Sunday, 27 February 2011

Why I Can't Say Saudi Arabia is a Haven of Peace

I'm in Qatar for a couple of days for a workshop on the Egyptian revolution at the Qatar Foundation, but surprises have followed me all the way. First there was the news that a group of Qataris are calling for a Day of Rage on March 18, and a group of Saudis for a similar day on March 11. Then I heard the news of the protests in Oman on Saturday and Sunday. Then in my morning newspaper I read Rachel Bronson on why Saudi Arabia is safe for revolution, at least for the moment. She admits that 'It is dangerous business to predict events in the Middle East, especially in time of regional crisis', but on close examinations her reasons for excluding Saudi Arabia from the wave of protests look very thin indeed. Let's look at them one by one:
The country is different in some important ways. First, its economic situation is far better. Egypt's per capita gross domestic product is slightly more than $6,000, and Tunisia's is closer to $9,000. For Saudi Arabia, it is roughly $24,000 and climbing (up from $9,000 a little more than a decade ago). The Saudi regime also has resources to spend on its people. Oil prices are high and rising. On Wednesday, the king announced massive social benefits packages totaling more than $35 billion and including unemployment relief, housing subsidies, funds to support study abroad and a raft of new job opportunities created by the state. Clearly the king is nervous, but he has goodies to spread around. 
    Then she adds:
According to an analysis by Banque Saudi Fransi, joblessness among Saudis under age 30 hovered around 30 percent in 2009. Still, many of the king's key policy decisions - joining the World Trade Organization, creating new cities with more liberal values, promoting education and particularly study abroad - have sought to solve these problems. The country may be on a very slow path toward modernization, but it is not sliding backward like many others in the Middle East. 
    In fact that's a much higher youth unemployment rate that either Egypt and Tunisia and I'm not convinced that economic growth is an obstacle to revolution anyway. On the contrary, is it not conventional wisdom that autocratic governments are at their most vulnerable at times of high growth with uneven income distribution? The Egyptian economy has been growing strongly since about 2004, and the Tunisian economy hadn't been doing badly either. The Egyptian uprising was not driven by unemployed or hungry people, but by middle-class people who did not like the way their country had been hijacked by a narrow clique who ruled by rigging elections backed by police brutality.

    Her second argument:
Another difference between Saudi Arabia and its neighbors is that the opposition has been largely co-opted or destroyed. For the past 10 years, the Saudi government has systematically gone after al-Qaeda cells on its territory and has rooted out suspected supporters in the military and the national guard, especially after a series of attacks in 2003. Key opposition clerics have been slowly brought under the wing of the regime. This has involved some cozying up to unsavory people, but the threat from the radical fringe is lower now than it has been in the recent past. And the Saudis have been quite clever about convincing the country's liberal elites that the regime is their best hope for a successful future. 
    That sounds remarkably like Tunisia, and not a whole lot different from Egypt, at least in general terms. The serious opposition in Tunisia was either in jail, in exile or silent. In Egypt the parliamentary elections of 2010 gave the ruling NDP and like-minded independents all but a handful of seats. The Muslim Brotherhood was cowed and unwilling to take on the government until the protest movement showed signs that it might succeed. In Libya the government was even more successful in eliminating any form of domestic opposition, which had hardly raised its head above the parapets for 15 years. What took people by surprise in all three countries was that the opposition appeared from nowhere, from the silent majority which was thought to be dormant.
    Her next argument:
The loyalty of the security services is always an important predictor of a regime's stability, and here the Saudis again have reason for some confidence. Senior members of the royal family and their sons are in control of all the security forces - the military, the national guard and the religious police. They will survive or fall together. There can be no equivalent to the Egyptian military taking over as a credible, independent institution. In Saudi Arabia, the government has a monopoly on violence.
    Sounds remarkably familiar to me from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. It took more than 300 dead, millions of people in the street and 18 days of daily protests to persuade the Egyptian military to move, but in the end they moved. Similarly in Tunisia. In Libya, Gaddafi's sons and loyalists controlled key military formations, but several of those have fallen apart. In times of domestic unrest, the loyalty of any military or paramilitary unit is fragile and can crumble into dust with remarkable speed when individual soldiers or officers face conflicting demands and loyalties. Those at the top of the command chain may also decide at any moment that an alternative ruler better serves their interests. Don't count on their loyalty, as many rulers have learnt to their cost throughout human history.
    Her last argument:
Finally, a succession plan is in place. Saudi Arabia has had five monarchs in the past six decades, since the death of its founder. There is not a succession vacuum as there was in Egypt and Tunisia. Many Saudis may not like Prince Nayaf, the interior minister, but they know he is likely to follow King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan on the throne. And there is a process, if somewhat opaque, for choosing the king after him. 
    I don't buy that one either. If Saudis don't like the Al Saud, why would they be reassured by the knowledge that Prince Nayef will rule them one day and that the same family will govern for ever? It's true that uncertainty about the succession added to the tensions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and made it easier to challenge the legitimacy of the ruling family, but it's the legitimacy that counts. Once a ruler or his family loses legitimacy, all they have left is brute force, and that takes us back to the previous argument.
    I'm not saying that the Saudi government is in trouble. I don't know and I'm not making predictions. But the events in Libya and now Oman certainly weaken the old 'rentier state' argument, which was previously one of the strongest arguments for why countries such as Saudi Arabia would be immune from the 'ripple effect' of the Arab revolts. 


  1. In all the discussion of how economic growth increases stability -- and how analysts mis-estimated political risk, I keep thinking about Crane Brinton's classic The Anatomy of Revolution. The "crisis" which sets the revolution off is a "crisis of rising expectations" which isn't met -- growth that isn't as good as hoped, or expected.

  2. Bronson's take on the Saudi succession situation is way off kilter. "A succession plan is in place"-- and that's supposed to reassure people? The same was true in Egypt... and it was the succession plan itself that fueled the anger, not the lack of one.

    But the real problem with "Saudi" Arabia's succession situation is that, having no tradition of primogeniture (and none of the fine associated European practice of killing young princelings in their sleep), the kingdom is now saddled with a "succession" involving at least two more octogenarians as all of Abdul-Aziz's sons in turn continue to totter into their dotage. Remember, too, that some of these sons of the old guy are younger by a decade or two than some of the senior and eligible grandsons...

    So the princes evidently find it really hard to figure out which of the family lines should take up the succession for the next generation. Thus, for several years now, and into the foreseeable future, they are trapped in a very slow-moving succession struggle which further aggravates the paralysis in which the kingdom's national leadership has been trapped for many years now. (Maybe since 1975.)