The Fall of the Saudi King May Bring Down the other Gulf Rulers
The Gulf regimes are steeling themselves for the after-shocks on their own countries of "The Facebook Revolution," which kicked off in Tunisia in mid-January, tipped over into Egypt and Libya and swept away two rulers.
Saudi Arabia has 2,300,000 registered Facebook users; Bahrain, about 220,000 and Oman 160,000.
These are impressive numbers which encompass large youthful populations, especially in Saudi Arabia. Still, it's hard to treat them as a barometer for forecasting these groups' willingness to challenge their regimes.
In Saudi Arabia, especially, family-clan-tribal ties are strong and may be capable of restraining youngsters exposed to Facebook from responding actively to calls to go out on the streets, although their demands and grievances are already serving the politicians with fodder.
Saudi Arabia has three categories of politicians: liberal elements; Muslim clerics in ideological opposition to the religious establishment and government; and the Shiite minority.
In Bahrain, the unrest is rooted in the Shiite community which makes up 70 percent of the population.
In all of the emirates, such petitions are signed by prominent figures known to the public at large who call on the people to campaign for their rights through Web sites or Facebook.
The number of responders is therefore critical as the key to the size of demonstrations to be expected on the March 11 Day of Anger declared in Saudi Arabia. The authorities have accordingly partially shut down the relevant Web sites to block participation.
Common to all the Gulf capitals is the fear that if Saudi King Abdullah falls, it will be the start of a chain reaction against all the emirs, with shocking impact on the world's oil markets.
Regime compliance may depend on size of demonstrations
In all three Gulf countries, protesters are demanding the reformulation of the relationship between state and society by limiting the regime's policy-making powers and expanding the role of ordinary citizens. They all call for the establishment of constitutional monarchies, free parliamentary elections, restrictions lifted on women's public activity and suffrage and laws banning discrimination on ethnic, tribal and racist grounds.
All three governments are ready for dialogue with the protesters but cannot be sure that this will suffice to prevent public demonstrations.
Neither does it mean that the kings and emirs accept all the demands put before them. Constitutional monarchies will not result from such dialogues, as they would put a crimp on the royal families' monopoly on rule. There is a better chance for citizens to win a larger role in government and the controlled expansion of the franchise in regional elections and other civil bodies to be accepted.
The lifting of restrictions on women's rights is strongly resisted by the Saudi clergy and so compliance with this demand will be extremely grudging.
In the last reckoning, the degree of regime compliance with protesters' demands will be commensurate with the size of public demonstrations in those countries as the measure of pressure their peoples are capable of bringing to bear on those governments.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly has singled out four countries for separate surveys: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and Yemen.
On Tuesday, March 1, the BBC Arabic broadcast reported that the unrest in Saudi Arabia was growing. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in the Gulf say that immediately following the broadcast, Saudi security and intelligence forces raised their alert to the highest level. The reason: The Saudis perceived the broadcast as a coded call to Shiites and other opposition elements to launch riots for deposing 88-year-old King Abdullah. Panic selling up to 6.8 percent of stocks resulted on the Saudi exchange. One major trader explained that the unrest in the Arab world had led investors to shift from stocks to cash.
For the first time this week, the impact of the disturbances in Bahrain on the two million Saudi Shiites of the oil-rich Eastern provinces was visible. On Feb. 17, Shiites staged their first protest demonstration in the Atif region calling for the release of Shiites held without trial since 2009. A number were released three days later.
Feb. 24, saw the second Shiite demonstration in Awwamiya, a small town near Qatif; and on Feb 28, the third was held, in solidarity with the Shiites of Bahrain in the main cities of the Qatif area, including Hasha.
The latter two rallies were restrained and small, in response to the authorities' pressure on Shiite leaders to hold down the first outward manifestations of a high level of ferment in the community.
Signs of ferment surfaced in other parts of Saudi Arabia too as liberal and religious opposition figures composed their demands in readiness for the March 11 Day of Anger.
On Feb. 26 a group calling itself Jeddah Youth for Change handed out flyers to passersby calling on them to participate in the Day of Anger demonstrations. Preparations for the event are also backed by Saudi expats in London.
Articles supporting the dissidents who demanded political reform were published by two Saudi historians, Madawi al-Rasheed, a Kings College professor and scion of the Rasheed family that ruled the Najd region of Saudi Arabia prior to the Ibn Saud conquests; and May al-Yamani, daughter of the former oil minister, Mohammed Zaki al-Yamani.
The unusual level of anti-monarchical activism in the West has convinced the Saudi royal family that a move is afoot against the throne in Riyadh akin to the maneuver that terminated Hosni Mubarak's presidency in Egypt and which is currently directed against Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi.
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifah has made moves to conciliate the Shiite protesters who continue to demonstrate against the Bahraini throne ever since Feb. 14. Encouraged by the Saudis, who according to eyewitnesses began transferring tanks to Bahrain on Tuesday, March 1, and in response to President Barack Obama's appeal for restraint and responsiveness to complaints, the king is setting the scene for dialogue with the protesters. He released political prisoners, permitted the leader of the largest and most extreme opposition al Haq movement to return from exile and installed a new government.
The Shiites were not satisfied. On Feb. 27, 18 of the 40-member Islamic National Accord Association faction in parliament quit in protest over the killing of seven protesters and demanded that all members resign.
February 26, Oman saw its first protest demonstration in Sohar, the sultanate's main industrial city, and the second largest port through which the equivalent of 160,000 barrels per day of petroleum products are exported.
It lasted two days and left six dead, according to official sources although the figure must have been much higher. Here too the climate of unrest was not assuaged by concessions made by Sultan Qaboos a day earlier on Feb. 25. He promised to create more jobs, starting off with 50,000 in the public sector, monthly grants for the unemployed and a ministerial commission to study ways of enhancing the authority of the elected advisory council. The next day, he replaced his government. But like everywhere else in the Arab world, these concessions have not stop the protests and more demonstrations are in the making.
All Yemen's factions and tribes have united to call in one voice for Abdullah Ali Saleh, 68, a vital US ally, to step down after more than three decades in power. His pledge not to run again when his term ends in 2013 or name his son to the presidency – or even his offer to launch power-sharing talks with the opposition – have not quelled the roaring unrest against him. He warned that with his passing, Yemen is doomed to break up into a patchwork of warring factions without the army to hold it together. For now, DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports, no one can tell how long the army will continue to stand behind Saleh and whether its support will crumble suddenly or gradually.
The latest destabilizing element was introduced into the Yemeni mess Tuesday, March 1, by Abdul Majid al-Zindani, a onetime mentor of Osama bin Laden. Speaking on an open-air platform to several thousand anti-government protesters, under the guard of 10 men carrying AK-47s, Zindani declared: "An Islamic state is coming," drawing cries of "God is great" from the crowd.
This was a reminder for neighboring Saudi Arabia and faraway Washington that Abdullah Saleh's fall would open the way for Al Qaeda and other Islamist extremists to seize control of Yemen.
Yet that same day, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates saw only good coming out of the current Arab unrest: "I'm an optimist about these changes. I think [they] are an extraordinary setback for Al Qaeda. It basically gives the lie to Al Qaeda's claims that the only way to get rid of authoritarian government is through extremist violence."