During the past decade, especially after Islamic Awakening in 2011, Saudi Arabia dealt with an array of political and social challenges. But, Riyadh has been capable of covering up its challenges, or injecting periodic pacifications to the society and thus protecting the stability at least ostensibly.
Perhaps it is possible to find the reasons for this stability by delving into the ideas of the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci. The key term that Gramsci uses is “hegemony”, referring to the way by which the dominant class makes the ordinary people content by making pledges on the one hand, and by frustrating some groups and establishing connections with other groups of the society on the other hand. In fact, Gramsci talks from the aspect of grasping and holding the dominance and authority, pointing to a series of religious places, parties, marketplaces, universities, and media that are used as apparatuses for cultural dissemination. They transform the cultural and political worldview of the dominant class into different norms and introduce it as the “standard mindset.” Besides, there exists the superior force or the “force majeure” which is tasked with making the opposing forces to comply with the standards.
Saudi Arabia takes advantage of its huge money sources to curb the protests, as it introduced the $93 billion recovery package in 2011 and the futuristic economic plan known as Saudi Vision 2030 in 2016 in a bid to get the economy back on the track. All these plans focus on improving housing conditions in the country, bolstering the income in private sector, expanding the privatization process, offering to public some part of the shares of the government-owned oil giant Aramco, and making efforts to cut reliance on oil revenues. Aside from success or failure of these economic plans, it is notable that implementation of these plans was accompanied by waves of internal protests, tensions, and increased public discontent.
One of other most blatant social problems in Saudi Arabia― in addition to a long list of other sociopolitical woes― which makes the kingdom notorious worldwide is the obvious violation of the women’s rights, and depriving them of their most basic rights, including the right for driving. The authoritarian regime of Saudi Arabia tries to use religious grounds to justify this ban, as it also abuses the Sharia (religion) law to ban mixing between men and women. The regime argues that driving right for women develops social corruption. Firm establishment of such an intellectual system drops the widespread support for public activism for the rights of the women. Perhaps it was for this reason that first permission for women to take part in the 2015 municipal councils elections failed to draw a large, enthusiastic population of women to vote. But, at the same time, some female groups who reject such established system of standards are leading their campaigns and striving after their rights, including the right for driving.
Following 2011 events in West Asia, the late King of Saudi Arabia Abdullah bin Abdulaziz made some promises for introducing some reforms. Additionally, recently, Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy crown prince and defense minister, has announced that should the conditions were prepared, women would be given driving right— the same pledges Gramsci talks about to delay the discontent of the society.
Preventing challenging the established worldview
One of the setbacks of the Saudi kingdom since its foundation in 1932 to date is the regime’s discrimination against the Shiite community of the country. Although King Abdullah took steps to improve relations between branches of religion, but they proved scanty and so failed to have an influence on the superstructure. Generally, the Shiite citizens are less hired in official jobs, as the job opportunities are highly limited for them in the military sector. They always face restrictions imposed by the government for holding their religious ceremonies. In Saudi Arabia it is banned to promote Shiite thoughts, as it is the case with Shiite books. Majorly, Wahhabi extremist thoughts are imposed on the Shiites in the kingdom. They are even banned from admission to over 50 percent of the country’s universities. There are no Shiite Muslim judges in the majorly Sunni populated Arab kingdom. Generally speaking, such matters have driven the Shiite Muslims in Saudi Arabia to the sidelines. This by far means putting strains on growth and promotion of a heterodox worldview.
At the same time, the religious institutions declare the political party activities as illegal and opposing the instructions of the holy Quran according to Sharia law. This issue frustrates the popular enthusiasm for political and party activities. At the same time, the Saudi clerics introduce debasing interpretations from the holy Quran to prevent the people from taking part in anti-government demonstrations. Actually, they try to establish a kind of self-control among the citizens.
Funding the civil societies
Depositing a huge reserve of $700 billion in foreign banks, Saudi Arabia, without doubt, is a country with effective financial sources for alluring the opposition groups through financial privileges.
Another part of stability in the kingdom is tied to its regeneration and dominant intellectual system that close down the ways of awareness in the face of the different social classes. Generally, Saudi Arabia has a very weak civil society, and following the wave of 2011 Islamic Awakening that swept the region, the Saudi regime moved to offer financial support for the civil societies in a bid to bring them under its control and supervision. As Gramsci puts it, these regime’s steps are efforts for establishing contacts with the influential groups in the society. On the other side, essentially the anti-Wahhabism thoughts are heavily put down, and so are barred from rising to the public.
Saudi Arabia spends millions of dollars on an annual basis to translate and distribute across the world books promoting the radical Wahhabism and Salafism. On the other side, any book that runs counter to the established ideology is not given permission for printing and distribution across the kingdom. The authorities even ban showing such heterodox books at the Riyadh International Book Fair. Even more, any steps or demands for reforms are recognized as terrorist actions according to the 2014 decree of Saudi king. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia Abdul Aziz Al ash-Sheikh in 2011 tagged the Islamic Awakening as “enemy conspiracy” to damage the Islamic values.
Despite existence of public discontent and social problems in the kingdom, a collection of the mentioned factors limits eruption of massive destabilizing moves in the country. On the other hand, the allusions of new alternatives push the Saudi society into a positive ecstasy.