How The Arab Spring Affects Saudi Society

Guests

Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern studies, Princeton University
Toby Jones, professor of Middle East history, Rutgers University
Ebtihal Mubarak, freelance journalist and blogger

Revolt continues to pressure governments along Saudi Arabia's borders. Saudi Arabia experts Bernard Haykel and Toby Jones explain the effect of the Arab Spring on Saudi society and government, and what the turmoil across the Middle East and North Africa may mean for the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. The 800-pound gorilla of the Arab Spring is Saudi Arabia. So far, the kingdom remains almost untouched by the protests and violence that engulfed so many Arab states, including Yemen, its southern neighbor, and Bahrain, which lies just off its east coast.

Some say the elements of rebellion are all there: disaffected youth, unemployment, religious and tribal splits, human rights abuses, corruption and aged leadership. Others point to the country's wealth and argue that the monarchy is both popular and resilient.

And the consequences are enormous. Saudi Arabia is America's most important ally in the Arab world, on terrorism, on Iran and on oil. And remember that unrest in Libya, which provided about three percent of oil exports, helped drive prices up over $100 a barrel. Saudi Arabia provides a quarter of oil exports.

Given the prospects and the stakes of change, is the U.S. on the right side of history in Saudi Arabia? Our number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program: What's your earliest childhood memory? You can email us now. The address again is talk@npr.org. We'll find out the latest research about what we remember and why. But first, Saudi Arabia. Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton, where he's a specialist in Islamic law, politics and history, joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

Professor BERNARD HAYKEL (Princeton University): Good to be here. Thank you.

CONAN: And is Saudi Arabia ripe for revolt?

HAYKEL: I don't think so, for a variety of reasons, the first of which is that they have an enormous amount of money from the oil revenues that they get every day and are able to essentially co-opt and throw money at most of the problems that they have.

The second is that, you know, Saudis, I think, look around the region, and they see the chaos in Libya and in Iraq earlier and now in Yemen, and they just don't want that to happen at home.

CONAN: They have a stake in the status quo, you're saying.

HAYKEL: Oh, very much so. Even if many of them are not necessarily happy with the status quo, they still think it's better than the alternative, which is chaos.

CONAN: Yet, as you say, there is considerable unhappiness, a lot of unemployment in a country where so many of its workers are imported from overseas.

HAYKEL: That's right. I mean, only 10 percent of Saudis work in the private sector. Most Saudis are employed by the government in the public sector, and they just increased wages considerably and gave two months of extra salary to everybody. So, you know, this is a government that uses its oil wealth, essentially, to employ most of its own people.

CONAN: Yet these are short-term solutions for long-term problems, tremendous demographic bulge in Saudi Arabia, as elsewhere in the Arab world. So much of the country is 16 years old or younger, and you have leadership - the youngest of the three brothers who still form the triumvirate at the top is, I think, in his 70s.

HAYKEL: That's right. I mean, the top leadership - the king is in his 80s. So is the crown prince. And then the two princes after them are in their mid- to late 70s. But, you know, the thing about Saudi Arabia is, essentially, you have this old leadership that has decided to kick the can down the road and to put off problems that are inevitably going to emerge, specifically with this youth bulge, the jobs that they need to find, the diversification of the economy that they need to do, in other words, to move away from such heavy dependence on oil revenues.

All of that, I think they recognize that these are problems, but they just don't want to deal with them right now because they're in a moment of crisis in the region as a whole.

CONAN: These problems are not new. These problems have been evident for decades, and there's always been a reason to kick the can down the road.

HAYKEL: That's right and especially when the price of oil is so high, and they have such tremendous revenues. I mean, they've saved up about $500 billion in net cash assets, essentially. You know, and like all human beings, I think the Saudis are no different. If, you know, they can be couch potatoes and throw money at their problem rather than go and exercise, they would do that.

