Staving off the Saudi Day of Anger called for March 13 by unknown protesters in Facebook was the first task awaiting Saudi King Abdullah when he returned home to Riyadh Tuesday, Feb. 23 after a three-month absence for two back operations in New York and a period of recuperation in Morocco.
The comings and goings of Saudi royals are usually kept private. But this time, the returning monarch aged 87 was hailed by domestic media as the only national leader able to put in place reforms for keeping the winds of popular unrest besetting the Middle East away from the Saudi door.
And indeed, his first action was to unveil a huge $36 billion package of benefits for the people: a 15 percent wage hike for public employees to offset inflation, 1,200 new jobs, pardons for imprisoned debtors, financial aid for students, allowances for the jobless and popular housing.
But the protesters were already lying in wait: “We want real change. This would be the only guarantee for the kingdom's security," said Hassan al-Mustafa, one of 460 Saudi rights activists and journalists who signed an open letter demanding an elected parliament, more rights for women and enhanced anti-corruption measures.
“A constitutional monarchy closer to the Kuwaiti model is not an impossible target to achieve right now," said al-Mustafa.
Clearly, Abdullah's reforms are unlikely to satisfy the disgruntled, some of whom are using the social networks to clamor not just for political reform but the end of the House of Saud.
Will women get the vote in local elections?
Could the Saudi throne weather the storm of protest? Some DEBKA-Net-Weekly Saudi experts believe its chances of survival are good, given that the dynamic for political reform is active within the royal family as well. Prince Talal, half-brother of King Abdullah, for instance, said in a BBC interview on Feb. 17, that the king was the only one capable of instituting political reforms. He urged the need to give the people more political representation and say and respect their civil rights.
Those Saudi experts say Prince Talal appears to be on the same wavelength as the king and in on his plans for broader refeorms, which appear to include the formation of a new government possibly as soon as next week, the release of political detainees and prisoners and a municipal law amendment enabling women to vote and be elected in local elections.
Also under consideration is allowing the people to propose legislation to the Shura Council, the closest Saudi Arabia has to a legislature. Meanwhile, King Abdullah the reformer must overcome stiff opposition from religious and conservative circles. They will support him if he does not push too hard or too fast – especially on the sensitive issues of women's rights and an independent judiciary. But his people may not give him the time he needs for transforming a gerontocracy, which has kept the throne moving sideways along the first generation after the monarchy's founder, and is highly centralized and autocratic.
Seventy percent of the population is under 35; unemployment among the young and educated runs at 50 percent; housing for young couples is scarce and, like in Bahrain, an oppressed Shiite minority of over two million is simmering in the Eastern Provinces atop the kingdom's main oil wells and industry.
Persuasion and detentions for keeping the Shiites quiescent
In the last two weeks as the unrest crept closer – reaching Bahrain and Yemen – the Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef, who is also designated crown prince, held meetings with prominent intellectuals and journalists to rally their support for the throne, while the Deputy Governor of the Eastern Provinces, Prince Saud bin Jalawi, summoned local Shiite clerics to ask them to calm the rising revolutionary ferment in their flocks.
At the same time, the Saudi security service rounded up ringleaders of campaigns for the release of Shiite prisoners, as well as Shiite political activists, university lecturers, human rights activists and lawyers, who used the Internet to try and establish a political party called Islamic Umma and openly called for elections, transparency in government and an independent judiciary.
The Saudis are also building hedges against disturbances around their borders:
While still in Morocco, King Abdullah phoned his Jordanian namesake with a pledge to stand by the Hashemite King against the protests buffeting the throne in Amman. He gave the king of Bahrain a similar promise of support and sent him a detachment of Saudi troops and a consignment of military and anti-riot equipment.
Riiyadh was not reassured by the Mulllen visit
Notwithstanding Abdullah's bitter recriminations against President Barack Obama for forcing his friend and ally Hosni Mubarak to resign, Riyadh and Washington stay in touch.
On a visit to Riyadh Sunday and Monday, Feb. 20-21, Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint US Chiefs of Staff, maintained that domestic ills were causing the ferment across the region – not Iran. He failed to allay Saudi concerns and left them feeling that the Obama administration was at sea over the Middle East tsunami and at a loss about ways to shape its outcome. After he left, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in the Gulf report that the royal rulers met and decided that the best they could hope for was that Washington would take into consideration the key Saudi role as the world's spare energy cushion – Riyadh this week pledged to make up any oil shortfalls resulting from the Libyan crisis – and refrain from making the sort of public statements which undermined other Arab rulers.
The royals have traditionally ruled by a judicious balancing act of tribal diplomacy, generous perks and an alert security service. It is hard to see the entrenched princes holding down the lid of their pressure cooker much longer. Unless the lingering succession struggle is resolved soon and the octogenarian king and ailing Crown Prince Sultan are replaced with younger princes in good health, the impatient protest movements sweeping Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Libya may soon be knocking down Saudi palace doors.