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Kai Ryssdal: The biggest stock market in the Middle East has been having a rough go of it. The key index on the Saudi Arabian stock exchange is off 20 percent the past two weeks. Traders there have been watching the news from the region along with the rest of us, wondering if — or maybe when — protests will come to Saudi Arabia.
Marketplace’s Stephen Beard has been talking to Saudi expatriates in London, that is, those generally free to speak their minds.
Stephen Beard: From her house in central London, Saudi academic Dr. Mai Yamani keeps in constant touch by phone and email with people back home. In recent weeks she’s detected a dramatic change down the line from Saudi Arabia.
Mai Yamani: The fear of being watched by the intelligence services. The fear that the phones are tapped and “Oh we cannot speak!” is over.
She says that the Saudis — who are widely seen in the Middle East as docile — have been emboldened by the Arab revolution.
Yamani:This awakening made the young men and women in Saudi Arabia fearless.
The kingdom’s penalty for public protest is severe: imprisonment and flogging. But there has been at least one recent outburst of discontent.
Sounds of protest
This film footage was posted on YouTube. It showed men and women in the city of Jeddah angrily accusing government officials of corruption, nepotism and neglect.
Back in London, another Saudi exile Fouad Ibrahim also claims that his country is headed for a major upheaval.
Fouad Ibrahim: The public mood in Saudi Arabia has changed dramatically. The people are looking to see a new Saudi Arabia.
With youth unemployment at 30 percent and with acute housing shortages, Saudi Arabia, he says, is ripe for revolution. He believes that if the royal House of Saud does not allow more freedom and democracy, it could be swept away. After 20 years as a political exile in London, Ibrahim thinks it could soon be safe for him to go home.
Ibrahim: I expect to go back to Saudi Arabia within months.
Beard: Really? That soon?
Ibrahim: Yeah, I’m dreaming of going back. I think we are not too far from that moment.
Other, non-Saudi experts on the Arab world are not so sure. George Joffe of Cambridge University says the House of Saud will be much more difficult to shift than some Arab dictatorships.
George Joffe: The Saudi family is not popular but it’s very large — 8,000 members. It operates through a system of patronage. And as such it can be very effective at distributing largesse.
And that is what the immensely oil-rich House of Saud is doing. The elderly king has just announced a $37 billion splurge in public spending on housing, Social Security and job creation
Joffe: I think in Saudi Arabia, the family will keep control. I don’t see the prospect of revolution, the kind that we saw in Egypt occurring there.
But Saudi dissident Dr. Mai Yamani does not believe the House of Saud will be able to spend its way out of trouble.
Yamani: The old methods, using oil money to buy the silence, the subservience of the people is no more sufficient. It doesn’t work.
One indication of whether or not it works will come a week from today. A Facebook site is calling for Saudi Arabia’s first full “Day of Rage” on Friday, March 11th.
In London, I’m Stephen Beard for Marketplace.
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