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CONAN: Well, some of us get up and exercise. Some of us are forced up out of our couches to perform exercises we really would rather not perform whatsoever. I think complacency was certainly a factor in the rebellions in Tunisia and in Egypt, too.

HAYKEL: That's right. Absolutely. And, you know, the younger princes are chomping at the bit and want to - want change to happen. It's just that you have these old guys who are up there and who, like many older people, feel that they've seen everything before, they have tremendous experience, and they've used a toolset before to solve problems of opposition, namely to throw money at the opposition, or to ramp up a certain kind of ideological discourse against the Shia or against Iran. And they're using the same set of arguments to essentially mop up any opposition to the regime.

CONAN: Well, joining us now is Toby Jones, a professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University, author of "Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia," and he joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us today.

Professor TOBY JONES (Rutgers University): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And somebody recently pointed out, of course, change seems unthinkable until it's the only thing that's going to happen. It's inevitable.

JONES: Well, I think that it's likely that Saudi Arabia has successfully bought itself some time in the short term. But Professor Haykel's absolutely right. There is not just frustration in Saudi Arabia. There's deep-seated frustration in lots of different sectors of Saudi society.

They're disinterested in chaos, but they're also interested in seeing some real commitment on the part of the ruling family to steer the kingdom on a much more stable and much more diversified economic path so that more people see more of the benefits.

CONAN: Also, we've read that people are interested in seeing less corruption and more competence - the streets of Jeddah, a major city on the western part of the country, awash in sewage for the, what, second time in five years.

JONES: That's right. And there are real consequences for people on the ground. I mean, this is often a matter of life and death. It's not just a matter of depleted resources and mismanagement and corruption and the enrichment of a small circle of political elites, but oftentimes real Saudis pay a real price for mismanagement.

CONAN: And is there - are there widespread human rights concerns?

JONES: I think there are widespread human rights concerns. Saudi Arabia has not only managed things by throwing money at its problems, it's also able to mobilize an incredibly coercive and suppressive political security apparatus. Saudis are nervous about the potential consequences should they rise up and take to the streets. I agree that there's not very much of a likelihood that they'll do so, but that's partly because they understand the costs.

CONAN: The costs, because they could very easily wind up in dungeons.

JONES: Right.

CONAN: There is also some unifying factors. There is, for one, the threat of Iran and Shia.

JONES: That's correct. Anti-Shi'ism, sectarian sentimentality in Saudi Arabia runs very deep, and it's been around for quite a long time. Part of the official orthodoxy of the Saudi state - what a lot of us call and what a lot of observers refer to as Wahhabism - has born into it, at its origins in the 18th century, deep-seated animosity toward Shi'ism and toward what the religious scholars consider to be deviancy within the Muslim community.

CONAN: And Bernard Haykel, one of the reasons many said Saudi Arabia decided to send troops to intervene in Bahrain to help put down the rebellion there, the protests there, was the fact that, well, the demographics of the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich part of Saudi Arabia, is not so different from Bahrain, a lot of Shiites.

HAYKEL: That's correct. I mean, there are a lot of Shiites in the eastern province, excuse me, but also you have to realize that for the Saudi elite and the ruling family to see a Shiite-dominated and ruled Bahrain is anathema. They think that such a development would lead to Iran dominating this country, and it being so close to the eastern province and essentially linked by a causeway to Saudi Arabia, is unacceptable.

And they have adopted a very hard line in Bahrain and essentially given the rulers of Bahrain a dictate to crush the rebellion there and the opposition.

CONAN: And Toby Jones, they've said not just Bahrain: We will not allow the monarchies of the Gulf - and they've expanded that to include monarchies like Jordan and Morocco - we will not allow the Arab monarchies to become the next Egypt or Tunisia.

JONES: That's right. They have not only a fear of Iran and political Shi'ism. They also have a fundamental fear of democracy and what it might mean. Let's remember that the Al Saud sit atop a closed political system that's incredibly wealthy. We've talked about oil wealth and oil revenues.

