Saudis crave change but wary of revolt

No country in the region is immune from change

The Saudi people hunger for deep political and economic reform but the failure of a "Day of Rage" called by cyber activists on Friday showed they are not ready to revolt, analysts said.
There were no reports of unrest in the kingdom on Friday as security forces launched a massive clampdown to deter demonstrators from answering a Facebook call to take to the streets.
"I think the Saudi people are prepared for change but not ready to revolt. This explains why calls for protests miserably failed," human rights activist Fuad al-Farhan said.
Rallies to press for democratic reform in the oil-rich absolute monarchy were supposed to start after Muslim weekly prayers on Friday but the mosques emptied with no signs of unrest, only a menacing security presence.
However, tensions were high in the Eastern Province city of Al-Qateef, where three Shiite protesters were shot and wounded by police dispersing a demonstration late Thursday.
A small demonstration calling for reforms and the release of Shiite prisoners also took place on Friday, a witness said, but there were no reports of unrest.
Farhan expected another call for protests by other online activists to fizz out in similar fashion on March 20.
Crude oil futures slumped as traders breathed a sigh of relief that Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, had not been shaken by protests such as those seen in Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Oman, Bahrain and Libya.
Expectations that a massive earthquake in Japan would slash the country's crude imports also saw New York's main contract, light sweet crude for April delivery, fall to $99.01 -- the lowest level since February 25.
Analysts said most of those calling for demonstrations -- which are illegal in Saudi Arabia -- were based abroad and did not have any local support.
The powerful clerics of Saudi Arabia, which is home to Islam's holiest places, also came out strongly against the planned protests, saying they would only cause chaos.
"Local activists have not called for protests nor have they encouraged others to join. A majority of youth did not support the calls," Farhan said.
The head of the Jeddah-based Middle East Legal and Strategic Studies Centre, Anwar Eshki, said the campaign flopped because it lacked domestic impetus and came up against strong opposition from the religious establishment.
"Most of the online calls for protests came from various Arab countries and apparently did not have any following in the kingdom and accordingly failed," Eski said.
"A fatwa (religious edict) by the top Saudi clerics also helped keep people indoors."
The Euroasia Group think-tank said in a note on Saudi Arabia that the majority of Saudi opposition figures were not seeking the overthrow of the regime, setting them apart from other Arab countries facing unrest.
But Eshki stressed that Riyadh must speed up reforms and understand that no country in the region was immune from change.
"We need to accelerate the rhythm of reforms because it should be understood that the aftershocks of the earthquake in the Arab world could reach here if we do not act," Eshki said.
Analysts said unemployment was a key indicator to gauge the pulse of dissent in the kingdom.
"When the unemployment rate hits 30 percent and health, housing and other services slide further, it is possible to see people revolting. The pace of reforms is the key to stop that," Farhan said.
The general unemployment rate is 10.5 percent but the rate is as high as 30 percent in the 20-29 age group, according to official figures.
The Saudi government is facing the task of finding jobs for over 450,000 unemployed youth and hundreds of thousands more who will enter the labour market in the next few years.
Oil wealth is also unequally distributed, consigning around 40 percent of the population to relative poverty. Rising food and other prices have fueled frustration.
Stability until now has depended on the monarchy's ability to cooperate with allied religious clerics, provide economic aid and deploy the security services.
In line with the royal family's long standing practice for keeping its people happy, King Abdullah has decided to release $36 billion in public expenses to ease popular tensions.