Saudi Arabia: The need to change
The principle of dynastic rule, whether informal or formal, has been shaken as never before
The Guardian, Friday 25 February 2011
It is a measure of how nervous the Saudi ruling class must be as revolution laps at its front door in Bahrain and at its back door in Yemen, that King Abdullah has come home from medical treatment abroad bearing such lavish gifts.Public service employees are to get a 15% salary increase, and there is to be new financial aid for students and the unemployed, as well as grants toward mortgages. And all this is within the context of an already existing commitment to spend £250bn on education, healthcare, and infrastructure projects in the next few years.
The Saudi government’s coffers are full because of high oil prices – prices which are unlikely to come down any timesoon – and they can well sustain such a programme, yet the precedents for such action are ambiguous. Generous largesse has given many regimes around the world an extra lease of life in the past. Yet it has also sometimes signalled weakness, or worse. After all, it is only a few weeks since the government of Hosni Mubarak increased public service wages in a similar gesture, only to find it made no difference at all.
From its beginnings the Saudi state has been about money. In the days before oil, the British provided the gold which held together this very disparate polity, based on an uneasy partnership between a puritanical religious order and an expansionist tribal confederation and eventually including within its borders numerous reluctant subjects, like the Shia of the east coast and the people of the Hejaz. Force, a hard religion, and money have held it together. It has doubtless acquired over the years a certain identity and legitimacy, but the founding formula is wearing thin, as unemployment has grown while education and the sheer pressure of the outside world have increasingly presented an alternative to its people.
In the last few weeks the states which buffered it from that outside reality have disappeared, changed radically, or found themselves threatened. The principle of dynastic rule, whether informal as in Egypt, Tunisia or the Yemen, or formal, as in Jordan or Bahrain, has been shaken as never before. It was no surprise that the Saudis were foremost in urging that Mubarak be supported rather than discarded by the United States in Egypt. More recently the Arab revolution has come right up to its borders. Events in Bahrain will have a jolting effect whichever way they go. If the al-Khalifa ruling family in Bahrain were to go down, that would be a terrible moment for Saudi Arabia. If it were to be saved from such a fate by Saudi intervention, that might be almost worse.
Yet the most likely outcome, a settlement which gives Bahrain’s Shia community real power, cannot but embolden Saudi Arabia’s own Shia, clustered heavily in the oil rich eastern region. Change in Yemen could be a different sort of nightmare for the Saudis, whose meddling in that state has never ended well.
True, the Saudi government is not in the sort of terminal trouble which proved to be the case in Egypt. Its pockets are far deeper, it is supported by a conservative religious establishment which has considerable power and influence, and its security apparatus is formidable. It has its minorities, whether they are religious, in the shape of the Shias of the eastern coast, or social, in the shape of an increasingly restive middle class, under relatively firm control. Young Shia, for instance, are now benefiting from training and scholarship programmes.
Yet there comes a point when a government has to give its people something more substantive than gifts, however generous. The patronage style of desert chieftains fits ill with a modern state which possesses the world’s largest crude oil production capacity. As Prince Talal Bin Abdul Aziz, a reformist member of the royal family, told the BBC last week, ordinary Saudis want a share of power, not just to be the beneficiaries of it. Source