On a recent visit to an American university I met a group of Saudi and Arab students to chat about politics. After greetings, introductions and pleasantries, I asked them to introduce themselves. They came from Egypt, Palestine, and other Arab countries but the majority was from Saudi Arabia.
Among the topics we discussed was the shocking news of the recent changing of the guard in the Saudi leadership, in which King Salman ibn Abdulaziz promoted his nephew Muhammad ibn Naif to crown prince and his son to deputy crown prince, in addition to other ministerial appointments. What most alarmed my interlocutors was the concentration of powers in the hands of a young and untested son of the king. While it was hardly surprising that such educated and ambitious students would criticise such top-down changes, the most unsettling feature of my encounter was their absolute certainty that ‘Arab collective revenge’ would be inflicted on Saudi Arabia in the future.
Why seek revenge on a leadership that prides itself on serving Muslims in general and Arabs in particular, boasts about the millions that it spends on international aid, welcomes Arab and Muslim immigrants to work in its vast oil economy, vows to remove from power other Arab dictators who oppress their people, and supports loyal regimes from Morocco to Bahrain? Have these Arab students been brainwashed by a Saudi-bashing media, or are they simply ungrateful for all that Saudi Arabia has done to support the Arab world?
Unfortunately for the Saudi leadership, none of my discussants regards Saudi Arabia as a force for good in their region. They all abhor its royal family, its religious intolerance and its alleged racism. A left-leaning Egyptian activist who took part in the January 2011 uprising, and is now in exile in the US for fear of persecution by Sisi’s regime, has zero tolerance for the Saudi-style absolute monarchy, one that is destined to concentrate power in the hands of two or three inexperienced princes.
Another Egyptian student leaning towards the deposed Muslim Brotherhood wanted Hijaz province, where Mecca and Medina are located, to be removed entirely from Saudi control. The holy cities had to be freed from Saudi jurisdiction, he claimed, because since they established their authority over them diversity within Sunni Islam has been outlawed and eventually vanished.
A Palestinian female doctoral student expected the downfall of the house of Saud to benefit her people. In her view, and I’m not sure how she supported her case, the Al-Sauds had been agents of imperial governments, and continue to be so, an accusation I thought had disappeared from the Arab lexicon since the 1970s. But, if this encounter was anything to go by, then arguably it has not. As the onslaught on Saudi Arabia, mainly its leadership, continued, with the students supporting each other and citing further evidence to boost each other’s anti-Saudi views, I tried to moderate the discussion and found myself on the verge of defending the indefensible.
My young Saudi compatriots listened and nodded, and as long as the Arab students continued to praise the Saudi people for their endurance and patience with a ‘repressive’ and anachronistic monarchy, they raised no serious objections. The mood of the conversation changed abruptly and we were plunged into reflective silence when one of the Arab students said that the only solution is to partition Saudi Arabia.
In order to break that fleeting moment of awkwardness, I intervened, seeking further explanations. How could the partition of Saudi Arabia solve or indeed serve the Palestinian cause, restore democracy in Egypt, empower the suppressed Bahraini opposition, and rebuild Yemen and Syria, both now in ruins after treacherous civil wars? The students seemed simply to be after revenge, and a collective one, in response to what they perceived was the damage inflicted on their countries by the Saudi leadership. They were also angry at the reversal of the democratising wave, which they blamed entirely on the Kingdom’s policies towards the Arab world.
What these Arab students want is a smaller Saudi Arabia, deprived of the vast resources and military might that allowed it to intervene as a counter-revolutionary force in some places and as a revolutionary force, supporting the causes of rebels in other locations, not to bring democracy but rather to forge loyal client states on its northern and southern borders. Saudi interventions, albeit contradictory, had been consistent, mainly seeking a cordon sanitaire against a stubbornly persistent ‘Iranian virus’. These tactics ranged from inflaming the collective Arab imagination with sectarian rhetoric to supporting anti-Iranian rebels with arms and ammunition. Since 2011, the Saudi leadership has resorted to such measures in its attempt to contain Iranian expansion. The logic of the regime in Riyadh was ‘if the Americans don’t and won’t beat them, then empower local proxies who one day might just do the job for us’.
It is ironical that the Saudis have played a double role since Bouazzizi immolated himself in December 2010. Supporting one Arab revolution while suppressing another has been a Saudi preoccupation for the last five years. Young idealists like the students I encountered cannot and will not accept Saudi Realpolitik, the contradictions of Saudi policies, and the ambiguity of Riyadh’s objectives. So angered are they by Saudi interventions that they told me it was only a matter of when not if collective Arab revenge is exacted against a leadership that thwarted the dreams of so many young people in the region, simply by mobilising its counter-revolutionary resources.
My interlocutors thought it was a macabre joke that Saudi Arabia bombs Yemen to restore the legitimate Yemeni ruler Mansour Abd Rabo Hadi, pays rebels to depose Bashar al-Assad and bring democracy to Syria, pumps vast sums of money to the al-Khalifa rulers of Bahrain to maintain their economy and power, and fights the Islamic State when the two have so much in common. In a nutshell, the students were not only puzzled by Saudi Arabia’s interventionist and aggressive policies since the onset of the Arab uprisings, but also angered and frustrated by them.
How might that communal Arab revenge come to haunt Saudi Arabia in the future? The regime seems to have weathered domestic crises of both succession and social mobilisation. Its youth population remains acquiescent for no other reason than this, mentioned by one of the Saudi students. She said: ‘I was so excited about the Arab Spring. I wanted to go to the street and demonstrate. The sight of young protestors in Tunis, Cairo, Sanaa, and Manama – even in Kuwait and Muscat – invigorated me. I wanted to do the same thing in my country, call for democracy, but I couldn’t because if I did, they will come and harass my father and family. My father told me if I go to the street, he would be in prison. This deterred me.’
This revelation attests to how authoritarian regimes are embedded in patriarchal structures. Their forms of repression always tend to be communal, like the societies in which they survive. Authoritarianism in Saudi Arabia persists and is nourished by a communitarian ethos. The regime’s punishment can be communal, inflicted on those believed to be responsible for their dependents – such as young daughters, sons, and other relatives who are always part of the extended family or clan. Rebellious youths are punished first by family members, always the father or equivalent, who acts as an agent of the state in the private sphere. Such persistent patriarchy is a significant factor in intimidating the Kingdom’s rebellious youth.
The young Arabs who befriended the Saudi students may well have reached the level of agency that the Saudis are still struggling to develop. However, it may not be too long before they also reach a similar watershed, albeit by treading carefully through difficult but appealing terrain.
Madawi Al-Rasheed is Visiting Professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is also Open Society Foundation Fellow. Her forthcoming book Muted Modernists: The Struggle Over Divine Politics in Saudi Arabia is due to be published by Hurst in October 2015.
On Twitter: @MadawiDr