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Saudi authorities have tracked down and arrested bloggers and people who have protested on Facebook

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Saudi Arabia is the real powerhouse in the Arab world, and even beyond the Arab world. But inside Saudi Arabia there has been not that big a sign of protest as we’ve seen in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, in Yemen, Libya. Why? Joining us again to talk about what’s going on inside Saudi Arabia is Madawi Al-Rasheed. She’s a professor of social anthropology at King’s College in London and the author of the books A History of Saudi Arabia and Contesting the Saudi State. Thanks for joining us again, Madawi.


JAY: Start with some basics about Saudi Arabia. How many people are there? And how many are citizens? And what is the economic state of most people? I think there’s an impression outside that the reason we don’t see more protests is not just repression, just that most people in Saudi Arabia are doing pretty well, so they’ve got nothing to protest about.

AL-RASHEED: Well, the population is around 24, 25 million, and one-third of those are actually foreign workers who live in Saudi Arabia. In terms of–Saudi Arabia is a wealthy country. But there is certain features in Saudi Arabia that are actually in common with other Arab countries that have experienced this sort of Arab Spring. One of them is the very, very high level of unemployment and very high level of corruption. Saudi Arabia has approximately 140,000 graduates every year, and those enter the job market. Most of Saudis are actually employed in government bureaucracies. And what the king has done recently is to expand this government bureaucracy even more to absorb the rising number of young Saudis looking for jobs. But Saudi Arabia does have a high level of unemployment. Some say that it is around 10 percent, but according to other sources, it is in excess of 20 percent. And this unemployment rate is actually even worse among women. Seventy-eight percent of Saudi women who are unemployed hold university degrees, whereas 16 percent of unemployed men have university degrees. It is a common problem that the Saudis have, the Egyptians have, and many other Arabs.

JAY: But is there some forms of unemployment insurance? I mean, how do unemployed people–what is their income?

AL-RASHEED: Their income is–Saudi Arabia has a very large charitable sector that gives people money occasionally as handouts. But also there is a strong family tradition, and people look after each other, look after members of their own family. But in March, when the king returned from his trip to New York, where he had two operations, as his health was deteriorating, he came back and promised that the unemployed will get unemployment benefits for a year while they’re looking for a job. The problem is so far the government is the largest employer, and the government bureaucracy is expanding to a certain level whereby it becomes a burden. And it takes quite a lot of the budget just to give people salaries. And this is a way of absorbing unemployment without actually creating real jobs. The private sector resists employing Saudis because it looks for cheap labor. And as long as expatriate labor coming from Asia, from other Arab countries, is available in Saudi Arabia, any private business is not going to go and employ Saudis, who are more expensive to employ. And what has happened is that the whole system is actually based on creating this underclass. The economic prosperity of Saudi Arabia is based on the cheap labor that comes from Asia, comes from Africa and from other Arab countries. And this cheap labor is completely without any rights. They are on short-term visas. They never have any kind of civil or human rights there. And they can be expelled or deported at any time. And, therefore, you do not have the right to mobilize in order to get better condition if you are a foreign laborer. And the Saudis themselves don’t have that right. So the country doesn’t have associations, doesn’t have a civil society. There are no trade unions. And this is one of the reason why protest over the last two, three months hadn’t taken off. And it is very difficult for these Saudis who call for protest, peaceful protest, on the Internet, to translate that into actual mobilization. Everybody talks about the Twitter revolution or the Facebook revolution. I think the Internet has its limitation in a society where there are no civil society organizations where people could actually come together.

JAY: You’ve written in some of your articles that the Saudi government has actually been tracking down people who have written on Facebook and Twitter, and some bloggers have been arrested.

AL-RASHEED: Oh, yes, absolutely. And even then, when this Internet has served the purpose of being a cathartic outlet, where somebody who is extremely frustrated, unemployed, or basically have some serious grievances, whether he’s been abused or–. So in a way they try to write articles. And immediately, immediately, we find that the security forces would come and pick that person [up]. I have–in several cases of people who are academics who have written articles asking questions about, for example, succession in Saudi Arabia. As you probably know, the king, the crown prince, the second deputy prince, they’re all over 80 years old, and all of them are actually ill. So one academic wrote an article and posted it on his Facebook, asking what is going to happen to the leadership, who is going to rule Saudi Arabia, given the old age of the three most senior princes, and he was immediately put in prison. And so even the Internet is not safe. And obviously, you know, the hyper sort of excitement about the role of the Internet, it works in an open society, but in this situation, such as Saudi Arabia, it has its limitations.

