While the world was understandably distracted by Japan’s terrible earthquake and the tsunami in its wake, I have been monitoring one local Saudi woman’s blog to get a sense of how the March 11th Day of Rage progressed in Saudi Arabia.
Apparently, what was expected to begin with a bang ended in a whimper.
What is more interesting is how the Saudis effectively tamped out a popular revolt before it started.
So far, there have been two Middle Eastern models for dealing with popular revolts: crushing them or conceding to protestors by removing heads of state.
Let me be clear that I am not making any moral judgments here. I am only pointing out which tactics are most effective from a purely strategic standpoint in allowing Middle Eastern rulers to maintain power.
On the one hand, using force to suppress revolts appears to be the more effective of the two for maintaining power in the Middle East. Witness Saddam Hussein’s actions against the Kurds, his actions against the Shia after the first Gulf War, Hafez al Assad’s actions in Hama, and Libya’s actions against its rebels, which seem to allow that government to gain more ground with each passing day. Again, I am looking at things from a political rather than a moral standpoint and do not condone these actions.
In contrast, things did not go well for Egypt’s Mubarak or the Shah of Iran when both abdicated their posts rather than crushing the revolts.
The Saudi approach appears to offer an ingenious third way for Middle Eastern rulers to maintain power without massive bloodshed. It is devious, but effective.
The single most important lesson of Saudi Arabia’s Day of Rage is that the regime got in front of the problem before it happened.
In no particular order, the Saudi government employed the following three strategies to stop the revolt before it started.
1. Establish a Heavy Security Presence
Prior to March 11, 2011, the Saudis deployed their security forces throughout the country, particularly in the northeastern provinces where most of the Shia population resides. Saudi forces established checkpoints and roadblocks, and helicopters hovered overhead. Police even pulled over a BBC journalist because they caught her filming their activity on a mobile phone. The country was in complete lockdown. As a result, nothing happened.
2. Discredit Opposition Leaders
The Saudis effectively discredited opposition leaders in three ways: they co-opted prominent religious leaders to make statements discouraging the revolts, they insinuated that the revolts were inspired by the Iranians and/or radical jihadists, and they divided the protestors by implying that the Shia revolts were different from the revolts planned for everywhere else in Saudi Arabia (effectively exploiting Sunni fears about a widespread Shia uprising).
The Saudis also employed a sophisticated misinformation campaign that leveraged social media outlets like Facebook. Eman Al Nafjan writes:
“What started on a Facebook page as a call for the creation of a civil society with a list of demands including a constitutional monarchy and a call for public freedoms and respect for human rights eventually turned into a page where sectarianism was openly practised and Islamists were praised.”
An even broader implication of this campaign is that the state can also use new social media platforms to control its people more efficiently. This may be the first case in history in which a government actively used social media to spread disinformation versus China’s more passive attempts to deny access to it.
By the time the Day came around, “none of the prominent Saudis who drafted the petitions during the last few weeks openly supported the demonstrations,” probably because the government had been so thoroughly effective in distorting the movement into something these well-respected people could no longer support.
3. Bribe the People
When King Abdullah returned home in late February from his three months abroad at a foreign hospital, he unveiled a $36 billion social welfare package for the people, which included the creation of 1,200 new jobs and a 15 percent pay raise for all government employees.
Expect oil futures to fall on this news (they probably already have).