The Saudi Day of Rage

Saudi dissidents used Facebook to organize a “Day of Rage” against the ruling monarchy last Friday.  The results were, quite understandably, blown of the global media radar screen by events in Japan.  How did that “Day of Rage” work out for the dissidents?

Not terribly well, it would seem.  The turnout was so small that protest leaders told United Press International that the “Day of Rage” had been rescheduled for later in March. 

What went wrong?  Many analysts point to the ominous presence of Saudi security forces with itchy trigger fingers.  This is certainly a factor, although it should be noted that Syrian dissidents marched in Damascus today, in defiance of an even more menacing regime.  The Associated Press reports the hundreds of protesters were eventually dispersed when “government supporters later broke up the rally by punching and attacking the protesters,” but you can’t say they didn’t show up to receive their beatings.

Writing at The Media Line, David E. Miller proposes an interesting theory: the protest movement in Saudi Arabia lost a lot of steam when “the Day of Rage campaign was taken over by Islamist radicals, deterring more moderate reformists from joining.”  He quotes a Saudi blogger who explained, “Even Saudis who considered participating said they would sit out the first day, just to gauge whether those coming out were reformists or anti-monarchists, so as to not be associated with the latter.”

It would be interesting if this held up as a major factor in Saudi politics.  There’s certainly no shortage of fertile soil for Islamist extremism in the Kingdom, whose exports include Wahabbi Islam and most of the 9/11 hijackers.  Saudi Arabia has a sizable, and unhappy, population of Shiite Muslims, who did pull together for some demonstrations in the eastern part of the country on Friday.   

If a significant part of the Sunni population finds these forces repellent, the monarchy might be able to reform its way to surviving the great Middle Eastern uprising.  Another Saudi blogger quoted by Miller thinks the bulk of the reform movement wants “a constitutional monarchy” and the end of “discrimination against women,” rather than “the complete fall of the regime.”  They’re not going to win those reforms easily, but they might not have to riot in the streets, either.

Besides the ever-present threat of a crackdown, and suspicion of Islamist forces, the Saudis might be thinking about the economic damage they would inflict on their country by plunging it into chaos.  They’ve got a lot to lose, and so does the rest of the world. 

There appears to be a reservoir of patriotism and goodwill toward the unlovely monarchy that could allow them to achieve change and growth without cataclysm.  They’re sitting on enough wealth to finance something more sophisticated than a battle in the streets.  The dissidents want reforms that the monarchy could grant, without losing its power – unlike Hosni Mubarak, whose power depended on the very corruption that filled Cairo with beggars.

It would be nice to think someone was on the phone to Riyadh, explaining to the royals how they can ride the wave of unrest rushing through their country, and find a future better than Egyptian uncertainty or Libyan horror.  I don’t want to sound too optimistic… but the makings of something better are there.  This valuable, benighted nation might have a real shot at democracy, if the Leader of the Free World teaches them about it.  I hope David Cameron is up to the task.