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Saudi needs bolder steps to avoid protest contagion

Saudi needs bolder steps to avoid protest contagion

Saudi needs to do more than splash the cash; Clerics, conservatives a brake on reform; Young demanding jobs, prospects.

March 3, 2011 3:19 by


The tightly-controlled kingdom of over 18 million is ruled by the Al Saud family in alliance with Sunni clerics and has no elected parliament or political parties.

While analysts say there is no sign yet of the sort of popular protests that have spread to neighbours Yemen, Bahrain and Oman from Tunisia and Egypt, more than 17,000 have backed calls on Facebook for protests this month.

Emboldened, Saudis have embraced debate on social media, often using their full name — in contrast to the past when many were afraid to speak out for the fear of landing in jail.

Saudi leaders faced similar calls after the 1991 Gulf war when mainly Islamists enraged by the presence of U.S. troops in the birthplace of Islam flooded the late King Fahd with petitions and he eventually allowed some limited reforms.

“It is very different now. In 1991 you had two camps, the camp of Islamists… and liberals. They had completely different traditions,” said Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi analyst in London.

“They are (now) coming from different sections of society but there is a common theme. They are really pushing for a constitutional monarchy but I don’t think this is going to happen,” she said.

In the spotlight is the oil-producing Eastern Province where minority Shi’ites have held small protests demanding the release of prisoners, empowered by calls for change by their brethren in nearby Bahrain, a Saudi-allied Sunni monarchy.

Shi’ites in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have long complained of marginalisation, despite official denials. Saudi Shi’ite protests were much smaller than clashes in 2009, when a preacher broke a taboo by suggesting they could seek their own state.

But the nervous market reaction showed that events in Saudi Arabia are closely watched. Saudi currency markets are at their weakest levels in two years, while credit default swaps rose to their highest level since July 2009.

The biggest Arab bourse in Riyadh dived to a 22-month low on Wednesday, and as the Saudi market is mostly driven by retail, rather than institutional investors, many ordinary Saudis will feel the drop.

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