Middle East Turmoil: Saudi Arabia apart from the rest?

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With Tunisia and Egypt roiled by mass protests, Al Jazeera reports that Middle East rulers have been busy making concessions in an effort to appease their people and prevent their regimes from collapsing. One country stands apart from the rest, at least on the surface: Saudi Arabia.

While turmoil has engulfed Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen, Iran and Lebanon, the Saudi political arena seems unruffled. The message coming from government officials evinces a suspicion of the intentions of the protesters and support for the regimes.

Several Saudi officials took the opportunity to extend their support to the Mubarak regime. Last Thursday, days before the resignation of the Egyptian president, the Kuwait News Agency reported that in talks with President Obama, the Saudi king “condemned efforts by what he said were ‘intruders’ to interfere with Egypt’s stability.”

Agence France-Presse, reporting on the same meeting, added, “The British newspaper The Times reported that King Abdullah had told Obama his country would prop up Mubarak’s government if the United States withdrew aid to Egypt. In a January 29 conversation, Abdullah told Obama not to humiliate Mubarak, the paper said.”

A similar expression of support for the Mubarak regime was issued to news agencies after a joint meeting between Moroccan and Saudi officials: “The Kingdom of Morocco and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia voiced…confidence that Egypt will be able to overcome the challenging stage and restore calm and stability. The final communiqué of the 11th session of the Moroccan-Saudi Joint Commission, held here February 9-10, said the two sides are sure that Egypt and Tunisia will be able to emerge stronger from the current critical stage.”

Following the resignation of President Mubarak, however, the Saudi government was quick to voice its support for the transitional government in Egypt. On Sunday and then on Tuesday of this week, the Saudi government issued statements, carried by the daily Saudi Gazette, declaring, “The Cabinet welcomed Monday the ‘peaceful transition of power in Egypt’ and hoped it would bring stability and a ‘national government that meets the aspirations of the brotherly Egyptian people for security, stability and economic prosperity.’ Ministers further hoped that Egypt would ‘continue with its historical role in the Arab, Islamic and international arenas.’”

Yet, underneath the surface there is evidence of faint shifts toward more open opposition. Even while the official line prior to Mubarak’s resignation was support for the old regime, Abdul Nabi Shaeen reported in Gulf News, “Two prominent clerics want[ed] Mubarak to go.…In rare political remarks, Shaikh Saleh Al Luhaidan, a member of the senior Ulema (Muslim scholars) Commission, urged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down. He added that the departure of the President is the key demand of thousands of demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and other Egyptian cities. This stance runs contrary to the official Saudi position vis-à-vis the crisis in Egypt.”

In the same article, Shaeen added, “The renowned Saudi cleric Dr. Salman Al Ouda praised the popular uprising in Egypt. Discussing the situation with friends on Facebook and Twitter, Shaikh Salman Al Ouda said it is astonishing that all Egyptian segments stand united in calling for genuine political reform and not only a change of faces.“

In a nod to the evident divergent opinions that exist within the Saudi kingdom on the subject of regional turmoil, Naif Al-Rasheed of Asharq Alawsat writes, “Dr. Tawfiq al-Sudairi, Undersecretary for the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Endowment, Dawa and Guidance, confirmed that the kingdom does not seek to transform mosque pulpits or politicize them, especially in light of recent events witnessed by a number of Arab countries, referring to the internal political tremors the region is currently witnessing.”

A further source of uneasiness within Saudi Arabia and a sign of possible vulnerability in the future are the widespread and persistent reports of the deteriorating health of the king. Royal officials have had to contend over the last few days with rumors about the death of the monarch and felt obligated to insist in an interview with Reuters that “Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz is alive, and rumors of his death are untrue.… ‘The rumors aren’t true,’ said the source, an adviser to a senior member of the Saudi ruling family.”

It is not surprising perhaps, in the middle of such uncertainty, that some are trying to take advantage of a small window of opportunity to push for further political liberalization. The Associated Press reported on a story widely circulated in the Middle East media that “[t]en moderate Saudi scholars say they’ve formed the kingdom’s first political party and have asked the king for recognition.…Sheik Mohammed bin Ghanim al-Qahtani said on Thursday he is on the coordination committee of the newly formed Umma Islamic Party. He says the party sent a letter to the Royal Palace on Wednesday requesting recognition. His statement says it’s time to endorse political rights, including the right to elect a government, promote the role of women in society and preserve women’s rights. The party’s nine other founding members are university teachers, political activists and businessmen.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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