Saudi Arabia and the regional unrest

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: I am Lisa Mullins and this is The World. Saudi Arabia has been relatively immune from the unrest in the Middle East and the Saudi government means to keep it that way. It's announced $37 billion of benefits for it's people and it's said to be considering a push to revive stalled reforms. Still, there have been rumblings in the Kingdom. Thousands of Saudis have backed a Facebook call for a day of rage on March 11th. The World's Laura Lynch is in the capital Riyadh, Laura as you report around the city of Riyadh, are seeing any signs of rage?

Laura Lynch: I haven't seen any signs of rage, in the short time that I have been here I have seen signs of affection for King Abdullah. The only demonstrations I saw were men driving up and down the main boulevard with banners welcoming King Abdullah home because he did return on Wednesday after a three month absense for treatment of a medical condition and came as you said, that very generous $37 billion package.

Mullins: And the $37 billion dollar package seems to have just dropped out of the sky, was this something that had been promised or was the timing suspect?

Lynch: Most people are linking it to a desire to try to avoid any kind of real protest forming on the streets of Saudi Arabia. The king being cognizant of the fact that there are some people who think there are some things that need to shift around here. The King cognizant of the fact that there are a lot of young people who are unemployed so part of the package was to allow for unemployment benefits, housing benefits. The rate of home ownership here is terribly low. And also providing more scholarship money for young Saudis who want to study abroad, it's a very generous program already, it just got more generous. So, it is a way of telling the people that he's there and he's going to take care of them.

Mullins: Alright, so what about this Facebook call for a day of rage? What's propelling that and what specifically are they asking people to protest?

Lynch: Well, social media here is acting just in the way social media is acting in other parts of the region. It is bringing a lot of young people together to online to talk about things that perhaps they weren't able to talk about in public before. So it is largely a movement of young people who are expressing their own discontent with the system and part of it is about economic matters, part of it is about political matters. They feel that there is a, they don't have a say in the political system here. There is no such thing as an election, this is an absolute monarchy. So they are saying that that is what they want the king to hear, that they want more participation in this. But most of the people I talk to say this is not about a revolution, it's about a reform. One gentleman I spoke to today in Academic, said to me that is because a root, Saudis are pretty conservative people, they've had a stake in the system that has given them stability for many many years and it's a system that they don't necessarily want to see overthrown.

Mullins: Yeah, and it is also illegal in Saudi Arabia to speak out against the king, is that the case?

Lynch: It is and indeed, people are careful. They don't criticize the king, they criticize the system. I did speak to another young woman today who said that very thing, it's not the king, she has great affection for the king it's some things in the system she wants to see changed.

Mullins: But does she not associate the king and the royal family with maintaining that system for decades?

Lynch: They feel as though if they can make their cases heard, they can reshape the system, as I said before this more about reforming than revolution for them. They are wanting to keep the monarchy in place, it's not the same kind of debate here as it is in Libya or in Egypt, which were not monarchies to begin with, it is a different kind of a debate within this country. But for the leadership here it is something that they do have to pay attention to and that is why you saw that package today. For the leadership, it is also casting a nervous eye over what is going on in the region because it knows that the more things shift and change in the neighborhood and it is changing all around Saudi Arabia, the more it potentially becomes destabilizing, not just domestically but externally, it has the potential to shift the power balance in the neighborhood. Perhaps if other countries become less stable, it may increase the influence of Iran which is Saudi Arabia's main rival for power in the region so there is definitely a lot at stake here.

Mullins: Thank you Laura. Speaking with us from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, The World's Laura Lynch.

Lynch: Thank you.