King Abdullah remains popular even after he throws his support to Mubarak
By Rob L. Wagner
The Media Line
Published Thursday, February 03, 2011
Young Saudis are enthusiastically endorsing the anti-government uprising in Egypt filling Facebook and Twitter with postings supporting the demonstrators at Cairo’s Tahrir Square. But their enthusiasm for rebellion doesn’t extend to their own country.
Blogger Fouad Al-Farahan, who was detained by Saudi authorities three years ago for his on-line activities, Twittered, “Democracy is the Solution!” Even an eight-year-old Saudi girl calling herself “Juju” lectured Mubarak to resign on a YouTube video that has gone viral.
But much of the enthusiasm was tempered last week when King Abdullah announced through the Saudi Press Agency his support for Mubarak. He accused Egypt’s young anti-regime demonstrators of “tampering with Egypt’s security and stability … in the name of freedom of expression.” For many Saudis, publicly contradicting the king is disloyal to the kingdom.
Yet following a lull in Saudi postings, Facebook and Twitter lit up again on Wednesday when violence broke out between anti-government and pro-government factions in Cairo. Virtually every Saudi commenting sided with the anti-regime demonstrators. Nevertheless, young Saudis say that the situation in Egypt can’t compare to Saudi Arabia.
“What is happening in Egypt has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia,” Muhammad Al-Asmari, 19, a student in Jeddah, told The Media Line. “Mubarak has done absolutely nothing for Egypt in three decades. You can’t say the same for Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah has done a lot for us.”
Saudi Arabia and Egypt do share similar problems: high unemployment, inflation, an absence of democracy and a directionless youth. Unlike Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth enables it to build schools, hospitals and infrastructure and provide social services that Egypt cannot.
Norah Shayib, 21, of Jeddah, said Saudi Arabia’s deeper Muslim identity is what has enabled to avoid the turmoil that has spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Jordan and Yemen over the last several weeks.
“This is not meant to be an insult to Egyptians—I have high regard for my brothers and sisters there—but they are a country of 80 million people who have varying attitudes about Islam,” she told The Media Line “It’s a secular country. At the end of the day, Saudi Arabia is about being Muslim and we have nothing but affection for our king who has been good to us. We identify first as Muslims and second as Saudis.”
She added that Saudis take seriously the hadiths –words and deeds attributed to the prophet Mohammed that are often used as the basis for Islamic law. They demand loyalty to a Muslim ruler who has been “fair and just” to his people, she said.
However, some Saudis expressed a more cynical view. “I think Saudis are asking themselves, who would be better [than King Abdullah]? The answer is nobody,” said one Saudi who didn’t want to be identified.
Indeed, the Saudi king’s popularity among Muslims outside of the kingdom far outstrips other Muslim leaders, including Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.
In a 2010 Pew Research Center poll, 92% of all Jordanians and 83% of all Egyptians expressed confidence in the Saudi king. In contrast, only 32% of Jordanians and 26% of the Egyptians expressed confidence in Ahmadinejad. A third of Jordanians and Egyptians had confidence in Abbas. The Saudi government, however, is not without its domestic critics.
Perhaps the most well known demonstration occurred when nearly 50 women defied the country’s driving ban by driving cars throughout the streets of Riyadh in 1990. Religious conservatives staged a demonstration in 2009 when Norah Al-Fail, the first woman named deputy minister of the Saudi Ministry of Education, visited a boys’ school. The demonstrators demanded the government enforce its gender segregation laws. More recently, about two dozen Saudis took the streets of Jeddah to protest against the government’s failure to improve infrastructure that led to flooding that killed 10 people.
Last week’s floods in Jeddah were the second massive flooding in 14 months and enraged local residents. During the November 2009 floods, which killed more than 100 people, Saudi authorities initially blamed the deaths on people failing to follow government instructions to reach safety. A news blackout followed, which prevented the Saudi media from reporting on the damage and death toll. Jeddah residents skirted the blackout by posting mobile phone video images on Facebook and YouTube. The graphic images of floating bodies angered Saudis.
“It was a huge change for Saudis,” Al-Asmari said. “We could make a change just by using the Internet.”
Public reaction to the floods prompted King Abdullah to order the arrest of about 50 Jeddah municipal officials and construction contractors. It also led to mass resignation of the city’s engineers. It was the first scandal of alleged corruption made public.
“This is the kind of change we can do on the Internet and I think it’s more effective,” Al-Asmari said. “I can’t imagine Saudis in the streets like what I see in Egypt on Al Jeezera. It’s not the right way to do things.”
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