Webcast Recap

On September 16, the Middle East Program hosted a meeting for the launch of the publication “Saudi Arabia in the Shadow of the Arab Revolt” with Ottaway, Wilson Center Senior Scholar and former Washington Post Cairo Bureau Chief. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program, moderated the event. 

Ottaway said that his assessment of the likelihood of an uprising in Saudi Arabia was influenced by his experience in Egypt, though he noted key differences between the situations in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, particularly with Egypt functioning as a republic and Saudi Arabia as a monarchy. Ottaway also mentioned that Saudi Arabia lacks a civil society, whereas Egyptian society is much more mobilized, with many NGOs and a labor movement.

He highlighted that Saudi exceptionalism has created a sense of self-confidence with regards to the Arab uprisings in the MENA region. This notion derives from the kingdom’s location (both as the birthplace of Islam and as possessing the world’s largest oil reservoir) and a track record of standing up to ideological and political challenges in the past, from Gamal Abdel Nasser and Ayatollah Khomeini’s attempts to overthrow the Saudi monarchy to the threat of al-Qaeda more recently.

Ottaway stated that this exceptionalism is not impervious to social and economic strains. The “cradle to grave” welfare society, previously a strong underpinning for the monarchy’s support, does not work anymore, he said. Unemployment, corruption, and a failure of government services have amplified discontent among the Saudi middle class. Ottaway noted that Gassan al-Kabsi, an economist at McKinsey and Company, has predicted that by 2030, the average middle class Saudi family would see its standard of living cut by half. This enormous economic pressure is the main source of Saudi discontent, according to Ottaway.

Ottaway also discussed the transformation in the dynamics of change in Saudi Arabia. The impetus for reforms, previously coming from the monarchy, is increasingly coming from the public. Saudi citizens are more assertive, articulate in their demands, and active in the press. The country’s leadership has started to feel such pressure from society. For example, a recent poll was published outlining that 70 percent of Jeddah citizens felt municipal authorities were not fulfilling their duties adequately. Ottaway explained that this type of report would not have been printed five years ago. While there remains a growing pace in demand for reform in Saudi Arabia, Ottaway discussed how the Egyptian and Libyan models of emerging democracies have given Saudi reformers pause to think their own strategies.

In conclusion, looking at the future of the monarchy, Ottaway questioned how Saudi royals would cope with age and health problems in their immediate leadership alongside public dissatisfaction. He mentioned that while King Abdullah commands respect from liberals and the religious establishment – enjoying true popularity – this may not be the case for successors.

By Mona Moussavi, Middle East Program