The March 11 “Day of Rage” demonstrations called for by political opponents of the Saudi monarchy did not materialize as anticipated. Turnout for the protests was sparse in the face of warnings from Saudi officials that laws prohibiting public demonstrations would be strictly enforced. On the day of the protest, the government ordered a massive police clampdown, mobilizing thousands of internal security forces in major cities to erect a web of checkpoints and mobile patrols. Perhaps more importantly, there was growing confusion over exactly who was calling for the “Day of Rage.” The grassroots Facebook campaign, which originally called for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, vibrant civil society and greater respect for human rights, was gradually taken over by Islamists who called for the overthrow of the monarchy and establishment of an Islamist state.
Most Saudis may want reform, but they are not necessarily opposed to the royal family, in part because they have an economic stake in continuing the welfare benefits afforded by the present political system. The apparent indifference to the call to action by a Saudi silent majority led a prominent Saudi journalist to observe: “Everybody was surprised when this day of rage turned into a silent Bayaa [ceremony performed in Islamic societies where the public formally endorse the rule of a leader].” But there were other contributing factors, such as uncertainty about the intent of the organizers of the proposed protests and a reluctance of some Sunni reformists to become too closely identified with the ongoing demonstrations by Saudi Shia leaders.
The only places the “day of rage” didn’t fizzle out were relatively small demonstrations of several hundred protesters near the eastern cities, Qatif and Hofuf, where Saudi Shiites demonstrated for the release of Shia prisoners. Saudi Shiites, who make up 10 percent to 15 percent of the population, comprise a majority in the oil-rich Eastern Province. Many Saudi Shiites resent the religious discrimination they experience at the hands of the Wahhabi religious establishment, and they maintain that they do not receive a fair share of the jobs or the profits from the oil extracted from their province. The Saudi government has made limited efforts to address some of these concerns but also suspects that some of the Shia leaders may be doing the bidding of their co-religionists in Iran.
The Saudi government, which already announced a $36 billion package of economic subsidies for state workers, retirees, and the unemployed, could further defuse the situation in the Shiite community by making concessions on other fronts. But the mood in Shiite areas of the Eastern Province could be inflamed by events in neighboring Bahrain. Tens of thousands of predominantly Shia demonstrators mobilized peacefully to encircle the royal palace on Saturday, a day after police and loyalist crowds violently clashed with demonstrators. The island’s Shia majority has long harbored legitimate complaints about unequal access to political power, economic opportunities and jobs under the Sunni-dominated political system established by the ruling al-Khalifa dynasty.
There had been apprehension in world oil markets that after the loss of approximately 1 million barrels a day of Libyan oil production, a violent day of rage in Saudi Arabia would presage political instability that could disrupt Saudi oil production. Although the muted response of Saudi Sunnis to confusing calls for change is likely to calm oil markets in the short run, the growing political tensions in Bahrain soon may explode and spill over into Saudi Arabia. If it results in an interruption of Saudi oil exports, oil prices could rise even higher in the future, with increasingly damaging effects on the global economy.