There's also a considerable amount of privilege that comes along with that, and securing their stake, if you will, their material stake in preserving a certain political status quo, a certain political order in the Gulf is at the top of their priority list.

CONAN: And the question we're asking callers: Is the United States on the wrong side of history in Saudi Arabia? And Bernard Haykel, the Saudis very upset with the United States for, as they see it, pulling the plug on Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, but nevertheless, this is America's most important Arab ally. Given the prospects of change, should the United States be pressing harder for reform, getting on the side of the reformers who may emerge in the next generation of the royal family or may emerge from the streets of Riyadh?

HAYKEL: Well, if I can back up just a bit, I mean, the Saudis have been in favor of the change in Libya because they hated Moammar Gadhafi and have seen that the people who are opposing him are supported.

They are also, in fact, for change in Yemen, because they're tired of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen, who's now in a hospital in Riyadh. So to argue that they're just, you know, monolithic in their view on change and that they've been against it everywhere is simply not true, that like all other, you know, countries in the region, as well as the United States, they've had contradictory views on these uprisings. They've been in favor of some and against others.

Now, as far as the United States and Saudi Arabia is concerned, I mean, Saudi Arabia has - you know, produces nine million barrels of oil a day, and it can produce up to 12 and a half-million barrels a day. It's unique in its position in the oil market, in the global oil market. And to see instability there would really destabilize the world economy, and I don't think the United States can afford to have that happen. I mean, no American president would allow that to happen, because it would spell the end of his chances of being re-elected.

CONAN: Well, yes, there is that, but that may happen whatever the president of the United States wants. And if it does happen, wouldn't you want to be on the right side of those who might take over?

HAYKEL: I definitely think that the United States ought to, you know, look at the royal family and see if there are elements within it who are willing to see change and to see a system open up to something resembling a constitutional monarchy. That's definitely something that is in the interest both of Saudi Arabia and of the United States. Getting there, however, is really the real challenge.

CONAN: We're talking about Saudi Arabia, the 800-pound gorilla of the Arab Spring, so far relatively untouched, but, well, there's a lot of elements in Saudi Arabia that seem ripe for change, just as there were in other Arab countries. Given what's at stake, is the U.S. on the right side of history? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Our guests, Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, Toby Jones, professor of Middle East history at Rutgers. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. We continue to watch as revolts shift power across much of North Africa and the Middle East, from Tunisia to Bahrain. In Libya today, NATO carried out more than two dozen air strikes on the capital. Moammar Gadhafi went on state television and said surrender is not an option. He will fight to the death.

To the east, across Egypt and the Red Sea, lies Saudi Arabia, a country that supplies nearly a quarter of the world's oil, plays a key role in U.S. economy and U.S. policy in the Middle East and faces many of the intractable problems now driving protests in the streets of neighboring countries.

So far, though, the Saudi monarchy has avoided widespread unrest, and many argue the country will avoid much of the chaos sweeping its neighbors. We're focusing today on Saudi Arabia and the Arab Spring. Given the prospects and the stakes of change, is the U.S. on the right side of history in Saudi Arabia? Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our website, too. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton. He wrote the book "Revival and Reform in Islam." Also with us, Toby Jones, professor of Middle East history at Rutgers, his book, "Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia."

Here's an email from Rick: If Saudi Arabia simply democratizes and gets out of the way, the rest will follow in due order. Also, do away with the whole Jew-hating and suppression of women's rights. Toby Jones, he may be right. Those are very tall orders.

JONES: Well, it is. It's unclear what a democratic outcome in Saudi Arabia would look like. There's lots of fear that it might leash - unleash more radical forces, as well, although I'm inclined to think that that's true, that if Saudi Arabia pursued a more serious reform path - whether that's democratic or more akin to a constitutional monarchy - it could become a stabilizing force in the region.

