31 March 2011

King Abdullah announced the creation of a Housing Ministry to drive development of new housing in the kingdom. The announcement followed a previous speech by the king in which he announced a massive new spending programme to solve a shortage of affordable housing.

Protests occurred on 25 March in two Shia villages near Qatif in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia demanding the release of political prisoners.

24 March 2011

On 20 March, as a precursor to an expected cabinet reshuffle, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud replaced the president of the General Authority for Civil Aviation (Gaca). Faisal bin Hamad al-Sugair was announced as the successor to Abdullah Rehaimi.

On the same day, protests took place outside the Interior Ministry in Riyadh, with demonstrators demanding the release of political prisoners. At least 15 protesters were arrested.

So far, King Abdullah has responded to protests by offering improved wages and benefits, but has failed to make any political concessions.

On 23 March, Saudi Arabia announced plans to hold municipal elections on 23 April. However, women will still be unable to vote.

18 March 2011

On 17 March, about 1,000 people protested peacefully in the eastern city of Al-Qatif. The protesters were demanding the government stay out of Bahrain.

More than 1,000 Saudi troops entered Bahrain on 15 March to help authorities quell protests that are becoming increasingly violent. The anticipated Day of Rage that was planned for 11 March in Riyadh did not materialise due

to the heavy police presence and a religious decree banning protests. Smaller protests continued in the eastern provinces, with protesters calling for reform and the release of political prisoners.

A second Day of Rage is now planned for 20 March.

10 March 2011

A limited number of protests have already occurred in Saudi Arabia, but they have so far remained small. A ‘Day of Rage’ is planned for 11 March and the Facebook group behind the protests has more than 30,000 supporters. In early March, the Interior Ministry announced a ban on protests.

Government actions:

  • A package of measures valued at about $36bn, including unemployment benefits, extension of inflation allowances, additional funding for housing schemes, and financial support for overseas students

Political Risk assessment

In the wake of a government warning, mass protests seem unlikely in the kingdom in the short term. Momentum has been building, however, and if the demonstrations planned for 11 March materialise and are met with a violent response, it is more likely to increase demands for change than temper protesters, as happened in Bahrain.

23 February 2011

Saudi Arabia, unlike the rest of the GCC countries, faces serious social issues. Despite its hydrocarbons riches, its larger population, spread over a vast territory, leaves it vulnerable to street-level discontent. Government figures have put the ratio of 20-24 year olds without a job at a dangerously high 43 per cent. Official unemployment levels of about 10 per cent may underestimate the scale of the joblessness problem.

Saudi Arabia is no stranger to street protests. Most recently, in January, dozens of demonstrators took to the street to protest about the poor state of infrastructure in the kingdom’s second largest city, when Jeddah was hit by floods caused by torrential rain. The Saudi leadership will have been concerned by the protests sweeping through the Arab world, particularly those in neighbouring Gulf state, Bahrain, which are now moving into their third week.

Following a three-month absence due to medical reasons, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz returned to Riyadh on 23 February and immediately held talks with Bahrain’s King Hamad to discuss the unrest in the region.

He also announced extra benefits for Saudi citizens, including funds for housing, social security and debt relief, widely perceived as a move to pre-empt any protests.

The unravelling of domestic security in 2003-05, when Al-Qaeda affiliates staged a series of attacks targeted at expatriates and foreign interests, demonstrated the potential for instability in the country.

It is quite possible regional protests could spread to the kingdom – a ‘Day of Rage’ has been announced for 11 March. But the authorities under King Abdullah’s astute leadership should be well prepared to deal with the aftermath. With large financial resources at its disposal, the government’s challenge is to ensure that discontent is not allowed to develop into something more serious.