Friday, September 30, 2011

Saudi Arabia and the Arab spring: absolute monarchy holds the line

To imagine it can immunise itself from the political change that has ousted three dictators is folly, but this is what it is trying to do

Editorial, Friday 30 September 2011

"....Saudi Arabia comes first to mind. To imagine it can immunise itself from the political change that has toppled three dictators is folly, but this is what it is trying to do. The 87-year-old King Abdullah made two moves this week to present a more liberal face. He revoked a sentence to lash a woman 10 times for driving her car, and decreed that women could take part in council elections in 2015. Neither will make more than surface ripples. Only half of the council seats are up for election, and the councils themselves have no real powers. All the important posts in the provinces are chaired by members of the royal family. And as for free speech in a country where the government already controls the print and television media, online publishers and bloggers will require a licence. Short of banning internet access, it will not work, but the intent is clear.

In foreign policy the Saudis are leading other monarchies in the region in the counterattack against political change. They backed the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators until the last minute. They gave Jordan $1.4bn in aid and took both it and Morocco into the Saudi-dominated Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC). Along with other Gulf states, Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain to quash the Shia-dominated protest.

Saudi attentions have lately been aimed at reining the Qataris in. The resignation of Wadah Khanfar, the director general of al-Jazeera – which played a leading role in the coverage of events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – and his replacement by a member of the Qatari royal family was preceded by a week of exchange visits between Qatari and Saudi officials. It remains to be seen whether the satellite network's reputation for fearless and independent coverage, in a region where that still remains a novelty, suffers as a result.

In countering the uprisings, Saudi Arabia is doing no more and no less than what it has traditionally done when a major state threatens to upset the apple cart. That includes Nasser's Egypt, Saddam's Iraq, revolutionary Iran. Its leading challenger in this enterprise is the rising influence of Turkey. But the vulnerability of the Saudi kingdom remains a domestic one. Saudis, whether they be women drivers or anyone else yearning for more freedom, are part of the region and watch what is going on around them. The worm is turning in Saudi Arabia as decisively as it is elsewhere in the region."

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