Neighbors / Of Bribes and Revolutions

Just as demonstrations for reform began to arrive in Saudi Arabia, the king announced an extremely generous program of financial benefits for his subjects. Not everyone, however, is invited onto the gravy train.

The Umayyad caliph Mu'awiya bin Abi Sufyan, who ruled in the 7th century, coined the political term "Mu'awiya's hair" to refer to the connection between the ruler and his people. "The [strength] of the connection is like the thickness of a hair," the caliph explained. "When the public pulls it, I let go, and when the public lets go, I pull - so long as the hair does not tear." It seems as if King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is adopting Mu'awiya's dictum, and that last week he understood that his people were likely to tear the hair, as has happened in some of the neighboring Arab countries.

"I am so proud of you that words and expressions are not able to express this," he said. "I am saying this so that history will remember and the pens will write it down; you are the security valve that preserves the unity of the people, you have replaced what is tasteless with the real thing and treason with loyalty." These were the encouraging words from the ruler to his people against whom only a week earlier he had sent a huge security force, so as to prevent demonstrations against the regime. A special word of thanks was also sent by the monarch to the Saudi religious sages, who get their wages from the state coffers, for their contribution to preventing demonstrations, since they were the ones who had ruled that demonstrations were prohibited according to religious law.

Saudi Arabia protest - Reuters - March 2011

But words do not bear witness to gratefulness. The king is well aware of that, and after already distributing $36 billion to his citizens, he has decided to add another $93 billion so as to be show favor to his loyal people. The king will build 500,000 housing units for people who do not have apartments, he will raise the minimum wage to $800 per month, he is setting up an authority to combat corruption, and for security's sake, he will add another 60,000 positions in the Interior Ministry, that is, for the internal security service.

"An economic revolution" is how the international Saudi daily newspaper Asharq Al Awsat described the monarch's new investment campaign. It could also be termed "a campaign to buy off the people," since these intoxicating sums will be extended as well to students studying at universities in Saudi Arabia and abroad, and some 900,000 civil servants who will get a cost of living raise, as well as benefit from a new wage scale and a considerably increased pension. The major beneficiaries, however, will be the soldiers, who will receive the biggest package of benefits of all the sectors in the kingdom.

Nonetheless, the huge sums that fallen from above on the country's officials have already caused a great deal of consternation among workers in the private sector. The close to 800,000 employees in that sector will not be eligible for even one of these benefits, neither from the hike to the minimum wage nor from the cost-of-living allowance, which is equivalent roughly two months' salary. True some Saudi tycoons have voluntarily decided to grant a wage hike to their employees, but the workers in the private sector have already expressed their disappointment over the fact that they "are no longer considered sons of the kingdom," as one of them told the English-language daily Arab News.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia - which escaped the wave of protests almost untouched - can spend these gigantic sums on its residents without responding to even one of the demands of the opposition: neither the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, nor the severing of the connection between the royal house and effective control of the state, and also not the establishment of a parliament or the granting of additional rights to women. One also need not expect either the president of the United States or the prime minister of Britain to urge the 86-year-old King Abdullah to allow freer rein to the Saudi media or to initiate a process of democratization. Keeping the regime intact means that the world economy will be intact, there will be relative stability in oil prices, there will be a wall of defense against Iranian influence in the region, and all kinds of other benefits to the West, and particular the U.S.

'Ashamed and mortified'

However the sentiments of protest in Saudi Arabia are still finding channels of expression in the public sphere. On every news site in the Gulf states, where an item appears about the Saudi king or the kingdom's policies, one can find readers' comments pointing out the faults of that policy. This, for example, is what Hussein al-Bakhri wrote on the site Al-Arab Online: "This week there were demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and all the muftis and religious sages gave their support to the demonstrators and did not rule that protests were prohibited. It was only when the demonstrations arrived in Saudi Arabia that they ruled that it was forbidden to demonstrate. Who are you laughing at, you honorable men? You should be utterly ashamed and mortified."

By the way, the writer could well send a simlar message also to the popular sage Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who came out publicly in support of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt yet attacked those took place in Saudi Arabia, describing them as ethnic demonstrations, since the protesters were Shi'ite, saying that their aim was to widen a chasm in the nation and encourage civil war.

As this argument continues, another important campaign is taking place between those Saudi women who are fighting for greater rights for women and their opponents, who have opened a site called "My Custodian Understands My Affairs Better." The intention is that any custodian, beginning with the king and including a husband or brother, knows best what is good for a woman. Thus it is that while the Saudi women's rights movement is busy publishing articles in the American press about the inferior position of women in that kingdom, and publicizing the fact that a woman needs a permit from her guardian to leave the country's borders, and how she is not allowed to drive a car, the conservative women are busy declaring their allegiance to the king and their husbands. It won't be possible to find these women at the next demonstration.