A Note on Saudi Arabia and Bahrain
Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are illustrating that the unrest spreading across the Middle East will not happen the same way in any two places, nor are all authoritarian countries equally susceptible.
Writing in the Washington Post, Scott Wilson offers a hint at why Saudi Arabia has remained largely quiet:
The aging monarchy of Saudi Arabia, home to roughly a fifth of the world’s proven oil reserves, governs a population where many are influenced by the most extreme interpretation of Islam, one hostile to Western culture. The cosmopolitan Saudi elite fear the majority and have accepted the Sauds as an alternative to a more severe Islamist government. How the octogenarian leadership would weather a popular uprising is unclear.
In other words, the kind of cosmopolitan, educated elite who were crucial to the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt may know that instability, and perhaps even democracy, would not bode well for them or their values. Wilson implies that they see the Saudi government as a force tamping down the retrograde inclinations of the country’s populace, and that a (post-)Saudi democracy might be even more repressive, because that is what the populace might want.
The Saudi rulers also have enough money that they can prevent the level of poverty that have helped bring people to the streets in many countries.
As for Bahrain, Vali Nasr tweeted today, “Bahrain protest is existential threat to Sunni monarchy and minority rule. Regime will react much more harshly than Mubarak.”
Nasr is identifying a key variable: whether a country is ruled by a minority — Syria with its Alawis is an example — that would have much to lose in a democracy.
Bahrain is dominated by a Sunni minority. Unlike in Egypt, where the ruling partly might plausibly win an election in a few years, democracy in Bahrain likely means defeat: the Sunnis could plausibly foresee being shut out of power for years, even decades. They might even be subjected to economic reprisal as the Shia majority use government to divert resources and opportunities to themselves.
Image courtesy NASA