CONAN: And is, Bernard Haykel, he says stop - the emailer said stop the Jew-hating. There is implacable opposition to Israel, though Saudi Arabia was the sponsor of a Middle East peace plan that promised if you return to the borders of 1967, all the Arab states will recognize you.

HAYKEL: I mean, look, the anti-Semitism is not unique to Saudi Arabia. I mean, you find it throughout the Arab and Muslim world and beyond. The Saudis, in speaking with high-ranking princes, have - with me have said, you know, we want the Palestinian-Israeli conflict resolved. We have put this - we have tabled this proposal in 2002. And we hope that the Israelis, you know, allow for a Palestinian state to be created, and then we could turn our attention to other problems, namely domestic challenges, as well as Iran. They see Iran as the principal enemy.

CONAN: And more on that in a minute, but are they serious about reform?

HAYKEL: Domestically? Well, you know, I mean, some princes are. Most of them don't seem to be. I mean, again, you know, when you have that much oil revenue coming in, the temptation to put off things that you need to do is very much there. And unfortunately, they've, you know, they've fallen again into this trap of kicking the can down the road. And I wish they hadn't.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in. Brian's on the line, Brian with us from Zephyr Hills, in Florida.

BRIAN (Caller): Yes, good afternoon, gentlemen. I just returned - recently returned from a four-year and nine-month teaching contract in Jeddah. I was working for an American defense contractor teaching English to the Royal Saudi Air Defense Forces. And I just have to say that I think we are actually on the wrong side of history concerning Saudi Arabia, because, for example, the last class I had, I actually had one of the princes of - the grandson of one of the princes.

And I don't know. He just - he was very - he was very focused on showing me his $36,000 watch one day and his $20,000 phone the next day. And then he'd go to the non-commissioned officers, and they would, you know, express their - as far as they were, you know, comfortable with, because we were, of course, teaching on base.

There was just a heck of a lot of hypocrisy, except with the regular soldiers who really came - many of them came from the tents. And, you know, they thought that the king was, you know, provided everything that was at the school, when it was actually the company that I worked for that provided it. So there was a - there's really - there's no sense of reform that I saw the entire time was there, a lot of religious hypocrisy, and I'm just wondering if your guest would comment on that.

CONAN: Toby Jones?

JONES: Well, I think there was a moment, less than a decade ago, when Saudi Arabia was nervous and got serious in talking about reform, if nothing else. But over the last few months, we've seen a reversal of the - a closing of the reform window, if you will, largely in response to the Arab Spring, but also events in Bahrain, where reform is no longer a serious option in the Kingdom, and it's certainly not something they're going to pursue or encourage amongst its immediate neighbors.

And there's lots of reasons for that. The privilege that he talks about amongst elite circles within the military or within the royal family, I mean, they see their fate, their ability to survive not only politically, but as a family, as a community of leaders, tied to their ability to protect wealth. That's a strong impulse to avoid both sharing power and in sharing the spoils.

CONAN: And Bernard Haykel, tell us a little bit more about the royal family. We tend to think of royal families in European terms, as relatively small and contained groups - not the case in Saudi Arabia.

HAYKEL: No, it's a very large family, well over 5,000 princes and princesses. They all receive a stipend from birth. Many of them are involved in business deals throughout the country. In fact, they often force themselves into business.

CONAN: I've heard that, in fact, if you want to set up a business, you'd best have one on your board of directors.

HAYKEL: It would certainly help a lot. And there's a lot of resentment because of that, as well, because they have grown so large that they sit on top of society and often basically bilk it so that there is that resentment against them. Now, in terms of power, though, not all of them are powerful. The power is really concentrated amongst the most senior of the princes and a fairly small number of them at the very top.

And as a family, they function by consensus. Once they reach a consensus at the top, then they all stick to that opinion - even if it's wrong, by the way - because family unity tends to trump, you know, being correct on a given issue.

CONAN: Well, Brian, welcome home. Thanks for the phone call.

