Saudi Arabia and Democracy Discourse in the Arab World

Monday, June 11, 2012

Ali Akbar Asadi, PhD Candidate
Department of International Relations, University of Allameh Tabatabaei

Popular uprisings and political developments in the Middle East and North Africa, which started in late 2010, have caused renewed surge of democracy discourse in the Arab world. Although democracy discourse existed in those regions before such developments, it had been marginalized by other dominant discourses like Socialism and Arab nationalism. Therefore, one may claim that for the first time in history of the Arab world, democracy as a discourse, is gaining its deserved position and necessary potential to turn into dominant discourse of the region. The most prominent feature of recent developments and uprisings in the Arab world is their popular nature. Other major characteristics which come next include being based on Islam and election win of major Islamist groups. Before these developments, the main political hallmarks of the Arab world were the sudden change of power as a result of military coups d’état, sudden domination and triumph of a political group or party, and intervention by foreign powers. Therefore, in a sense, this is the first time that people have entered the political arena as a social force to cause changes. Therefore, the democracy discourse has overtaken such traditional discourses as Socialism or nationalism in the Arab world and has been received enthusiastically by the Arab people.

Since the democracy discourse is quite new, not only the attitudes and approaches taken by domestic political groups and past regimes to this discourse, but reactions and approaches taken by regional and transregional powers are also remarkable. While some players have differences about internal elements of this discourse and, for example, are trying to create a link between democracy and Islam or to simply define democracy within Western liberal framework, other players are trying to foil their efforts and marginalize the democracy discourse.

Saudi Arabia is one of the most important regional and international political players which has tried in the past one and a half year to prevent promotion of the dominant democracy discourse in the Arab world. Although Saudi officials have taken different approaches to various kinds of crises, on the whole, their disillusionment with removal of traditional leaders such as former dictators of Egypt and Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, empowerment of new popular parties and groups and opposition to or control of popular uprisings especially in their immediate neighborhood such as Bahrain and Yemen proves that Saudis are at serious loggerheads with the democracy discourse in the Arab world. As for why the Saudi government is opposed to promotion and strengthening of democracy discourse in the Arab world, the most important reasons can be enumerated as authoritarian and traditional power structure in this country. In terms of political system, Saudi Arabia is ruled by one of the most backward political systems in the region in which people have no role to play and even official laws have considered no legal basis and framework for serious participation of people in the political arena. Since old times, the Saudi regime has tried to boost its legitimacy on the basis of Wahhabi ideology as well as by providing its people with economic facilities and welfare and political stability. Since the Saudi regime has no democratic dimension to it and is not even a populist state, domination and promotion of democracy discourse will be a serious threat to the country’s political system. This issue can also face the Saudi government with major medium- and long-term challenges in view of certain reformist tendencies and demands in the country.

The next important issue which should be discussed here is that Saudis are well aware of regional effects of a powerful democracy discourse because spread and promotion of this discourse will be followed by weakening and elimination of authoritarian and traditional states, especially monarchial regimes. It will also lead to emergence of popular governments which will finally reduce regional clout of Saudi Arabia and face it with unprecedented limitations and political isolation. It is quite clear that traditional tools and conventional means used by the Saudi government to boost its regional clout including Salafi radicals as well as economic power have gradually lost efficiency. As a result, the Arab world will be ushered into a new era in which governments like Saudi Arabia will not be able to play a decisive role.

It follows from the above facts that Saudi Arabia is one of the main players which are trying to undermine or weaken the democracy discourse and its promotion in the Arab world and is making various efforts in this regard. It is clear that the role played and efforts made by Saudi Arabia in this regard can be relatively successful in certain areas in the short term as a result of the existing regional challenges and crises as well as power tools available to the Saudi government. However, it seems that further strengthening and final domination of the democracy discourse in the Arab world is an unchanging, but challenging, end which awaits such authoritarian governments as Saudi Arabia in the long run and will force them to introduce fundamental changes in many areas.

Key Words: Saudi Arabia, Democracy Discourse, Arab World, Popular Uprisings, Arab Nationalism, Socialism, Asadi

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