Cameras don’t lie, but they also do not give the full perspective. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has often received disproportionate attention in the world media because Israel allows freer access to the press than any Arab state.
Perhaps the hardest place to report from is Saudi Arabia, which, according to Reporters Without Frontiers, ranks 158 out of 178 in press freedom. With Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi in the grave, and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad’s grasp on Syria rapidly slipping, Saudi Arabia is perhaps the Middle East’s most authoritarian state. In a region of artificial states, Saudi Arabia is perhaps the most artificial. A general rule-of-thumb is that whenever anyone names a country after himself, that’s an artificial country. Ibn Saud’s creation of Saudi Arabia, in that way, is not unlike “Petoria” in the television show “Family Guy.”
While many diplomats and analysts discuss Saudi Arabia in terms of both tension and embrace between the monarchy and religious authorities, there are deeper fissures among Saudi Arabia’s distinct regions. In her 2004 book Cradle of Islam: The Hijaz and the Quest for an Arabian Identity, Mai Yamani aptly illustrated the importance of Hijazi regional identity in western Saudi Arabia.
Much of the street talk last week when I was traveling in the Persian Gulf revolved around the current—and very underreported—unrest in the largely Shi’ite Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. While twitter, press access and, for the sake of international journalists also an English-speaking opposition, has propelled Bahraini unrest into the international headlines, eastern Saudi Arabia is boiling. Bahraini authorities may use tear gas and rubber bullets; Saudi police use live ammunition against unarmed protesters.
Eventually, the Arab Spring will come to Saudi Arabia. Grievances in Saudi Arabia are huge. When it does, it will make Syria look like a Quaker meeting.