DUBAI (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s ruling family has mobilised the power of its conservative religious establishment to prevent a wave of uprisings against Arab autocrats from roaring into its kingdom, home to more than a fifth of the world’s known oil reserves.
Whether these traditional tactics will work with a young population that grew up in the information revolution age, with the ability to use the internet to organise and spread awareness of ideas of universal rights to political participation, is still to be tested.
As revolts that toppled Saudi allies in Egypt and Tunisia encourage democracy activists to challenge rulers around the region, Saudi authorities have tried every means possible to warn people not to dare try the same.
The day all eyes are fixed on is Friday. More than 32,000 people have backed a call on Facebook to hold two demonstrations this month, the first on March 11 and then March 20.
The theme running through comments from princes, clerics and newspaper editorialists is that protests in the key U.S.-allied state are not Islamic, the subject of a fatwa issued by the Council of Senior Clerics this week.
Just two days before Friday, Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, the king’s nephew, warned that protests were not allowed and that change could only happen through “the principle of dialogue.”
They used rhetoric that Saudis are long used to, based on the idea that Saudi Arabia is unique as a country that replicates the early Islamic state -- and Islamic Utopia where God’s word is law and allegiance to the ruler is non-negotiable.
They cited Koranic verses and their perception of the early Muslim state established by Prophet Mohammad to argue that reform should come via advice and not street protests, and even argue that signing petitions “violates what God ordered.”
But Fouad Ibrahim, who has written studies on Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi school of Islam, said the word of the senior scholars had far less authority now that it did in the past.
“‘We live in an Islamic state, we are not like Egypt and Tunisia, we implement sharia law, there is not enough reason for people to revolt against the Islamic state’ -- these claims used to be marketed but many people don’t believe this any more,” said Ibrahim, who is based in London.
Wahhabism -- the Saudi interpretation of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic law -- stands out for its insistence that the ruler should be obeyed at all costs. Its clerics also frown on political parties, which are banned in the country.
But following the 1990-1 Gulf crisis -- when the government clerics shocked many by authorising U.S. troops on Saudi soil -- many Wahhabi scholars broke away.
More politically active, they presented petitions to the royal family that argued the state had veered away from Islamic principles in domestic and foreign policies. They supported the idea of parliamentary elections.
Many of those scholars, who were imprisoned for their insolence, have more credibility than the government-backed clerics among Saudis today.
One of them, Salman al-Odah, who has a programme each week on pan-Arab channel MBC1, put his signature to a reform petition last month and has made pro-reform comments on social media site Twitter this week. “The youth must be given some freedom to criticise,” he said on Wednesday.
Saudi clerics have been split over support for uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Their supporters on Islamist websites fear protests will play into Iranian hands by emboldening Shi‘ites, who have already started protesting over the past two weeks in the Eastern Province where most Saudi oilfields lie.
The clerics, given wide powers in society through a historic pact with the Saudi family, also fear protests will benefit liberals who want to rein in the religious establishment.
Saudi Arabia is home to Islam’s two holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, and officials often argue this gives the kingdom a special status in Islam akin go the Vatican for Catholics.
Saudis can pick and choose between the opinions of clerics inside and outside the country, or ignore them altogether.
Abdelkarim al-Khidr, an Islamic jurisprudence professor at Qassim University, has published a study circulating among activists that justifies protests from a Wahhabi standpoint.
“Demonstrations are not violating Islam. Honest people should demonstrate because it’s time for it and petitions didn’t bring us progress,” he told Reuters in Riyadh this week.
Blogger Eman Al-Nafjan said although many Saudi youth were conservative in outlook, that did not mean they followed blindly the words of the official religious establishment.
But the clerics’ forbidding of signing petitions had made them look out of date, she said. “The fatwa works against the scholars, they lost a lot of people by issuing it. We already know that the religious scholars are easily bought and they say what they are told to say,” Nafjan said.
The interconnected nature of the new generation of Saudis was putting Saudi claims of cultural particularism to their biggest test yet, Ibrahim said.
Deposed rulers Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia as well as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who is battling rebels for his survival, all tried to argue that some unique facet of their country would prevent change.
“They all say this. Mubarak said that when Ben Ali was removed. Gaddafi has said Libya is different. (Saudi Interior Minister) Prince Nayef told newspaper editors ‘we are different because we implement sharia’,” Ibrahim said.
Additional reporting by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Samia Nakhoul