Coincidentally, tomorrow is Saudi Arabia’s “day of rage,” a protest weeks in the making on Facebook. It could be sparsely attended or … it could be huge. Guess what’s going to happen to gas prices if tens of thousands turn out and the Kingdom suddenly looks unstable?
So, at 11:15, President Present will try to get out in front of this one and calm people down in case things look bad. The fact that he took the step of scheduling a presser in advance instead of doing something impromptu in the afternoon tells you how high the White House thinks the chances of a big demonstration in Saudi Arabia are.
The White House announced late Thursday that President Obama would address reporters on Friday about rising energy prices.
Administration officials did not preview what Obama would say at the press conference. Over the last few days, the White House has so far not joined calls by Democrats to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve for oil in the wake of the unrest in the Middle East, although officials have said the president is considering the idea.
Enjoy the Wisconsin and NPR posts tonight because this news cycle may shift very quickly. The Saudis have been preparing for this for weeks: First they tried to shore up public support with a new package of economic reforms, then they drafted 10,000 troops and deployed them to the Shiite provinces in the east. All protests have been banned, naturally, and for good measure they got the country’s top clerics to issue a fatwa declaring demonstrations un-Islamic. An ominous footnote:
The council called upon the authorities to “do their job in line with the law of the land,” in what seems to be a religious permit to use force against demonstrators.
They’re already using force, actually. At least three people were wounded today in protests in the eastern Shiite part of the country. In another incident, Saudi police fired over the heads of demonstrators when they attacked one of the security agents filming the protest. But violent repression is the norm; what’s unusual is that there are people willing to invite it by turning out in the streets.
But cracks are beginning to show in the repressive atmosphere of fear. Saudi social media has been abuzz about the so-called Arab spring, and online speech has gets bolder by the day, says Fouad Alfarhan, the country’s most prominent cyber activist, who has been jailed in the past for his work. “There is really a high-intensity dialogue,” he says. “People are hoping. People are demanding reforms.”…
The Saudi royalty does have reason to worry. Complaints over government corruption reached a fever pitch earlier this year, when Jeddah saw a repeat of the deadly floods that hit in late 2009 and killed what residents claimed were hundreds of people (the government has admitted to far fewer). An air of uncertainty surrounds the monarchy, with the 87-year-old King Abdullah experiencing health problems and the crown prince—Abdullah’s half-brother, and hardly a spring chicken at 83—in poor health as well. In addition to the petitions, activists last month announced the establishment of a political party, a direct affront to Saudi law, and reported the arrests of many of its founders. Dr. Mohamed Qahtani, a prominent lawyer and activist in Riyadh, says his phone has been ringing off the hook lately with calls from relatives of the scores of people who are imprisoned in the country, who have recently begun to mobilize. “These people are looking for the moment to go out,” he says.
That’s why the White House is worried, and that’s why we’ve quietly moved from a policy of regime change in the region to “regime alteration.” It’s all geared towards protecting our “friends” in Riyadh and preventing the oil apocalypse that would crush America’s economic recovery (not to mention Obama’s reelection chances). In fact, as I said once before, I’m convinced that this is a factor in why The One has been quiet-ish about Libya. He knows the Saudi protests are coming and he doesn’t want to do anything that will commit too boldly to helping scrappy rebels against an oppressive regime. Obama will vote present on revolution in the Kingdom, and a lot of other people will vote with him. Tomorrow — big day. Exit quotation from a Wall Street analyst on today’s Saudi demonstrations and the temporary oil sell-off they inspired: “The stakes just went up in a big way. Even if this was a minor incident, it was a jarring reminder of what could happen there.”