Rather than a sign of change to come, advances in women’s rights are just a ploy to keep Arab Spring revolts from threatening the Saudi royal family.
On September 25, 2011, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia granted women the right to vote and run in future municipal elections, effective in 2015. His newfound generosity did not stop there: starting in 2012, Saudi women will be eligible for appointment to the national Shura council. Four days later, Saudi Arabia held the second-ever municipal elections, which had been postponed since 2009. Some optimists in the West heralded these reforms as inspired by the Arab Spring in the genuine interest of furthering democracy. While these reforms were indeed born out of the Arab Spring, they do not signify a meaningful shift toward a more open political system. Instead, they represent the desperate effort of the royal family to do something—anything—to safeguard the Saudi monarchy in a post-Arab Spring Middle East.
Saudi Arabia has been conspicuously absent from most news coverage of the Arab Spring. Popular protests have led to the end of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and may have the same outcome in Syria and Yemen. Saudi Arabia, however, has found itself relatively immune to widespread regional calls for a more open political system.
But King Abdullah has not remained complacent. U.S. President Obama’s support of protesters in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya makes King Abdullah nervous; if Obama could so quickly turn his back on longtime ally Hosni Mubarak, what might he do if similar uprisings engulfed Saudi Arabia? King Abdullah’s plea to Pakistan in April to help defend the Kingdom should the need arise demonstrates how vulnerable King Abdullah must be feeling since the onset of the Arab Spring in January 2011.
However, King Abdullah’s anxiety is arguably due more to perceived rather than actual threats. The Saudi “Day of Rage” never materialized. And though some Saudis have made increased demands for social, political, and economic reforms in recent months, including submitting several petitions to King Abdullah, social unrest has largely been limited to the Shi’a population in the eastern part of the country.
Abdullah’s recent political concessions, as insignificant as they will surely prove to be in terms of enacting meaningful change, are preemptive measures designed to conciliate any Saudis who might be even remotely inspired by the Arab Spring. In addition to granting women the right to vote and holding municipal elections for the second time in Saudi Arabia’s nearly eighty-year history, the king also announced a new anti-corruption commission in March. Since the 1970s, the kingdom has used oil wealth to placate its population, but the past few months have seen increased efforts to buy off the opposition: the regime promised the creation of 60,000 new jobs and significantly raised public salaries. These measures represent the kingdom’s efforts to stop trouble before it starts.
Though the Saudi monarchy is feeling nervous, in reality the regime is fairly impervious to political confrontation. In the kingdom, elites are co-opted, the opposition is fragmented, and King Abdullah is relatively popular. The royal family is extremely wealthy, but more importantly, it is both massive in size and influence, unlike the so-called one-bullet regimes of Egypt and Tunisia. And even if substantial opposition ever did materialize, no American president would ever cease to support the Saudi royal family as long as the world economy is dependent upon oil. Political instability would create panic in the oil markets, and an oil shock amid the U.S’s recovery from recession would have dire political consequences for any incumbent.
Some have described King Abdullah’s recent reforms as the path of least resistance; that is exactly what they are. The municipal councils and the Shura council are toothless bodies that have very little actual power. And though the king gave women the right to vote, the court sentencing two days later of Shaima Ghassaniya to ten lashes as punishment for driving serves as a cold reminder that more controversial reforms reflective of a deeper recognition of basic liberties have yet to be undertaken. King Abdullah quickly revoked the sentence, which was a harsh reminder of how arbitrary the Saudi judicial system truly is. As long as the royal family is able to appease the socially divided population through oil revenue, and as long as the global economy’s dependency on oil precludes American support for political opposition, meaningful reforms in the spirit of the Arab Spring are out of the question for Saudi Arabia.
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