When Will the Protests Hit Saudi Arabia?

Group of Saudi intellectuals has already opened a petition on Facebook demanding to turn the kingdom into a constitutional monarchy and create division between the monarchy and the government.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

It is quiet in Saudi Arabia - for now. No public square is crowded with thousands of protesters and no youths are busy tearing down pictures of King Abdullah in shopping centers. The slogan "The people want regime change" has been replaced there by the weaker "The people want reform."

Following three months in New York tending to his ailing back, and the tremendous headache that Lebanon caused, does anyone remember at all that Abdullah still has some unresolved problem's at home?

Saudi women enjoying time out in Jeddah.Credit: AP

The tumult across the Arab world means Abdullah has fewer friends in power, like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (who is still hospitalized in Saudi Arabia ).

Abdullah wasn't going to wait for the same fate to befall him, and so sent some rays of hope to the youths of his country. No, he does not intend for the time being to allow women to drive cars, let alone be elected to local government; he does not intend to set up a parliament or to cut the royal house off from controlling the country.

Abdullah has done what he has always done best - write fat checks and distribute $36 billion to young Saudis who want to build homes or set up a business. He even tossed a small bone in the direction of the women - they will be allowed to vote in local elections this year, but they still can't run.

The royal checks may not suffice this time, though. A group of Saudi intellectuals has already opened a petition on Facebook in which one of the main demands is to turn the kingdom into a constitutional monarchy and to create a division between the monarchy and the government.

How exactly will this dream be fulfilled? According to the explanations of the campaign's initiators, the government must be elected by the public through a parliament, but the king will give his patronage to the government; the judicial system will be autonomous; and members of parliament will not be appointed but they will be elected directly.

In any case, neither the king nor any of his representatives have responded to the demands thus far. We will have to wait and see whether the would-be reformers will collect sufficient support for a significant demonstration on Friday and how the royal army will react.

Meanwhile the demands by supporters on the Facebook page are getting sharper and sharper.

"Go away from here, sons of the Saud family," reads one of them while a variety of caricatures that decorate the page portray the regime as a soldier that represses the people, and among the demands for reform there is not merely a call for democratization but also for a full and "fair distribution," in Saudi terms.

They are demanding, for example, that all citizens' debts to the government be canceled, that work be given to all the unemployed (the official unemployment rate is about 10 percent ) and that grants be given to all those who cannot work.

Other demands include that the minimum wage be set at $2,600 a month (in Egypt, by comparison, it is $53 a month for civil servants and the unions are demanding that it be raised to $220 per month ), that all the "unjustified" taxes on citizens be retracted, and that the private franchises that are granted to members of the royal family be annulled.

At the very end of the list appears the following demand: That all the illegal restrictions that are imposed on women be canceled and that they be granted everything necessary to be protected from Westernization.

This is an especially interesting paragraph because it shows the limits of the reforms Saudi men are prepared to put up with.

Elections to parliament - yes; driving a car - no. Using the "Western" Facebook to promote reform - yes, a campaign for the Westernization of women - no.

Saudi women have websites of their own where they spell out all their political and economic demands and also express their opinions about Saudi and Arab men.

During the original Arab demonstrations, the women were an inseparable part of the protesters; they marched, demonstrated, held up slogans, were arrested and questioned like the men. But anyone looking for slogans calling for equal rights for women in those countries would have had a hard time finding them in Tahrir or Sidi Bouzid.

Tunisia is perhaps the most progressive among the Arab states with regard to equal rights for women, but Egypt is also not far behind. Women serve in the parliament and the government, they hold senior positions at the universities and, other than being religious clerics - a field which has recently also been opened to women - there is no profession that is completely closed to them.

In Saudi Arabia, the list of professions forbidden to women is much longer than that of the professions in which they are permitted to work. True, the Saudi king last year allowed women lawyers to practice, but that too was heavily restricted. Female lawyers must be supervised by a male lawyer and cannot appear in court during hearings on matters in which men are being tried.

It is interesting that neither the American president nor the secretary of state has in recent weeks mentioned Saudi Arabia as an essential objective for reforms. In the case of Mubarak, they called on him to resign, and some in Washington are voicing threats of military intervention against Libya's Muammar Gadhafi. Saudi Arabia has still not come under the American influence, though.

It will be interesting to see how the demonstrations play out on Friday, the Saudis' planned day of rage. Will men gather on the squares while the women look at them through the windows? And what will Hillary Clinton have to say?

It appears that the Saudi women who want equality will have to arrange their own protests, separately from those of the men. Because even if the men get half of what they are demanding, there will be nothing left for the women.



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