The Saudi Spring?

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LONDON – In the early 1970’s, Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal reportedly confided to
senior members of the royal family his fear that, just as in a single generation the
country had moved from “riding camels to riding Cadillacs….the next generation could
be riding camels again.” His warning seems more apt than ever.

Saudi Arabia, long one of the Arab world’s most rigid societies, now finds itself in
a state of flux. Its relations with the West – and with the United States in
particular – have frayed in the turmoil unleashed in the Middle East and North
Africa by the Arab Spring. Meanwhile, a group of women provided the latest sign of
domestic restiveness by defying the Kingdom’s prohibition against women drivers.

While Saudi Arabia remains the largest Arab economy, the world’s leading producer
and exporter of oil, and the guardian of Sunni Islam, its political influence has
diminished significantly in recent years. From the early 1980’s to the mid-2000’s,
Saudi Arabia was the coordinator of pan-Arab politics, with the palaces of Riyadh
and Jeddah drawing political leaders from throughout the Arab world.

But the reception rooms have since been noticeably empty. Qatar – with its seemingly
inexhaustible wealth and a comprehensive foreign, investment, and media strategy –
has replaced Saudi Arabia as the decisive arbiter in almost every Middle Eastern

The deterioration of Saudi Arabia’s political influence has contributed to a growing
sense of national decline. King Abdullah’s reform efforts – especially those aimed
at curbing the power of the ultra-conservative Wahhabi-Salafi religious
establishment – have lost steam, and the deaths of two crown princes have
complicated the inter-generational transfer of power.

While Saudi leaders have managed to buy middle-class support by allocating a
significant proportion of oil revenues to targeted welfare and credit-support
programs, widespread poverty and massive income inequality persist. Shia Muslims in
the oil-rich Eastern Province have repeatedly defied the ban on anti-regime
demonstrations. And Saudi Arabia’s campaign against the Shia Houthis in Yemen has
proved longer and costlier than expected.

Against this background, Saudi leaders remain conspicuously wary of popular
empowerment and disruption of the Arab order that they have dominated for the last
three decades. For Saudi Wahhabism, in which absolute power is granted to the royal
family by religious mandate, innovative forms of political Islam that anchor
legitimacy in genuine representation are a strategic threat.

Over the last year, the Saudi family has been focusing on many of these challenges.
King Abdullah has made significant personnel changes within the defense, interior,
foreign, and intelligence ministries, granting broad powers to two experienced
princes – Bandar bin Sultan, who was Ambassador to the US for more than two decades,
and Miteb bin Abdullah, the king’s son and long-time commander of the National

The government has also sought to attract foreign investment and promote economic
diversification. And some factions of the Saudi family are reaching out – albeit
cautiously – to civil-society actors, attempting to engage them in a dialogue about
the country’s future.

Moreover, in order to combat Iran’s influence in the eastern Mediterranean, Saudi
Arabia has increased support for its allies in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, and has
effectively taken responsibility for financing, arming, and directing the Syrian
opposition and rebel forces. It has helped to curb the rise of political Islam
across North Africa, including by backing the overthrow of Egyptian President
Mohamed Morsi. And, through a combination of positive and negative incentives, it
has checked the threat posed by the Houthis in Yemen.

But none of these policies addresses the fundamental challenge facing the Kingdom –
namely, the gradual erosion of its wealth (indeed, Saudi Arabia is expected to
become a net energy importer by 2030). Given many economic sectors’ lack of
competitiveness and the inadequacy of the educational system, the Saudi population –
70% of which is under 35 years old – will experience skyrocketing unemployment in
the coming years.

Many Saudis sense a wasted opportunity; despite sitting atop one of history’s most
liquid fortunes, the country has failed to become an advanced economy. And Saudi
Arabia’s large middle class is likely to respond to diminishing prosperity by
calling for a more representative political system.

The problem is that the obvious challenges facing Saudi Arabia require a level of
cohesion in the upper echelons of government that remains elusive. As the journalist
Christian Caryl put it, “to say that historical or economic conditions predispose a
country to embark on a particular path does not mean that its politicians will
necessarily decide to take it.”

The continued absence of resolute action could easily drive Saudi Arabia toward
irreversible decay. In such a scenario, the economy would gradually weaken,
hampering the royal family’s ability to continue buying middle-class support, while
enabling rebel groups in the east and the south to erode the government’s authority.
This could cause Wahhabi religious and political doctrine to lose ground among young
people and fuel regime infighting.

Ultimately, Abdulaziz bin Saud’s unification of the Kingdom in the late 1920’s could
even be reversed, making the last eight decades an anomaly in the Arabian
Peninsula’s long history of fragmentation. Such an outcome would effectively make
Yemen and the rest of the Gulf states ungovernable, allowing the Sunni-Shia
confrontation that is currently unfolding in the Levant to overwhelm the region.

But there is another possibility. The new generation of Saudi leaders could
spearhead a transition to a genuine constitutional monarchy, based on a transparent
system of checks and balances. A more representative governance model, together with
strong economic incentives, could unleash the young population’s creativity and
dynamism – and secure Saudi Arabia’s future in the process.

That promise was captured in the recent film “Wadjda” – written, produced, and
directed by Saudi women – which tells the story of a young girl from a middle-class
family who challenges social conventions and pushes boundaries, as she attempts to
fulfill her potential. If she is not Saudi Arabia’s future, the country may not have
a future at all.

Tarek Osman is the author of Egypt on the Brink.

Tarek_OsmanProject Syndicate, 2013.

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