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Thu 10 Mar 2011 03:52 PM

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Experts split on likelihood of Saudi uprising

Bahrain could motivate Saudis if kingdom is not prosperous enough to stave off unrest, say analysts

Experts split on likelihood of Saudi uprising
King Abdullah earlier this month unveiled benefits for Saudis worth around estimated $37bn in a bid to stave off the unrest gripping parts of the Arab world

Top analysts are split on whether Saudi Arabia, OPEC’s biggest oil producer, is set for protests mirroring those gripping neighbouring Bahrain.

Saudi, the Gulf’s wealthiest state, is key to oil market stability and the prospect of unrest in the kingdom has raised fears already surging oil prices may rally to $200 a barrel.

“Protests happening in Saudi, to me, is akin to having snow in Riyadh,” Asher Noor, CFO at Saudi’s AlTouq Group told Arabian Business.

“It might happen given the global climatic imbalances but the Arctic would really have to melt over fast enough for that. And I am still talking about snow and not protests.”

Others said Saudi, which had remained quiet and stable through weeks of violent unrest in Tunisia and Egypt, needed to be watched.

“It’s too early to tell right now because Saudi Arabia is the big wildcard when it comes to popular revolts,” Dr Theodore Karasik, director of Research and Development at INEGMA, told Arabian Business.

 “Everyone is watching what is happening in Libya, Egypt and Bahrain. They see that leaders are being toppled and new reforms being implemented. They’re now seeing that a monarchy is being challenged in the GCC, so that might be some kind of inspiration to them,” he said.

The Kingdom saw various small demonstrations around the country this week, including small rallies in the villages of Awwamiya and al-Hofuf.

On Sunday, its council of senior clerics issued a statement forbidding public protests.

The Saudi interior ministry said all demonstrations, marches and sit-ins were now outlawed, as they “contradict the principles of Islamic Law, the values and norms of the Saudi society, they further lead to public disorder, harm public and private interests.”

Saudi’s massive oil wealth has helped the kingdom stifle protest, enabling its rulers to buy off unhappy minorities.

The Gulf state has a Shiite community of between 10 and 15 percent of the population which complains of discrimination by the Sunni rulers.

King Abdullah earlier this month unveiled benefits for Saudis worth around estimated $37bn in a bid to stave off the unrest gripping parts of the Arab world.

“But [this] might not be enough,” Dr Karasik said, “This is what we’re watching for, the response of the citizens to this welfare handout.”

Karasik cautioned that factors including the Kingdom’s complex tribal structure and influential religious leaders could still lead to revolution.

“It’s quite possible there could be a huge reversal. What we have to really watch out for is the role of the clerics and what they’re saying about reform,” he said.

“We’ve already had a major disagreement with the clerics and the royal court. The royal court was supporting Mubarak while the clerics were supporting the people on the street,” he added, referring to the recent uprising in Egypt.

He said this could be an indicator to how the Kingdom’s different tribes react.

Noor argued that Saudi was a “rational country with an astute finance ministry and central bank governor,” and, unlike Bahrain, a wealthy native population.

“A large segment of the indigenous population is quite prosperous and have welcomed professional and unskilled expatriate workforce with open arms. Together they all have prospered,” he said. “I do not see any reason to doubt the positive growth trajectory of the Kingdom.”

Emirati Sultan Al Qassemi, an Arab affairs commentator, said Saudi had a number of the trigger factors that had prompted unrest in Arab countries.  

“The Gulf States aren’t really all together in the same basket,” he said. “You’ve got Qatar who has huge massive reserves of oil and gas, so they can afford to perhaps cushion their citizen’s lives for another few decades. But the same cannot be said for other Gulf States, including Bahrain, Oman and to a certain extent, Saudi Arabia as well. Even though they have huge reserves, they also have a massive population of over 20 million Saudis.”

(With reporting by Shane McGinley and Gavin Davids)