Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Starting a Saudi Revolution without Revolutionaries

NOTE: This article was originally published in the Huffington Post.

Sometimes people are so hopeful about the prospect of more bloodshed spilled in the Middle East that they resort to stretching the truth to further their agenda. There is the thinking along conventional lines that if Tunisia, Egypt and Libya fall, then so must Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

The jury is out on Bahrain, although it does not look good for the Sunni monarchy. But Saudi Arabia? There is no question the Saudi government is a little more than nervous about the Shi'a-led protests in Bahrain. It is impossible to predict what the end result means to the Kingdom, but there is the odor of hope in the western media that Saudi Arabia will fall with the endless coverage of "Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?"

This leads me to wonder whether foreign policy analysts and so-called Middle East experts are being deliberately obtuse about Saudi Arabia's future. Since when do 465 people signing a Facebook Saudi "Day of Rage" page constitute a brewing revolution in a country of 16 million Saudis? It appears that most of the petitioners are non-Saudis with more than a few living outside the Kingdom. I am all for the democratic reforms they demand. However, will a thousand or even 465 people stage a demonstration in Riyadh on March 11 or March 20, or whatever day they decide, to vent their rage? Maybe, but the support from most Saudis is likely to be from the comfort of their homes while watching them on Al Jeezera.

Much is made of the couple dozen Saudi women staging a demonstration in Riyadh demanding the release of their men from custody because they have been charged with no crimes. Several dozen expatriate workers demonstrated in Makkah because they have not been paid. Legitimate grievances, sure. But are these public demonstrations out of the ordinary? No. Has anyone seen Saudi tribes gather in the desert for a meeting with an emir over water issues? I would not want to be on the receiving end of a finger wagging from a Bedouin tribal leader with an entire village standing behind him.

The west's argument that Saudi Arabia is poised to erupt in revolution is found in the reports about King Abdullah allocating an estimated $36 billion in social benefits to Saudis. The benefits will provide home loans, funding for NGOs, 15 percent fixed raises for government employees, scholarship money for Saudis studying abroad at their own expense and unemployment benefits.

News outlets ranging from Investment Watch to the Washington Post and the New York Times assert the money is simply to stave off protests with a Band-Aid. One BBC commentator likened the benefits to "bribery" to keep Saudis quiet.

One must wonder where these news organizations have been for the past five years. The Saudi government has been issuing these types of social welfare benefits annually since King Abdullah became the Kingdom's leader in 2005. Each year, usually in December, the Saudi government allocates massive funds to help Saudis keep pace with inflation, build more schools and universities, and send Saudis abroad for a western education. This year's announcement of providing unemployment benefits is not only new, but historic. Yet it is consistent with previous fund distribution schemes since 2005. This year's allocation occurred in February and not December because the King has been in Morocco for medical treatment.

It is convenient, if not lazy, to place the social benefits package in the context of the regional uprisings, but a look into the archives of any Saudi newspaper tells the story of consistent annual fund allocations for similar programs.

The Saudi government has been on a reform binge for five years, but its sometimes lethargic pace has little to do with the will of the government, but with some Saudis who have their own agenda. They have only their interests in mind, and government transparency and efforts to end corruption threaten those interests.

The true discontent among many Saudis is the lack of accountability for the rampant government corruption and the lack of transparency in how the government goes about its business. It botched the follow up to the 2005 municipal elections by not holding further voting, but I am not sure the average Saudi's interests truly lie in local elections.

There is no question now that Saudi Arabia needs to pick up the pace of reform. It cannot allow special interest groups in various government ministries to continue dragging their feet to implement programs ordered by the king. But the simplistic thinking that the Saudi government unleashed this huge sum of money to keep the Facebook revolutionaries at bay is laughable.