It’s entirely possible nothing will happen in Saudi Arabia today. A few hundred protesters on the streets, the ringleaders arrested, and the country will continue as before.
Until this afternoon, though, nobody knows. Demonstrations have been called, and now is as auspicious a time for them as we’re likely to see. But one downside of banning political expression is that you can never tell how large demonstrations will be. That, in fact, is why they matter more than under democracy — they’re about the closest you get to a vox pop.
Here are a few guesses as to how things will pan out today.
Hugh Miles on the LRB blog expects something fairly large:
Both Sunni and Shia Saudi opposition groups say they are under intense pressure to make a move before 11 March, but are trying to hold the line so as to garner as much media exposure as possible and secure a large turnout. ‘We didn’t want to go quickly, but the people took the initiative and issued a date,’ one of the organisers told me. ‘Now the momentum is there and there is an avalanche of calls for revolt. The speed with which things are happening is beyond our ability to keep up.’
One reason to expect a noticeable protest is because of how strongly the Saudi authorities have reacted to the prospect. After all, they presumably know more than anybody about public opinion. Then again, a strong reaction could just mark paranoia or deliberate overkill. According to Mohammad Taqi in the Daily Times (Pakistan):
The Saudi state machinery has subsequently gone into overdrive to prevent any prominent demonstrations. The regime has resorted to both appeasement through a $ 37 billion ‘aid package’ to the Saudi people and a series of stern warnings. The Saudi interior ministry said last week that the “laws and regulations in the kingdom totally prohibit all kinds of demonstrations
There’s also much more global attention than there has been previously:
The brutal crackdown by the security forces on the Saudi Shia pilgrims in Madinah in February 2009 had largely gone unnoticed by the world. Subsequently, when a Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr in his March 13, 2009 Friday sermon in Awwamiyya called for the Shia to consider secession from Saudi Arabia if their rights were not respected, the state suppression was swift but did not make the headlines. But now, with the full glare of media turned on to the Middle East, the last thing the regime wants is an uprising that it may have to put down brutally.
And, as this article points out, there’s a certain irony to protests in a major oil-exporting country:
the more violent the unrest, and the closer it is to the oil wells, the higher that it sends prices. As prices rise, so do the contested autocrats’ paychecks. Meanwhile, their bank accounts swell and they are enabled to pacify their citizens by loosening the strings on public spending. It is like brainwashing citizens into oblivion by keeping their stomachs full and their minds numb.