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Gulf states, Saudi can withstand Tunisia effect

Gulf states, Saudi can withstand Tunisia effect

Gulf Arab oil wealth fuelled relative prosperity; Deposed president in Saudi, but kept away from public eye.

January 18, 2011 10:30 by

Saudi Arabia has taken in Tunisia’s fallen strong man, but the oil wealth of the kingdom and its neighbours should ensure the poverty-driven unrest which ousted Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali does not follow him to the Gulf.

Though the Saudi monarchy infuriated some critics for giving refuge to a deposed autocrat whom many Arabs see as typical of their own authoritarian rulers, it has swiftly moved Ben Ali out of sight, hoping that a quick — and quiet — resolution of his fate may calm popular anger, both in Tunis and closer to home.

Analysts say Gulf Arab rulers have struck a golden bargain with their people to trade political quiescence for relative affluence. While Gulf media have splashed headlines of the Tunisian revolt over police repression and poverty, the events there feel politically distant for many in the region.

“I know there is a lot of talk about the ripple effect. I think the epicentre is still very much Tunisia and in the immediate region in North Africa I would say,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Centre.

“With regard to the Gulf leaderships directly, to be fair they are focused on a vision … which is about developing their societies,” he added.

The Gulf Arab states’ massive oil wealth fuelled a development boom that lifted much of the region into prosperity even as other Arab countries struggle to raise living standards.

“I think the Gulf states are a little bit more secure than some of the other states that have been mentioned such as Egypt and Jordan and Algeria. So I don’t see it spreading to here,” Dubai-based security analyst Theodore Karasik said.

Asked about Tunisia in an Abu Dhabi mall, some young Emiratis were unaware of the crisis unfolding. In Kuwait, among the most politically vibrant Gulf states, the al-Watan daily described the situation as both “welcoming and threatening”.

On a UAE-based Internet forum, one user suggested that Emiratis “don’t share the same real motive” for a popular rebellion as the Tunisians, citing a higher standard of living.

But Riyadh’s move to host Ben Ali sparked the ire of some activist bloggers from Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter and a key U.S. ally, even as some Saudis said they held no ill will toward the Tunisian former leader.

“Very happy for the Tunisian people,” Saudi blogger Ahmed Al Omran posted to Facebook. “The only thing that annoyed me was that Saudi Arabia welcomed the ousted dictator to find refuge in our homeland. But for now, let’s just live this historical moment. Here’s to a domino effect all over the Middle East.”

Another Saudi blogger, writing from the United States, said Saudis were “very upset” about the decision to host him.

“Most of the Arab countries … refused to provide him the political asylum, not that they don’t like him but because of the fear of public reaction,” he wrote on his blog, Saudi Alchemist.

“Saudi Arabia is always different than any other country. They welcomed him,” he added.

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