Saudi Arabia, ahead of planned protests, seems unlikely to catch the contagion of Arab revolutions, US experts said as they stressed the enormous impact unrest there would have on the world economy.
Even if the world’s largest oil producer is eager to show it is different from the other Arab countries, it also has points in common with them, they said.
Like Egypt or Tunisia, Saudi Arabia has many young people. Thirty-eight percent of Saudis are 14 years old or younger, according to figures from the CIA. Like their peers in other Arab countries, Saudi young people are turning increasingly to social networking sites like Facebook, which they used to organize protests last week in the eastern part of the desert kingdom.
Facebook activists have called for a “Day of Rage” and a “Saudi revolution” later this week. It’s on Facebook where aging princes face criticism.
The oil wealth is also unequally distributed, consigning around 40 percent of the population to relative poverty. And rising food and other prices have fueled frustration. Stability until now has rested on the monarchy’s ability to cooperate with allied religious clerics, provide economic aid and deploy the security services.
“For the most part, people who are upset at what’s going on in the country or the policies of the government, they are not upset at the king and upset with the royal family,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace analyst Christopher Boucek told reporters. “That’s a big difference. No one is calling for a revolution in Saudi Arabia.”
He said that instead of calling for the removal of leaders — as the opposition has done in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya — Saudis are urging greater political liberalization and more progress on financial transparency.
The view is shared by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who cites numerous risk factors.
Cordesman outlined possible crisis scenarios: Tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, poor management of the annual hajj pilgrimage, a scandal implicating the royal family and divisions within the ruling family.
“These are all scenarios. The problem is it’s just not very likely,” he added.
In line with the royal family’s longstanding practice for keeping its people happy, Saudi King Abdullah decided to release US$36 billion in public expenses to ease popular tensions.
The Saudi rulers “didn’t suddenly just throw money at the problem. They reinforced a decade of massive expenditure on the social level and they are creating jobs, industry,” Cordesman said. “They have dealt with education, health and government services. That doesn’t make them immune, but they’ve done a very good job.”
“Destabilization” in Saudi Arabia, which produces a quarter of the world’s oil supply, “would change the regional balance of power and the way the world works,” said George Friedman of the privately owned, non-partisan Stratfor global intelligence firm.
A surge in energy prices would be devastating for the world’s shaky economic recovery.
British international development minister Alan Duncan has warned that the price of a barrel of oil, which stood at US$105 on Wednesday, could rise to US$250 if extremists bombed oil tankers, pipelines or Saudi reserves.
“The type of speculation that would follow disruptions in Saudi Arabia or Iran ... could add volatility as panicked traders hoard oil,” Council of Foreign Relations analyst Michael Levi wrote in the Financial Times last month. “It would be wise to consider and, if necessary, prepare for exceptional new restrictions on speculation during such moments of extraordinary geopolitical stress.”