Nonviolent Opposition and the Potential for Dissent in Saudi Arabia

This past Monday, I had the pleasure of attending a lecture at New York University’s Alexander Hamilton Center for Political Economy featuring Srdja Popovic, one of the founding members of CANVAS, the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies. CANVAS, born out of the nonviolent opposition movement to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia throughout the ’90s, is a political consulting firm, specializing in the tactics and strategies of nonviolent opposition movements. Consulting in 46 different countries since 2003, and participating in almost EVERY conflict since then, CANVAS is a unique organization, which seeks to utilize “people power” or Realpolitik in the nonviolent struggle for democracy.

Much of Srdja’s presentation was focused on Arab Spring and how his organization is consulting with rebels and dissidents throughout the region. He personally consulted with the opposition group in Lebanon, and as recent as last Monday, 17,000 copies of “Nonviolent Struggle, 50 Crucial Points: A Strategic Approach to Everyday Tactics” (which is essentially a field guide for waging a strategic nonviolent struggle) have been downloaded and dispersed throughout Iran.

The key principles of CANVAS’s approach are unity, planning and nonviolent discipline. Srdja argued that the Arab Spring is prime for nonviolent opposition movements, as many countries are learning through the movements of other countries (Egypt, Lebanon, Libya) and a domino effect could be possible. Additionally, almost the entirety of the Middle East region is experiencing a huge generational gap (most leaders have been in power since before the majority of the population was even born), making rulers and the elite out of touch with their citizens. The bedrock of a nonviolent opposition movement is unity through numbers. Clearly, there are huge numbers of people in the Middle East and North Africa unsatisfied with the status quo. In a nonviolent movement, EVERYONE is a potential recruit.

During the Question and Answer portion of the presentation, I was able to ask Srdja is thoughts and opinions on the likelihood of a nonviolent (or perhaps even violent) opposition movement occurring in Saudi Arabia. His first statement is something that I have been struggling with during my research for this blog, and that is that there is a common misconception that the regime in Saudi Arabia is too oppressive to foster ANY type of opposition movement. He then provided an interesting and true anecdote that the regime in South Africa was far more oppressive (people being openly shot and brutally murdered in the streets) and they were able to wage a successful movement (albeit thanks to Nelson Mandela). He also addressed the issue of Saudi Arabia being an extremely wealthy state and have the funds and wherewith to essentially throw money at a problem to hush it. While this is very true, it can only work for so long. In order to foster a successful movement Srdja suggested two things must happen:

1. The pillars of support for the regime must be identified and a plan of action on how to convert or transform them must be developed. In the Saudi case, the main pillars of support are the Royal family and their cronies and the Wahhabi/Salafi elites that uphold and support the strict Sharia rule of law in Saudi Arabia.

2. Identify where the windows of opportunity. This would be those who are dissatisfied with the current situation and who would benefit from a change in regime or even a change in the status quo. In Saudi Arabia the biggest “window of opportunity” would be the women in Saudi society. As I have suggested in previous posts, despite some small achievements in the liberalizing of Saudi society (right to vote) the extreme oppression that Saudi women suffer on a day to day must be wearing thin on them. In addition to women, the young population (median age in Saudi Arabia is 25 years) would also provide a huge “window of opportunity” for those unhappy with the current regime. With much of the royal family in their late 70s and 80s, how can they possibly identify with their population on any level? Young people are observing radical change all around them in the region and seeing liberalization, as well as political and social freedoms being granted (if not taken) by their peers. These groups must be open to learn from the movements surrounding them and not be silenced my money or fear.

Below is a link to the CANVAS website:

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