“Revolution in Saudi Arabia is no longer unthinkable,” says a prominent analyst.
“For decades the kingdom has been blessed with good leadership and King Abdullah is a progressive by Saudi standards. But the third Saudi state will soon face an unprecedented succession challenge,” writes Bruce Riedel, a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy, at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy:
The House of Saud will enter a new world then, without the legitimacy its leaders have enjoyed for a century. History is not encouraging; the second Saudi state fell apart over succession problems in the late 19th century. ….Ironically, the more successfully the revolutions in other Arab states develop, the more likely Saudis will also want a government that is modern, accountable and chosen by the people.
A new book, On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines and Future by Karen Elliot House, paints a picture of a state fraught with internal tensions and discontent, he writes:
Sixty percent of Saudis are 20 or younger, most of whom have no hope of a job. Seventy percent of Saudis cannot afford to own a home. Forty percent live below the poverty line. The royals, 25,000 princes and princesses, own most of the valuable land and benefit from a system that gives each a stipend and some a fortune.
Other fault lines are getting deeper and more explosive. According to House, regional differences and even “regional racism” between parts of the country are “a daily fact of Saudi life.” Hejazis in the West and Shiites in the East resent the strict Wahhabi lifestyle imposed by the Quran belt in the Nejd central desert. Gender discrimination, essential to the Wahhabi world view, is a growing problem as more and more women become well educated with no prospect of a job. Sixty percent of Saudi college graduates are women but they are only twelve percent of the work force.
Only genuine reform will allow Arab monarchies to survive the next test of their legitimacy, says Moroccan analyst Mokhtar Benabdallaoui, until recently a Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.
“Otherwise, the number of protesters will be too great, the mechanisms of control too weak, and the sheer force of the demonstrations too overwhelming for the regimes to withstand.”
But whether political upheaval ultimately produces a democratic transition remains highly questionable, Riedel suggests, as any Saudi revolution is likely to be led by “angry extremists outraged by the Kingdom’s alliance with America.”
“For all their frustrations, most Saudis do not crave democracy,” House asserts:
To conservative Saudis, especially the many devoutly religious, the idea of men making laws rather than following those laid down by Allah in the Koran is antithetical and unthinkable. More modern and moderate Saudis, aware the Al Saud have banned any political and most all social organizations even down to something as apolitical as photography clubs, fear that without Al Saud rule, the country would face tribal, regional, and class conflict—or rule by religious zealots. With seventy thousand mosques spread across the kingdom, only the religious are an organized force; moderates fear that power inevitably would be seized by the most radical. Whatever lies in Saudi Arabia’s future, it is not democracy.
What unites conservatives and modernizers, and young and old, is a hunger not for freedom but for justice; for genuine rule of law, not rule by royal whim. They want a government that is transparent and accountable, one that provides standard services such as are available in far less wealthy societies: good education, jobs, affordable housing, and decent health care.
Saudi Arabia “fundamentally is a family corporation. Call it Islam Inc.,” writes House:
The board of directors, some twenty senior religious scholars who theoretically set rules for corporate behavior, are handpicked by the Al Saud owners, can be fired at royal whim, and have nothing to say about who runs the company. ….
All this raises the question: Can the Al Saud regime reform in time to save itself? Are the royal princes capable of curbing corruption, improving government efficiency, and permitting people honestly to express themselves on taboo topics like religion, the role of women, and the royal family? Can they abandon a history of divide and conquer—of exploiting deep religious, tribal, regional, and gender divisions—and recognize that those divisions now threaten rather than enhance Al Saud survival? If so, can they begin to help Saudis bridge divides and reach a consensus that allows the kingdom to move forward, rather than flounder in perpetual checkmate? Or will the House of Saud prove to be a house of cards?