It looks as if the richest monarchy in the Arab world and the largest global oil exporter, Saudi Arabia, may be getting jittery at the history-changing events developing across the Middle East. The ouster of decades’ long autocratic rule in Tunisia and Egypt and the wave of protests sweeping across Bahrain, Yemen and Libya have prodded Saudi Arabia into action to placate an ever-increasing disillusioned public. Returning home after three months spent abroad for medical treatment, King Abdullah announced an extravagant aid package — to the tune of $ 35 billion — aimed at benefiting lower and middle income groups and unemployed youth, and addressing housing problems and high-inflation rates besetting the Saudi economy. This is an attempt by the Saudi monarchy to throw money at the problem as though that is all that is required. The Saudi monarchy is watching closely the rising stem of revolts in the Arab world, deeming it necessary to address issues before the people take to the streets of Saudi Arabia. As most of the reforms in the package aim to address the woes of the youth, it is quite obvious that the Saudi rulers have taken note of the fact that it is the tech-savvy youth demographic that is most active and passionate in the Arab protests.
The Libyan uprising has been reduced to an isolated, hate-spewing dictator watching his iron-clad grip quickly loosening in the face of angry protests and Yemen is seeing nine ministers resign from public office. Inspired by Tunisia and Egypt, the Arab public has finally decided that it has had enough of autocratic regimes, and no place epitomises a seemingly unshakeable monarchy like Saudi Arabia.
There have long been opponents of the Saudi regime but they have always been silenced by the kingdom’s repressive laws and policies. Many political opponents and underground groups have long demanded more gender equality, free elections to municipal councils, etc. However, for a theocracy like Saudi Arabia, introducing reforms that endanger the political-religious status quo will be out of the question. While this aid package is a premeditated move to curb any rising dissent within the kingdom, it must be asked: how far will doling out money go if it is not accompanied by freedom? Money can only go so far when the inhabitants of an oil-wealthy country are boiling over with frustration over the denial of their political, civil, human and gender rights. *