Saudi Arabia has rated little mention as a target of the knock-on effect of Tunisia's popular uprising which drove President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee for his life in mid-January. But the Riyadh government's behavior in the past few weeks indicates that the Saudis are very much on the alert for the same sort of troubles to catch on in the kingdom.
The asylum granted the fleeing Tunisian president is unpopular. To still the discontent, the powers-that-be had the controlled media run a number of articles and editorials explaining why it had been necessary. They wrote that it was a Saudi tradition to grant Muslim leaders and high officials sanctuary. This did not mean that the kingdom was not behind the Tunisian people.
But it was not enough to satisfy the critics. Adding his weight to the effort, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal stated Wednesday, Jan. 19 that Ben Ali had been barred from all political activity relating to his country as long as he shelters in Saudi Arabia, and that "this act (of sheltering) should not lead to any kind of activity in Tunisia from the kingdom… There are conditions, and no act in this regard will be allowed," said the prince.
To be on the safe side, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Persian Gulf sources report that the Saudi Interior Ministry and intelligence services have increased the number of eyes and ears keeping watch over the population. Other Saudi departments issue reassuring accounts of how well the situation is under control and how sensitively they are responding to popular concerns.
Unemployment stands at 30 percent for men, 50 percent for women
For example, the press has reported that Saudi Arabia has strategic reserves of close to 1.5 million tons of wheat, enough to feed the population for 6 months, and that a strategic reserve of food products will be built up within 3 years. Therefore, the people need not worry about shortages of essential food items.
But the class most likely to cause trouble is that of young educated Saudis who are bitterly frustrated by the dearth of jobs for high school and university graduates.
Unemployment in the oil kingdom stands at 30 percent for men and 50 percent for women. The government fears it is only a matter of time before a disaffected young Saudi follows the example of the Tunisian student Mohamed Bouazizi who by setting himself on fire sparked the riots which overthrew the Tunisian government.
The government in Riyadh has therefore assigned high priority to addressing the frustrations, grievances and concerns of young Saudis.
On Monday, January 17, when the Saudi team fared poorly in the Asia Games, Prince Sultan Bin Fahd was fired as Head of the General Presidency of Youth Welfare and Chairman of the Saudi Football (Soccer) Olympic Committee. He was replaced by his nephew, Prince Nawaf Bin Faisal, whose father, Faisal Bin Fahd, held this position until his death in 2001.
However, young Saudi sports enthusiasts understand that the changing around of jobs was more a token gesture than a real cleanup of the Olympic Football Committee. After all, the post stays with the Fahd branch of the royal family.
Abdullah to cut short convalescence and fly home
Action to ease galloping unemployment is slightly more serious although woefully inadequate.
The government is reported to have drawn up plans to give young people more job opportunities by, for instance, an agreement signed with the Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu, to raise by 5 percent every year the number of Saudis employed in these two industrial cities on the western coast of Saudi Arabia; or the announcement by deputy defense minister, Prince Khaled bin Sultan, that the Kingdom planned to manufacture 70 percent of its military hardware at home.
In similar cases in the past, Riyadh has turned to private entrepreneurs with demands to hire local workers.
Concern over rising popular disaffection in the kingdom was also indicated by King Abdullah's decision to fly straight home from New York where he is recuperating from back surgery, instead of continuing his convalescence in Morocco.
The turbulence in Tunisia and fears of contagion catch the Saudi royal family at the height of a succession battle. It might force the princely factions to shelve their rivalries for now without settling them and close ranks to preserve the royal family and keep it in power in the face of a possible tide of domestic unrest.
Another two Arab states look particularly susceptible to the domino effect of Tunisian unrest.
Egypt: The Mubarak regime's sunset
On Wednesday, Jan. 19, Cairo's stock index tumbled to an 11-week low on fears of the turbulence which toppled Tunisia's president spilling over into Egypt. At least three Egyptians were inspired by the Tunisian student Mohamed Bouazizi, who immolated himself in protest against economic conditions in the country.
One died of his burn wounds. So far the Egyptian street has not been stirred into action, but there is no certainty that disturbances will not flare without warning. After all, the regime dominated by President Hosni Mubarak, 82, is in its twilight, his successor is a blank and economic hardship under his rule is comparable to that which ignited the Tunisian riots.
Mubarak's efforts to groom his son Gemal for the presidency are meeting with wide domestic criticism. The elite class and security mechanism he fashioned in his 30 years as president own an interest in the regime's continuity, but they too may have been around too long and outlived their ability to cope with a potential wave of massive street protests staged by a population of more than 70 million, seven times that of Tunisia.
Jordan: King Abdullah's grip on power is weak
In pro-Western Jordan, too, King Abdullah II, like his father Hussein, is taxed with holding together a population seething with inner conflict. Unlike Hussein, he tends to make the wrong decisions in a pinch and choose unsuitable advisers. He is therefore hardly equipped to calm the constantly fermenting tensions between native Jordanian tribes and the Palestinians, who make up more than half the population. Added to the brew is the spreading popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The kingdom's stability is marred by the sense of the old tribes, who founded the Hashemite Kingdom with Abdullah I, and were its bedrock, that they are increasingly marginalized.
All these frictions are aggravated by Jordan's economic difficulties. This week, King Abdullah called President Barack Obama to warn him that without an immediate infusion of cash, he would not be able to put down the riots which broke out last week in the capital Amman, Irbad, Salat and Ma'an. Their spread to the other parts of the kingdom would endanger his throne, he said.
Washington responded by sending Amman $100 million. But this was no more than an emergency measure to put out one fire. It won't last long because what the Hashemite Kingdom needs to keep going is at least $100 million per month for the coming year.
Since no one, not even the US, is offering that kind of money, Jordan can expect to be rocked by rising waves of turbulence.