Webcast Recap

David Ottaway, a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, discussed his latest Occasional Paper, which focused on various bottom-up pressures mounting against the government of Saudi Arabia.

On September 17, the Middle East Program hosted a meeting, “Saudi Arabia’s Race against Time” with Ottaway. Robert Litwak, Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations and Director of the International Security Studies Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event.

Ottaway opened his presentation by discussing the impact that higher rates of education within Saudi Arabia are having on the country, given the formation of a “critical mass of university-educated students.” The Department of Ideological Security has stated that “the return of foreign-educated students” is its number one concern for several reasons. The burgeoning number of university graduates is tied to high levels of unemployment within Saudi Arabia, in part due to women’s desire to find work and a gap between what students get their degrees in and what skills the job market needs. In addition, there are limited job opportunities within the kingdom available to Saudis; although the government has been trying to focus on “jobs, jobs, jobs” within the private sector, most companies still only hire about one Saudi for every nine foreign nationals. Ottaway said that Saudi officials are also worried about the impact returning university students have on the already competitive housing market and their potential impact on campus strikes and protests. He argued that although in prior generations the influx of foreign-educated students was absorbed into the bureaucracy, now the Saudi Arabian government is relying too heavily on the private sector to address unemployment, skilled labor, and women’s mobilization.

Ottaway briefly outlined the kingdom’s succession issues, noting that the senior princes have yet to hand over power to the next generation. He posited that the senior princes will continue to hold power for “easily another decade,” postponing succession pressures or governmental changes for now. 

Saudi Arabia has been attempting to stifle dissent on two fronts, Ottaway stated. First, the government has turned to holding trials and sentencing liberal activists within the kingdom after it previously “allowed some expression of dissent.” Using the example of Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, a Saudi human rights activist currently on trial, Ottaway argued that this shift in policy showed how much activists had managed to uncover about Saudi human rights abuses. Secondly, the government has been seeking to stifle dissent in the largely Shi’a province of Qatif, where protests turned militant between October 2011 and July 2012. Protesters there were heavily influenced by events in Bahrain and have stopped “listening to their elders anymore,” those who have called for peaceful protest. Ottaway added that these two forms of dissent have also led to a ban on demonstrations “of any kind, on any pretext” as the government fears any rally could easily “balloon out of control.”

Lastly, Ottaway turned to the rise of social networking in Saudi Arabia, pointing out that although in the past clerics have opposed introducing new forms of communication, now “the conservative religious element are taking to social media – Twitter, Facebook, and such – one hundred percent.” Clerics have some of the largest numbers of followers in the kingdom, and use their following to “keep control of society” and promote a national culture centered on Wahhabism and the royal family. In addition, many other Saudis are using social media to express their opinions, which makes it easier for the government to keep track of dissenters and the “pulse of the nation.” However, internal issues keep providing “a lot of tinder” for unrest, and the government is stuck in a “race against time” to address them.

By Laura Rostad, Middle East Program