack on Iran Could Become a Religious War
- United States Should Discourage Israel From Striking Iran
- Threat of U.S. Strike is Vital to Deterring Iran
- United States and Israel Should Push for Regime Change in Iran
- Solving Syria Requires Separating Myth From Reality
- Questioning Intervention in Syria
- Yemen: Tortured for Ransom
- Honor Killings Defy Attempts at Reform
- Egypt: Helping Refugee Women to Fend for Themselves
- Egypt: Fears of Malnutrition Amid Increasing Poverty
- Lebanon: Tussle Over Gender Violence Law
- Lebanon: Boost for Relatives of Civil War Missing
- Red Sea Bridge Back on the Drawing Board
- Writing on the Wall: Israel and its Christians
- Get Ready for War with Iran
- Panetta: U.S. Will Do 'Everything' to Stop Iran
- Next Fight in Egypt and Tunisia Will Be Among The Islamists
- Tunisia at a Crossroads
- Egypt's Other Revolution: Modernizing the Military-Industrial Complex
- Clock Ticking for Egypt's Finances
- Port Said Dialogue Aims to Restore Calm
- Egyptian Strike Fails to Mobilize Masses
- The Egyptian Revolution One Year On
- Russia and China Defy Morality by Backing Syria's Assad
- Inside the Anti-Uprising Movement in Syria
- Jihadist Opportunities in Syria
- Syrian Youth Against Tyranny
- Worrying Signs for Food Security in Syria
- Syria's Chaos Reaches Its Kitchens
- Syria is Trending Toward the Libya Model
- Many Non-Military Options in Syria
- Syrian Intervention Need Not Be Military-Focused
- Too Many Obstacles Stand in Way of Syrian Intervention
- Intervening in Syria is Tough, but Civilian Victims Deserve It
- Syria: Two Car Bombs Hit Security Facilities
New Protests Test Saudi Monarchy's Control is republished with permission of STRATFOR.