Page last updated at 10:44 GMT, Saturday, 21 May 2011 11:44 UK

Saudi Arabia shuns thought of Arab Spring

By Michael Buchanan
BBC News, Riyadh

Saudi Arabia has not seen the large-scale protests of the kind sweeping many Arab countries - it is a place which, above all, values stability.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah
King Abdullah has announced 60bn will be spent on social programmes

There were hundreds of them, migrant workers, from South and East Asia, coming to Saudi Arabia to work for meagre, but tax-free, wages.

And their arrival in Riyadh coincided with my flight, making for a teeming but fairly orderly passport hall.

The queues were not moving much, however, and so one tall, thin Indian man decided to sit on the floor.

Not for long though.

Out of nowhere, one of the guards shoved his way into the line - spraying people left and right - and hauled the man back on to his feet.

Moments later, the same guard kicked the arm of another migrant worker who could not figure out how to operate the biometric scanning machine.

All this had taken place within 20 minutes of me setting foot on Saudi soil.

It was my first impression of the country - and to the extent that the incidents highlight the authoritarian, uncompromising nature of Saudi society, not to mention the appalling manner in which some low-skilled migrant workers are treated, then it has proven fairly accurate.

I have travelled the breadth - if not the length - of this desert kingdom over the past week or so, and the lesson I have learned again and again is that there is a Saudi way of doing things which is quite unique.


A tribal, hierarchical society defined almost exclusively by its religion tends not to tolerate much dissent - and looks suspiciously at any new behaviours and ideas.

Saudi men at cultural festival
Men and women are kept apart at events

A suggestion last week, for instance, from the education minister that it was maybe time to consider sending boys and girls to mixed-sex primary schools led to one opponent claiming the idea would turn boys into transvestites.

Any notion that Saudis had that the uprising in other Middle Eastern countries might take root here was brushed aside a few weeks ago by an edict from the country's religious leaders that dissent and protest were un-Islamic, and that Saudis should obey their rulers.

We do not challenge our parents in the house, one man told me, and so what makes you think we are going to challenge our government in the streets?

Beside a big stick, a rather large carrot has also been dangled in front of Saudis.

The ruler, King Abdullah, in a series of announcements over the past few weeks, says his government is going to spend an unprecedented amount of money, more than £60bn ($100bn) and counting, on social programmes - raising public sector salaries, providing increased state aid to help people buy houses, and benefits, for the first time, for the country's burgeoning number of unemployed people.

That is not to say that efforts at reform, if not exactly revolution, have been killed off.

The Saudi way

In the large basement of a wealthy businessman's house, I attended a dewaniah, essentially a cultural forum, in which about 30 people came and discussed the merits of allowing women to vote.

Saudi women walk out of a shopping mall as they wait for their driver to pick them up in Riyadh
Women do not have a political voice in Saudi Arabia

I met and chatted with some of the participants before the event started but once we walked down the stairs we were split, men in one section, women in another, separated behind a partition in the corner of the room.

When I asked one man why we could not mix as we had upstairs, he just said this is the Saudi way.

Other reformers are pushing for women to be allowed to drive; for women to sign legal documents; for companies to hire more Saudis; for stronger action to be taken to tackle corruption; for the practice of wasta, the need to know someone to get ahead, to become redundant.

The pervasive influence of those last two problems was brought home to me by a great story I was told over dinner one night, which may or may not be apocryphal.

A Saudi princess asked if she could see a large house that had been built by a local businessman, with a view to either renting or buying it.

Flattered, he of course showed her round. But instead of paying any money, she simply took the keys and moved in.

All attempts to remove her failed.

The conservatives in the country are powerful and vocal

So the man transferred ownership of the house to an American woman he knew, who promptly called the US embassy and told them that her property was being occupied, effectively by a squatter.

The princess left shortly afterwards.

Blogs and tweets and Facebook pages on such stories and topics abound, and small meetings are occasionally held. But few major changes are predicted.

Civil society does not exist here in the way it does in other Arab countries, so the reformists' efforts are concentrated as much on organising and informing, as they are on actually pushing for change.

The conservatives in the country are powerful and vocal and those pushing against them cannot say for certain how much support their ideas have, although one poll suggested that 69% of Saudis do not want to give women the right to vote.

Saudi Arabia has undoubtedly embraced economic change in recent years, raising the living standards of its citizens.

It has been far less willing however to embrace political and social change, and whatever winds may be buffeting its neighbours, the Saudis are likely to continue to value stability above all else.

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