saudi protest

(Saudi Shi'ites protest for the release of prisoners they say are being held without trial, March 3, 2011/Zaki Ghawas )

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.

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.

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.