On 29 July, a sentence of 600 lashes and seven years imprisonment was given to Raif Badawi, on charges of insulting Islam through electronic channels. The lashes will be administered over a period of weeks or months. In a country that still practices amputation, stoning, beheading, eye-gouging and various other methods of punishment, the recent sentence against Badawi is still seen as excessive. Nevertheless, as the members of the Saudi royal family grow older, with few clear plans for succession, these sentences are a principal tool used to limit dissenting civic opinion.
The House of Saud, and King Abdullah in particular, face two pertinent problems that need to be addressed. The first is the succession process for the throne, as the agnatic seniority system has created a pool of potential candidates, but few are less than 70 years of age and many closer to 80. The second issue is the young people in the population, who have, in recent years, due in large part to globalisation, begun to question the legitimacy of the monarchical system. Though Saudi Arabia successfully navigated the Arab Spring that washed over the region in 2010-11, its government and societal structures mirror many of those in the countries that were affected.
Consequently, the combination of these two factors has produced significant internal problems for Riyadh. One of the principal critiques made by Badawi in his blog commented on the role of religion in Saudi Arabia and was highly critical of senior Saudi Islamic figures. That role has remained a key issue in recent years, as the young people become increasingly exposed to Western culture, through both foreign workers and the media. The end result is that the young people, those most affected by societal inequality, have questioned the legitimacy of the Islamic system enforced in Saudi Arabia.
For King Abdullah, addressing these matters has been no easy task. The Saudi legal system and its government are based on a strict application of Islamic Law. Questioning the legitimacy of the system, as Badawi has done, is likely to increase in the years to come, as the heavy-handed approach by the government loses touch with the changing population dynamic. Until now, Riyadh has been able to keep a lid on the boiling pot, through large government revenues that have provided education and work placements for many thousands of Saudi nationals. Oil revenues are expected to decline over the next decade, due to diminishing exports. This raises the question of how the al Saud house will maintain stability in the future.
A fortunate aspect for King Abdullah is that Arab monarchies seem to be significantly harder to overthrow than military despots. Therefore, we do not expect to see a level of revolution in Saudi Arabia comparable to that in Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Egypt. In the years to come, however, there will be more calls by the youth of Saudi Arabia questioning the legitimacy of the state and its Islamic doctrine. The direction that King Abdullah and his successors take in the matter will very much dictate whether Saudi Arabia can compete with the more dynamic states on its periphery, such as Turkey, Iran, Qatar and, in the long run, perhaps Egypt.
Raif Badawi is representative of a growing segment of Saudi society that seeks change to the existing order. His sentence of seven years imprisonment and 600 lashes highlights the seriousness with which Saudi Arabia, throughout its government, demands stability. With King Abdullah having celebrated his eighty-ninth birthday on 1 August, change may happen sooner rather than later. Addressing these concerns should be a priority for the King, before the haphazard succession process occurs.