Saudi Arabia vs. the Arab Spring

PRINCETON – Saudi Arabia is widely perceived as leading the counter-revolution against the Arab Spring uprisings. In reality, the Kingdom’s response is centered, as its foreign and domestic policy has long been, on “stability.” The Saudis don’t want anti-Saudi forces, including such enemies as Iran and Al Qaeda, to increase their influence in the Middle East.

Some of the older Saudi leaders have seen this movie before. The nationalist revolutions of the 1950’s and 1960’s, inspired and galvanized by Gamel Nasser’s Egypt, nearly toppled the House of Saud. Nonetheless, today’s Saudi princes appear to recognize that something has genuinely changed in the Middle East: The younger generation of Arabs is no longer prepared to accept unaccountable, corrupt, and brutal governments.

Saudi Arabia, a self-proclaimed bulwark of Islamic conservatism, where popular democracy has never been considered a legitimate form of rule, has been more aggressive in some arenas than in others. Domestically, the royal family struck quickly, adopting a ban on public demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience. The Kingdom’s traditional interpretation of Islam construes political legitimacy in terms of a ruler’s proper application of Islamic law. In return, his subjects owe him obedience within the constraints of Sharia religious law.

Dissent, should it arise, must always take the form of well-intentioned advice given to the ruler in a private setting. Public demonstrations of dissent are regarded as contrary to Islam, because they foster divisiveness and lead to civil strife. The highest council of Saudi religious scholars recently declared demonstrations to be categorically un-Islamic. Confronted with the possibility of mass demonstrations on March 11 – the so-called Day of Rage on a Facebook page – the Saudi rulers enforced that ruling by deploying massive numbers of security forces in the streets.