BRIAN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: The success of anti-government movements in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere shows that the power of activists - particularly those adept at social media - can topple dictators. Ebtihal Mubarak is a freelance journalist and a blogger from Saudi Arabia, where she worked with the Arab News in Jeddah. She now lives in New York and joins us from her office in Brooklyn. And thanks very much for being with us today.

EBTIHAL MUBARAK (Journalist): Hi. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And I understand for many civil rights activists, there was a certain sense of optimism that King Abdullah might change. But that, as we were hearing, was before the overthrow of President Mubarak in Egypt.

MUBARAK: That's right. When King Abdullah ascended to the throne six years ago, it will be six years in Egypt - sorry, in August, that was August 2005, there was mass optimism among the activists that he will bring on reform, because the first decision that he made when he became a king is releasing three famous political prisoners in 2005.

And he was going on his reform agenda, and he promised, you know, that, you know, to enforce more, you know, transparency in the system, and so and so. But that did not happen because of the opposition of the other wing in the royal family, the interior minister, who is extremely powerful and who is extremely conservative, too.

So even before the Arab Spring came, the king was sick. He was outside the country for a couple of months, and his half-brother, the interior minister, kind of, you know, took over.

But after the Arab Spring, things got even much worse, times where, you know, demonstrations in Saudi Arabia are prohibited by law. They have no tolerance for that. That's why it's not part of the culture. So we have, as an alternative, what they call a petition, where a group of concerned citizens petition the king for certain demands.

And that used to be very - they used to be very open and welcome about that. But recently, two petitions recently, two months ago, have been sent to the king. One is the youth letter to the king, and the other one from all sectors in the Saudi society.

The youth petition, I know there were a couple of journalists who signed that who are banned now from writing, because they've been told this is a wrong timing. In the time of uprising in the region, we can't tolerate such demands.

CONAN: There was a call for a day of rage in Saudi Arabia...

MUBARAK: Yes.

CONAN: A series of protests that, I think, fizzled is probably the right word. Why did that not gain any traction?

MUBARAK: Well, before the call of a day of rage on March 11th, when the Tunisian revolution succeeded and Ben Ali flee the country, there were small-scale demonstrations across the country. The first two demonstrations actually that took place were, in Jeddah and one in Riyadh, were led by woman. The one in Jeddah was spontaneous. The one in Riyadh was over 40 women who are the mothers and wives and sisters of political prisoners who have been in prison for over four years now without charges, even.

And then, like the big demonstrations in the country took place in the eastern provinces where the Shia minority where men and women took the streets in Katif(ph) and (unintelligible), the small towns there. But the day of rage, March 11th, there were hundreds of security guards all over the big cities in the country, and before that, the newspapers who are heavily censored by the Saudi government, they ran a daily slogan warning citizens from taking part of any revolution. That was on a daily basis, on the daily newspaper.

So you have that. You have hundreds of security forces. Also, they have - they used the religious leaders to issue religious edicts that warn from, you know, demonstrations. They're calling it a sin and it's against God, and it's an act against God to...

CONAN: Participate.

MUBARAK: ...to violate or to come against - to participate or to come again, you know, the leaders or the guardians, what they call the (unintelligible), which is the guardian of the nation, per se.

CONAN: And, Bernard Haykel, you wrote that, in fact, there was a tactical error by the protesters, that, in fact, it did get taken over a bit by Shiite protesters who, well, then a lot of Saudis said, wait a minute. We're not backing any Shia revolts, here.

HAYKEL: That's right. I think that the Shiite demonstrations basically gave the regime, gave the Saudi royal family an opportunity to paint all opposition as essentially sectarian and Iranian-backed, and that then, you know, put the fear of God in many Sunnis who would have wanted to demonstrate but did not want to be associated with the Shiites.

CONAN: And, Ebtihal Mubarak, I wanted to ask you about the women's rights movement. You mentioned a couple of demonstrations that were started by women. We've heard about the campaign to get women the right to drive. There's going to be, as I understand it, a more wide-scale effort, possibly, later this month. But this seems to spring up from time to time and just as quickly put down.

