This is how the revolution began: not at the barrel of a drone 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 the late 20s. A thrown brick, hefted by human muscles, was the rawest challenge to that power, just as it has been for thousands of years.
Some of these very first weapons 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, they were used as projectiles to beat back the government's security forces. We know that these are the very same stones used by the revolutionaries 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.
The Saudi Spring was not a peaceful revolution, nor was it particularly bloody, but it was watched by the whole world, peering in from every angle, second by second.
Saudi Arabia in the 20s was a national contradiction. It ranked amongst the region's most powerful economies, spending lavishly on military equipment and social welfare, but it was a precarious kind of power. The vast majority of the country's wealth and exports flowed from oil, and the resulting high youth unemployment bred a virulent dissatisfaction with the government.
None of this had been a problem for the previous few decades, but by the 20s the situation had changed. One difference was oil; developed countries were diversifying their energy sources with natural gas, shale oil, adjusted algae, wind and solar power, and pebble-bed nuclear reactors. Saudi oil exports were still large, but oil prices were stagnating and long-term projections for demand pointed downwards.
Lower oil revenues meant less money to disguise the vast differentials in wealth between the poorest and richest, and less money to distract from the profligacy of the monarchy. No longer was it possible to dole out massive amounts and create useless jobs whenever unrest flared up — instead, the government chose to spend its dwindling reserves on security services. The flood of refugees from the Yemen civil war heightened tensions, and attempts to diversify the economy through cargo cult-like 'high-tech cities' failed thanks to the stultified bureaucracy and long-standing lack of an entrepreneurial culture.
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. While they were rightly sceptical about the wonders of the West, they were still attracted by notions of freedom of speech, rights of assembly, access to advanced technology, gender and sexual equality, cognitive enhancers, and free and fair elections. Norah Al-Asmari, a political historian from Riyadh University, says:
"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 new. We were being overtaken by everyone: by Egypt, by Bahrain, even by Iraq! I wanted to smash my phone, 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. Not until 2027."
The 'Spring' revolution began on May 18th, 2027, in Riyadh. A crowd of 300 gathered outside the Ministry of the Interior to demand justice for Muhammad Al-Farahan, a popular streamer who had been jailed, tortured, and killed for accusing the monarchy of destroying the country's youth.
The Ministry made no official response, and security forces kept their distance, hoping not to draw attention to the protesters. But when thousands took to the streets in Al-Awamiyah, Jeddah, and Qatif the following day, the government made the rash decision to restrict internet access across the country with the aim of destroying the protesters’ ability to communicate.
The crackdown didn't work. Three days later, a march of 20,000 people in Riyadh, co-ordinated by repurposed mesh-network disaster kits, turned into a massacre; as the crowds approached the Ministry of the Interior, fearful ministers ordered troops to fire warning shots. Some went fatally astray. 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 over the mesh and across the country within minutes, spawning dozens of new protests across the country. More were killed, and even more came forward to fight.
Having anticipated protests for decades, the monarchy acted quickly, putting into place a contingency plan prepared years earlier. Videos and emails were released on government websites that 'proved' the protests had been instigated by Shiite spies and provocateurs from Iran; a disinformation campaign about pernicious 'Western' involvement followed soon after. Most people distrusted the official accounts enough to continue the fight, but those allied to the royal family understood that their interests lay in the status quo, and so did nothing.
Most other countries, including the US, declined to officially intervene. Over the next two weeks, violent clashes raged across Saudi Arabia, leaving thousands dead. At first, it seemed that the government forces, with their trained troops and powerful military, would easily triumph. But the revolutionaries received considerable help in the form of weaponised drones smuggled in through Iraq, along with sympathisers in the Saudi Arabian intelligence services.
Together, they provided the revolutionaries with their own means of communication and control — crucial to their survival. One of their leaders, 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 the rebels a monopoly on communication.
There was no knockout blow on either side. The monarchy was reluctant to make their crackdown too bloody in fear of inciting further anger from the families of the youths, and the revolutionaries didn't yet enjoy enough 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 damning evidence of corruption, graft, torture, and illegal orders, that the monarchy realised their position was becoming untenable. Losing the trust of the people was one thing; losing the ability to trust the technology they depended upon was another.
A truce was declared. King Ahmed accepted strict limits on the monarchy's power, and a new constitution was introduced. The military was still loyal to the monarchy, but the revolutionaries forced in their cameras and surveillance devices. There was little the military could do when almost literally every word they spoke and typed was being watched.
A year later, the first elections were held. A new chapter had begun in Saudi Arabia's history.