As a child living in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, I remember flying into Bahrain from Dhahran several times. It was an eight-minute flight, perhaps one of the shortest international flights in the world. One barely had time to down the guava juice and dates and complete the landing card and you had touched down at Manama Airport. In 1986, the King Fahd Causeway was built and travelling to Bahrain meant just a half-hour car ride. With no visible mutawa (religious police), Bahrain was chilled out and thus the official R&R station for Saudis. It would have been difficult to conceive then that one day the causeway would be used to roll in Saudi tanks to the tiny island.
Later, when I was in college in the US, Professor James Bill, an Iran expert who taught me Middle East politics, claimed that the Gulf monarchies were “whopping cranes” and that their demise was imminent. On holidays back to Saudi Arabia to visit my parents, it was difficult to assess whether Professor Bill was right or wrong, as so little of what was going on in the country was revealed in newspapers. As one example, when Iraq first invaded Kuwait, it was carried as a small news item on the back page of the English daily, Arab News, and it wasn’t till my family was dropping me off at the airport a few days later, that a CNN crew stuck a mike in my face asking, “How do you feel being on the last commercial airliner out of Saudi?”
We had heard that the hotels in Al-Khobar were full of Kuwaitis, but there was no mention in the media of the large numbers of American troops that would be based in Saudi Arabia. Although both Saudi Arabia and the US had previously bankrolled Saddam’s war with Iran, this was different because now Saudi Arabia was teaming up with the Americans against a fellow Arab and former ally. There was resentment amongst the people but, unlike in Pakistan, no outlet to voice that frustration. As an expatriate, I was even less likely to hear condemnation of their government from the few Saudis that I interacted with, but I remember that even my Quran teacher’s mother voiced muted disapproval. It is this festering of resentment, an inability to freely oppose government policy or to channel it as political opposition that led to more sinister expression in the form of al Qaeda.
The case of Saudi Arabia is so different from that of Pakistan’s or even Egypt’s. With tons of money to go around, it has been far easier for the government to buy loyalties and deliver basics such that there are no chants for democracy. But when both Bahrain and Yemen, neighbouring countries in which Saudi Arabia is keenly involved, have erupted in shouts of Al-shaab urid iskat al-nizam (the people want the end of the regime), and when Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have made the world a much smaller place, how long can the Saudi regime maintain its iron hold is questionable. When astute bloggers like Ahmed alOmran of saudijeans.org speak for the reform-minded youth, what Arab News says becomes far less relevant.
Although in the past Saudis may have been placated with stipends and subsidies, with a growing population and a high unemployment rate, it may be difficult to sustain such policies of seeming benevolence and better to adopt more meritocratic methods. Families of missing people abducted by Saudi security forces have legitimate grievances as do those who suffer from a lack of infrastructure, as in the case of the flooding in Jeddah. Add to that the corruption of the upper echelons which cannot even be mentioned by the press and there is much to protest. By interfering in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia will give its own disgruntled Shia population more reason to mistrust their government. In the event that the protests of Qatif and Hofuf catch on, the Saudi monarchy will have no option but to turn to the West for help, just as the Bahraini emir has done.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 28th, 2011.