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Gulf Arabs warily eye Tunisia, Egypt revolts

Gulf Arabs warily eye Tunisia, Egypt revolts

Oil wealth prosperity provides cushion, for now; Saudi Arabia's role and stability will be key; Brewing concern among Gulf populace.

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February 2, 2011 11:13 by



Gulf Arab rulers have offered their people relative affluence in exchange for political submission, but at the same time people realise that a fundamental shift is taking place.

Saudi Arabia — which plays a pivotal role as the richest Arab nation and steward of Islam’s holy sites — is coming under greater scrutiny after it granted refuge to Tunisia’s ousted ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz expressed support for Mubarak as protests intensified.

SAUDI ARABIA KEY

As the world’s largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia has plenty of money to throw at most problems. It is three years into a $400 billion five-year plan to upgrade roads and infrastructure.

Yet, there are undercurrents of change.

“What is happening in Egypt is expected to happen in most Arab countries. Governments should now listen to the people as they are boiling and are awaiting only a spark,” said a Saudi Arabian woman, shopping in a mall in the port city of Jeddah.

In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second-largest city, a rare protest erupted over the weekend after heavy rains flooded the streets, cutting off electricity and sending stinking sewage into homes and businesses. It was swiftly crushed by police.

Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy, which rules in a pact with conservative Wahhabi clerics, needs to provide jobs for its 18 million citizens — two-thirds of whom are under the age of 30 — and has gradually introduced measures to liberalise the economy and reduce the sway of hardline clerics.

“Saudi Arabia needs political reform whether this spreads or not,” said Saudi political analyst Khalid al-Dakhil.

And sizeable marginalised populations in the Gulf, such as Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, could find inspiration in the growing people power of the region.

So far, Saudi media coverage of the unrest in Egypt has mostly focused on the looting and chaos in Cairo rather than the political reforms demanded by protesters.

Saudi newspapers have toned down the king’s support of Mubarak after it became increasingly clear that the Egyptian ruler’s grip on power was looking shaky.



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