Image courtesy GrungeTextures
The Saudi Stone
This is how the revolution began – not at the barrel of a gun, but with a stone hurtling through the air. For all that life was moving online, it was the physical world that really mattered when it came to power and control in Saudi Arabia in late twenties, and a thrown brick was the rawest challenge to that power – just as it has been for thousands of years.
Some of these very first weapons to be used in the Saudi Spring are laid out on the floor in the National Museum in Riyadh, rough, pitted stones prised from the ground or torn from smashed walls, then used to beat back the government’s security forces.
We know that these are the same stones thanks to the sheer quantity of documentary recordings made from literally millions of angles and viewpoints across the country – from glasses, necklaces, buildings, cars, bicycles, copters, drones, blimps, and satellites. It wasn’t the most peaceful revolution, nor the most bloody, nor the swiftest, but it was one that the whole world could see unfolding second by second – and this time, the actors on the stage weren’t only the people in the streets or governments, but millions of ordinary people from across the globe.
It started with a stone.
Saudi Arabia in the 20s was a contradiction. It ranked among the region’s most powerful economies, spending lavishly on military equipment and social welfare, but the vast majority of its exports and wealth flowed from oil, and high unemployment among the youth bred a virulent dissatisfaction with the ruling authorities.
None of this had proved a problem for the country for the previous few decades, but the situation was reaching a breaking point. One problem was oil. Many developed countries were diversifying their energy sources with natural gas, shale oil, wind, and pebble-bed nuclear reactors, and adjusted algae was serving the needs of specialised industries. Their imports of oil were still large – but they were declining. The end result was stagnating oil prices, with long-term projections for demand and price all pointing downwards.
Lower oil revenues meant less money to patch the problems in Saudi society and disguise the vast differentials in wealth. No longer was it possible to simply disburse massive amounts of money to create useless jobs and stimulus spending whenever unrest flared up – instead, the monarchy spent yet more on security services and on ‘economic cities’ meant to diversify the economy, already weakened by having to rehouse refugees from the civil war in Yemen and the But no number of such cities could make up for the rigid society, lack of technical skills, and capacity for innovation and entrepreneurship.
After all, where would such people come from? Like many other countries in the Middle East, the majority of Saudis were under 25. They had grown up with access to the internet (albeit censored and monitored) and satellite TV. It was clear that the rest of the world wasn’t perfect, but it held things to be deeply envious of – freedom of speech, rights of assembly, access to advanced technology, cognitive enhancers, and most of all, free and fair elections. Norah Al-Asmari, a said:
“We wanted what the rest of the world had. Living in Saudi Arabia at that time was like sitting in an online lobby, waiting to join a game but always being passed over because you were too slow or too low-level. We were being passed by by everyone, by Egypt, by Bahrain, by Iraq, even! I wanted to smash my glasses, I was so angry. And that’s not even counting how bad us women had it. No driving alone, restricted net access, even fewer jobs, no hope to achieve or to discover. We saw what happened in 2011, and we thought it would happen here. But it didn’t.”
The first protests began on May 18th, 2027, in Riyadh. A crowd of 300 people gathered outside the Ministry of the Interior to demand justice for Muhammad Al-Farahan, a popular blogger who had been jailed, tortured, and then killed after claiming the monarchy was destroying the country’s youth. The Ministry didn’t respond and security forces kept their distance, hoping not to draw attention to the protesters, but when the unrest spread to al-Awamiyah, Jeddah, and Qatif the following day, attracting thousands on the streets, they made a decision to shut it down entirely by massively restricting internet access.
Three days later, a march of twenty thousand people in Riyadh starved of information turned into a bloody massacre as troops fired upon the crowd, fearful they would break in to the Ministry of the Interior. The crowd responded by tearing up the street and hurling stones, setting cars on fire, and barricading the road. Scenes from the march, taken from a thousand cameras, were spread within minutes via old protocols such as instant messenger, spawning new protests across the country.
The monarchy responded quickly, having anticipated protests for decades. Videos, emails, and other evidence of supposed plotting by Shiite spies and provocateurs from Iran were released, along with a co-ordinated disinformation campaign about pernicious ‘western’ involvement. Many people didn’t believe it, but enough people did to continue the fight; others allied to the royal family understood that their interests lay in the status quo.
Despite a media blackout, a stealthed drone operated by a co-operative news organisation in the Netherlands also managed to stream live footage worldwide before it was shot down. Most other countries, including the US, declined to act, but over the next two weeks as protests raged across the country with thousands dead, non-governmental interventions via surveillance, and weaponised drones smuggled in through Iraq helped provide the revolutionaries with their own means of communication and control. A leader of the revolutionaries, Wajnat al-Sharif, told her followers to “tear out every wire, destroy every radio, smash every antenna, and block every frequency” in order to blind the monarchy and give themselves a monopoly on communication.
There was no knockout blow on either side. The monarchy was reluctant make their crackdown too bloody in fear of inciting further anger from the families of the youths; and the revolutionaries didn’t yet enjoy the popular support to overcome the military. It wasn’t until technicians at the King Abdulaziz City for Science & Technology – the site through which all international internet traffic flowed into Saudi Arabia – released terabytes of evidence of corruption, torture, and illegal orders gathered by millions of cameras that the monarchy realised their position was compromised and that the very people and technology they depended upon could not be trusted.
A truce was declared, with King Ahmed accepting strict limits on the monarchy’s power and a new constitution introduced. The military was still loyal to the monarchy, but there was little they could do when – almost literally – every word they spoke was monitored.
A year later, the first elections were held, with a 97% turnout.