MUBARAK: Right. The call for the right for women to drive started in the '90s, 1992. But unfortunately, there were a group of women who demonstrated during the Gulf War, and they were all put in prison. Their passports were taken away from them. And the religious chiefs or the religious leaders by, you know, supported by the government, had called them, you know, bad names or called them, you know, Western, brainwashed and so and so. So the call for women - I mean, the women driving is actually - it's very symbolic. It's symbolic because it represents many of the rights that women are denied in the country.

So one of the campaigners now - we have the women to drive campaign, and one of the organizers who actually had a YouTube clip, and she drove her car with her brother next to her, you know, in the next seat. She was imprisoned for 10 days without charges. And when she was released, she had to issue a statement that she apologizes from the king, and she said she will never take part in such and, you know, so and so. So she's been actually been threatened, but the campaign is still going on. They plan to - they're asking for all Saudi women to go - or to drive their cars on June 17th.

Until today, they have been receiving - every day, they post - they have a Facebook group. There's a - just like the one that was, you know, in Egypt, a Facebook group that, you know, that started all this. So they have - they received video clips from Saudi women all over the country who take pictures or who video themselves driving cars in order to, you know, entice or encourage other women to take part in that. There's also on the side - along with this, we have a Saudi suffragist movement right now, because the coming - the second - next election in the country taking place in September, the municipal elections.

And for the second time, women are not allowed to take part in that. So we're seeing lots of Saudi women who go to voting centers demand to issue a voting card, and, you know, they've been denied this right - although, in both cases, the driving and the voting, there is no law. There's not a single Saudi law that says women can't drive or women can't vote on - and so and so. And that's a tactic that the Saudi regime have always used to refusing to, you know, give people, men and women, the right to participate.

CONAN: Ebtihal Mubarak, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

MUBARAK: Thank you.

CONAN: Ebtihal - Mubarak, rather, a freelance journalist and blogger in New York. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Still with us, Bernard Haykel from Princeton University, Toby Jones from Rutgers University. And let's go next to Rodeon(ph) - I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly - from Egg Harbor in Wisconsin.

RODEON (Caller): Hello. Thank you.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

RODEON: This is a very interesting discussion. I was just - I just wanted to pass in a vote for some humility. We're assuming that we know what the right end of history is. The U.S. had a fairly peaceful transition to democracy, but we don't know that any other country what the - for any other country, what the right time is for that transition. Even in Egypt, the transition could be very peaceful, could go the way of the French Revolution and be very bloody and destructive.

CONAN: The United States had a three-year Revolutionary War. I'm not sure very peaceful describes that.

RODEON: Yeah. I mean, it could go well. It could go - it could not. But at least in terms of the forces of democracy, the U.S. did not have as much of an internal conflict, an internal infighting as some - as a place like France. And the opposition in Saudi Arabia, at one point, was bin Laden. And that's not somebody we really want to support. So I don't think we know exactly when the right time for some other country with a different history is going to be.

CONAN: And that's a good point to end on, Bernard Haykel. If a - be careful about what you ask for, because you may not like it. A successor regime in Saudi Arabia might be not very pleasant to American policy.

HAYKEL: Yeah. I applaud that, you know, your caller because, first of all, you know, the limits of American power in a place like Saudi Arabia are evident, and it's not obvious that we could change the place even if we wanted to. Secondly, a lot of the progressive regimes in the regime have often turned out to be much more brutal than this monarchy has been.

CONAN: Well, thank you for your time today. Bernard Haykel, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Princeton. Toby Jones joined us here in Studio 3A. He's professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University. We should read this email that came in from John in Minneapolis: If we continue our dependence on fossil fuels for energy with Saudi Arabia or anybody else, there won't be much of a future history to be on the right side of. So, well, that's one comment. When we come back from a short break: Why we rarely remember anything before our third or fourth birthday. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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