JAY: Give an example in one of the things you’ve written, one of the pieces you’ve written, of someone who went to just inquire after a relative, and then the person inquiring was arrested. What is that story?

AL-RASHEED: Yes. I mean, this is somebody who’s been in prison for a very long time. He’s an academic. I think he’s an Islamist as well. And he’s been in prison for over eight years. And his son Mubarak Al Zair went to the Ministry of Interior to meet someone to ask about his father, and he was imprisoned. So, basically, just to give you another example, more recently there was a call for women to drive and lift the ban on driving.


MANAL AL-SHARIF, WOMEN’S RIGHTS ACTIVIST FROM SAUDI ARABIA (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): We want to eradicate this illiteracy and ignorance in the country. All we want is for women to be able to drive in emergency situations,for instance, if she has someone with her who has had a stroke. They mentioned in al-Riyadh newspaper that a woman was able to save her brother’s life. She took him to hospital in her car. A woman is not only good for emergencies. She is like a man.


AL-RASHEED: And a young, 32-year-old woman, a mother, started this campaign on the Internet. And she–her name is Manal Al-Sharif. And she drove her car in the Eastern Province, in al-Khobar, in Saudi Arabia. And she was put in prison for ten days–and she’s just been released–for violating the ban on driving.

JAY: Now, my understanding was she posted a video on YouTube, something about this.

AL-RASHEED: Yes. She posted her video driving the car with her brother in the back seat and with another woman activist, Wajeha al-Huwaider. And the reason why she was in prison: not simply because she violated this ban, but because she was encouraging other women to drive their cars on June 17, the day when this was supposed to take place. So, basically, people talk about the oppressive Mubarak regime, even though he was oppressive. But at least in Egypt there was some kind of freedom. If you look at the press, even under Mubarak, people were arrested if they wrote articles that Mubarak didn’t like, but at least there was an opposition press in the country. If you look at Saudi Arabia, that is not possible. There is no independent magazine or newspaper. Every single newspaper, media, is owned by the regime. And therefore if you look at the Saudi press, it is basically showering congratulations and sort of thanking the princes for their vision and for their handouts and for the freedom of speech (in inverted commas) that they allow. And the only criticism we see in the official press is against, for example, other really low-level bureaucrats who are accused of not functioning as the king wishes them to function, which means that this is a way of absorbing the criticism and protest, by directing it against very low level civil servants. And this is what happens during these protests that I mention. When women go to the Ministry of Education–there was a case of women teachers who–a group of them had been working for 15 years without actually having fixed contracts. So they were on short-term contracts. And they went as a group to the ministry in order to ask for these contracts to be converted into fixed contract, and they were abusing the civil servant who came out to meet them, and saying to him, oh, you do not apply the king’s rules. We praise the king’s vision, but you are the one who is wrong because of corruption and because of being lazy. And therefore the state, the regime, allows this kind of minor protest, because they absorb the tension in society.

JAY: It’s actually illegal to critique the king, is it not?

AL-RASHEED: Yes. And during this Arab Spring just recently, there was a royal decree to say that the king and the grand mufti, who is the head of the religious establishment, are sacrosanct. You cannot write articles criticizing them. So, basically, they’re infallible. You know, you can’t mention anything by way of critique, or even recommendations that are not sort of officially approved of. This is the situation. And this goes without reporting because of the economic interests that the world, or at least the free world, has in Saudi Arabia.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Madawi.

AL-RASHEED: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Madawi Al-Rasheed is Visiting Professor at the Middle East Centre at The London School of Economics and Political Science. She is originally from Saudi Arabia and currently lives in London. Her research focuses on history, society, religion and politics in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Her recent publications include A History of Saudi Arabia and A Most Masculine State .