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03/02/2011 | Thinking the Unthinkable: Is the Gulf Next?

James M. Dorsey

It's time to think the unthinkable: Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Persian Gulf states may be next in line to confront widespread popular discontent.


As a wave of mass protests sweeps the Arab world, shaking the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to the core, rumblings of popular restlessness are bubbling to the surface in the Gulf.

Shiite opposition groups in Bahrain, a strategic island kingdom that hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, have called for protests on Feb. 14 to demand greater political freedom, an end to human rights abuses, improved economic opportunities.

To quell rising anger, Arab leaders are scrambling to rejuvenate the existing social contract with measures ranging from cash handouts, to cosmetic changes of government, to a renewed emphasis on job-creation. Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has called for an emergency Arab summit to discuss the wave of protests that have already toppled Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali.

The summit is unlikely to reverse pent-up tension in Bahrain that last year provoked a security crackdown. Authorities are concerned that the trial of 25 Shiite activists detained on charges of plotting to overthrow the government could become a rallying point for the planned protests.

To be sure, with the exception of Bahrain, Gulf states are unlikely to see discontent erupting into the kinds of mass demonstrations that have taken place in Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Yemen and Jordan. Kuwait appears, at least for now, to have bought off the disaffected with a monthly cash handout to all citizens of $3,500 and basic foodstuffs for the next year. Moreover, nationals in countries like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, who account for a small percentage of the total population, are unlikely to risk upsetting a fragile apple cart.

Nonetheless, the responses by Gulf governments to the Arab world's winter of discontent have so far had no impact on the bubbling anger in the region, as evidenced by largely underreported protests in Saudi Arabia. Alongside Egypt, the kingdom is the crown jewel for protesters seeking change in their own countries as well as across the region.

Over the past month, protests and criticism -- on newspaper op-ed pages as well as on blogs and in Internet chat rooms -- have sprung up in reaction to longstanding grievances, such as unemployment, as well as to more immediate events, like the floods in Jeddah that killed at least four people and the granting of asylum to the ousted Tunisian leader.

Last week's flooding prompted dozens to protest Jeddah's poor infrastructure, which Saudis say is the reason floods have repeatedly caused death and destruction as well as prolonged power outages in the Saudi port city. The protest erupted in response to a mass Blackberry message campaign, calling on residents to gather on the city's main shopping street. Up to 50 protestors are believed to have been arrested.

The messages also called for an unprecedented national strike on Friday. "No work for the full week until they find a solution to the roads of Jeddah," one message said. While the strike is unlikely to materialize, the mere call for one is a telltale sign in a country that bans public manifestations and punishes violators with lashings and prison sentences of up to two years. Floods in 2009 in Jeddah killed 120 people and triggered a rare public debate about management of public funds and infrastructure defects.

Across Saudi Arabia, the region-wide wave of discontent is the topic of conversation in cafes, restaurants, and salons where many greet one another with the words, "'u'balna kulna," or, "May we all be next." Few believe that events in Egypt and Tunisia will repeat themselves in the Gulf. Nonetheless, they have given citizens greater confidence to demand their rights, rather than wait for authoritarian governments to experience a change of heart.

In imitation of the self-immolation in Tunisia in December that sparked the region's wave of protests, four men in eastern and southern Saudi Arabia have in recent weeks set themselves ablaze. Throughout the past week, groups of up to 100 Saudis have gathered in front of municipalities and extensions of the ministries of education and labor to silently express anger at poor standards of living, corruption and unemployment. Saudi Arabia's unemployment rate is believed to be between 15 percent and 20 percent, yet the country's private sector employs some 9 million foreign workers, despite a laxly enforced policy requiring companies to ensure that 30 percent of their work force consists of Saudi nationals. 

To counter the popular resentment, Saudi media, which operate under strict censorship rules but in recent years have been allowed to expand their envelope, have been playing up speeches by Labor Minister Adel al-Faqih, focusing on efforts to combat unemployment, price hikes and poverty. In remarks made while convalescing abroad after repeated back surgery, King Abdullah, who has been credited with limited efforts at political and economic reform, repositioned himself as the kingdom's father figure who was seeking to provide prosperity, peace and enhanced rights for men and women alike.

Government-inspired articles in the Saudi press emphasize that the al-Saud royal family has perpetuated the tribal tradition of dealing with discontent and subjects' concerns by maintaining an open-door policy, allowing commoners to petition their rulers on a daily basis. Pro-government experts on Saudi talk shows stress that public protests would be uncivilized in a country where rulers are easily accessible, albeit primarily to those with the right connections.

The message to Saudi and other Gulf leaders is clear: Mass protests similar to those in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world are unlikely and avoidable, but the demand for change is not one that stops at their borders. So far, it's not evident that the message has been received.

**James M. Dorsey, a former Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent, writes about ethnic and religious conflict. He is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

World Politics Review (Estados Unidos)


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