Facebook, another agent of change in the Arab world….

Believe it or not, it is now a very effective agent of political change in the Arab world. Facebook has done it elsewhere in the Arab world and it is now all set to do it in Saudi Arabia on March 11, 2011 when it has called for anti-government demonstrations. But the question is; Is the kingdom is ripe for a change? Is it like Tunis, Libya, Egypt and Bahrain and has similar economic, demographic, social, and political conditions as those prevailing in its neighboring Arab countries? Historical evidence suggests that Saudis remained unaffected by the wave of coups d’état that swept the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s. But the things are no more the same as education and wealth has made a tremendous difference. By the 1970s, oil wealth was developing their taste for the consumer economy and the pleasures of cars, planes, running water, air-conditioning, and sunglasses. Saudis are today looking for something else. They are young, educated, connected, and articulate. Above all, they are familiar with the global discourse of democracy, freedom, entitlement, empowerment, transparency, accountability, and human rights that has exploded in the face of authoritarian regimes in the Arab world since January. They watch satellite channels like Al Jazeera and eagerly consume news from uprisings around the region.

Foreign Policy, in a report has concluded that there is no reason to believe Saudis are immune to the protest fever sweeping the region. According to the report, Saudi Arabia is indeed wealthy, but most of its young population cannot find jobs in either the public or private sector. The expansion of its $430 billion economy has benefited a substantial section of the entrepreneurial elite — particularly those well-connected with the ruling family — but has failed to produce jobs for thousands of college graduates every year. This same elite has resisted employing expensive Saudis and contributed to the rise in local unemployment by hiring foreign labor. Rising oil prices since 2003 and the expansion of state investment in education, infrastructure, and welfare, meanwhile, have produced an explosive economy of desires.

The report goes on to say that carrots are often the currency of loyalty in oil-rich countries, including its wealthiest kingdom. But the Saudi royal family uses plenty of sticks, too. Public relations firms in Riyadh, Washington, and London ensure that news of the carrots travels as far as possible, masking unpleasant realities in one of the least transparent and most authoritarian regimes in the Persian Gulf. What cannot be hidden anymore is the political, economic, and social problems that oil has so far failed to address. When Saudis were poor and lagged behind the world in education, aspirations, and infrastructure, oil was the balm that healed all social wounds. So far young Saudis have occupied their own “Liberation Square” on a virtual map. In the 1990s their exiled Islamist opposition used the fax machine to bombard the country with messages denouncing the leadership and calling for a return to pristine Islam. Later, a wider circle of politicized and non-politicized young Saudis ventured into Internet discussion boards, chat rooms, blogs, and more recently Facebook and Twitter to express themselves, mobilize, and share grievances. All signs now suggest that Saudis are in a rush to seize this unprecedented opportunity to press for serious political change. The response to King Abdullah’s handouts on Saudi Facebook sites is the refrain “Man cannot live by bread alone.”

The report says that if Saudis do respond to calls for demonstrations and rise above the old petition syndrome, the majority will be young freethinkers who have had enough of the polarization of Saudi Arabia into two camps: a liberal and an Islamist one, with the Al-Saud family presiding over the widening gap between the two. They want political representation and economic opportunities. An elected parliament is demanded by all. It seems that the kingdom is at a crossroads. It must either formulate a serious political reform agenda that will assuage an agitated young population or face serious upheavals over the coming months. To respond to public demands, the agenda should above all start with a written constitution, limit the rule of the multiple royal circles of power within the state, regulate royal succession, inaugurate an elected parliament, and open up the political sphere to civil society organizations. Hiding behind Islamic rhetoric such as “Our constitution is the Quran” is no longer a viable escape route. Many Saudis are disenchanted with both official and dissident Islam. They want a new political system that matches their aspirations, education, and abilities, while meeting their basic human, civil, and political rights.

According to the report, Egypt was key to the coming change, but when Saudis rise they will change the face of the Arab world and its relations with the West forever. Now is the time for the United States and its allies to understand that the future does not lie with the old clique that they have tolerated, supported, and indulged in return for oil, security, and investment. At a time of shifting Arabian sands, it is in the interest of America and the rest of the world to side with the future not the past. Saudi Arabia is the heart of Muslim world. Any change in this country is going to affect the entire Islamic world. And it is going to affect the US hegemony and the industrialized economies for sure. It will create new polarization and given the fact that Iran is rejoicing at the prospect of destabilization of the Arab world and sees its increased influence in the region, the world will not be the same if Facebook script is implemented in Saudi Arabia. But can anyone arrest the process of history? Probably not, not even the Facebook.

Advertisements