The Middle East Channel

Saudi Islamists and the potential for protest

Saudi Arabia has remained fairly quiet during the recent months of Arab uprisings. A few demonstrations did take place, mostly in the Eastern Province, but never gathered more than a couple of thousands. As for the Facebook calls for a "Saudi revolution" on March 11, they had no real impact on the ground. Some observers ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia has remained fairly quiet during the recent months of Arab uprisings. A few demonstrations did take place, mostly in the Eastern Province, but never gathered more than a couple of thousands. As for the Facebook calls for a "Saudi revolution" on March 11, they had no real impact on the ground. Some observers found this surprising, given the fact that many of the causes of revolutions elsewhere in the region exist in Saudi Arabia. There is corruption, repression, and, despite the country’s wealth, socioeconomic problems that particularly affect the youth — it is said that at least 25 percent of Saudis below age 30 are unemployed.

Some observers argued that nothing had happened, or even could happen, in Saudi Arabia because the kingdom possesses two extraordinary resources in huge quantities. This first is a symbolic resource, religion, through the regime’s alliance with the official Wahhabi religious establishment, while the second resource is a material one, oil. These resources, however, have their limits. The real reason that Saudi Arabia has not seen major protests is that the Saudi regime has effectively co-opted the Sahwa, the powerful Islamist network which would have to play a major role in any sustained mobilization of protests.

Neither Islam nor oil wealth necessarily shield the Saudi state from criticism. Religion can be, and has been, contested by opponents of the state, particularly by Islamists. The Wahhabi religious establishment is currently led by relatively weak figures. The current mufti Abd al-Aziz Al al-Shaykh lacks the strong credentials of his predecessor, Sheikh Abd al-Aziz bin Baz. Oil money, however abundant, inevitably creates frustrations because its distribution follows established networks of patronage that favor some over others. This is especially notable at the regional level, where Najd receives much more of the state’s largesse than does the kingdom’s periphery. What is more, the announcement on March 18 by King Abdullah of a $100 billion aid package wasn’t only met by cheers as some expected. It also provoked angry reactions in some intellectual circles, which saw this as an insult to the Saudis’ "dignity."

Saudi Arabia has more of a history of political mobilization than many realize. A pro-democracy current has evolved over the last 10 years. Its core component has historically been the dozens of intellectuals, Sunnis and Shiites, of Islamist and liberal backgrounds who have come together since 2003 to repeatedly demand, through increasingly provocative petitions, the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in the kingdom. Among the latest, and boldest, moves made by members of this group have been the creation in October 2009 of the kingdom’s first fully independent human rights organization, the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, and the establishment in February of the kingdom’s first political party, Hizb al-Umma. Although members of this group have been repressed, many have pledged to continue their activism.

In addition to those older and more experienced intellectuals, a new generation of young political activists is gaining increasing influence. They are connected through social networks, especially Facebook and Twitter, and count among their "friends" numerous young Egyptian and Yemeni activists, whose revolutionary "know-hows" they have been sharing in the last few months. They are idealistic and bold, and they do not feel bound by old political allegiances. Many have subscribed to the demands for a constitutional monarchy of the older intellectuals, providing them with the young base that they were lacking. In a way, the profile of these young activists is very similar to that of some in the April 6 movement in Egypt. And like the April 6, they could well act as a trigger for change.

But if these young people resemble the April 6 movement, then there exists in Saudi Arabia a group that shares the same characteristics and occupies a similar position in the system as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: The Sahwa (or al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya, the Islamic Awakening) is an Islamist group whose ideology is based on a mix between Wahhabi ideas in religion and the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideas in politics.

Like the Brotherhood in Egypt, the Sahwa in Saudi Arabia is by far the largest and best organized nonstate group, with arguably hundreds of thousands of members. Its mobilizing capacity is huge, far ahead of any other group, including the tribes which have for the last few decades lost a lot of their political relevance. An illustration of this were the 2005 municipal elections, which provided observers with an unprecedented opportunity to measure the ability of Saudi political actors to mobilize their supporters. In most districts of the major cities, Sahwa-backed candidates won with impressive scores.

It is therefore unlikely that any popular movement would take hold without the Sahwa’s support because generating a sustained political challenge to the state requires organized and committed activists, solid mobilizing structures, and networks — things that can’t simply be obtained through Facebook and that only the Sahwa can provide. Again, Sahwis are like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood: They may not start the protest, but it won’t succeed without them.

This is where the Saudi case is different from others. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood may have long ceased being a confrontational force when the January 25 revolution started, but it still represented a clear opposition to the Egyptian state. The Sahwa, however, has a different track record. Although its members may be very critical of the Saudi state in private, they have generally remained loyal to it. There is an organic, almost incestuous, relationship that exists between the Sahwa and the Saudi state. While Islamist movements in most countries developed on the margins of the state and against it, the Sahwa was the product of the co-optation of foreign members of the Muslim Brotherhood into the Saudi state in the 1950s and 1960s. It developed and spread from the state, heavily benefiting from the state’s structures and resources. The fear of losing this very favorable position that the Sahwa occupies has, until now, represented a key obstacle to its transformation into a real opposition movement.

This explains why the majority of Sahwis have generally remained loyal throughout the recent months. For instance, when calls for demonstrations in the kingdom were issued, most Sahwi religious figures came out to denounce them. Some even went so far as to explain that demonstrations were not a legitimate means of asking for change. Aware of the Sahwa’s crucial importance, the state has also done all it could to reinforce the relationship: In the $100 billion aid package announced by King Abdullah, there is money for religious institutions, including some known to be Sahwa strongholds.

This does not necessarily mean that there is no potential for protest, however. The Sahwa’s history shows that it behaves as a strategic actor. For instance, in the early 1990s, in the wake of the Gulf War, when Islamist figures launched an opposition campaign against the regime, the Sahwa first supported the movement because it thought it could succeed — before eventually withdrawing its support when understanding the risks. This means that in the future, if the Sahwa sees clearly favorable opportunities, it may decide to switch sides and support a protest.

There are already signs that some in the Sahwa may be willing to adopt a more critical posture. Late February, for instance, came out a petition called "Towards a State of Rights and Institutions" asking for democratic change (though expressed in a very conservative language) and signed by a few notable figures associated with the Sahwa, including Salman al-Awda. Also, in late April, a number of other key Sahwa figures, including Nasir al-Umar, signed a text calling for the release of or a fair trial for the country’s thousands of "political prisoners," many of whom were arrested on terrorism charges after 2003.

Despite these relatively isolated moves, however, it is unlikely that in the current context the Sahwa would be willing to sacrifice its relations with the regime. There is potential for Islamist protest in Saudi Arabia, but not in the near term. And without the Islamists’ participation, it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia will be the scene of the kinds of sustained mobilization that have rocked much of the rest of the Arab world.

Stéphane Lacroix is an assistant professor at Sciences Po and the author of Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Saudi Arabia.

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