Wednesday, June 2, 2004

Sitting on my desk is a book titled “The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of the House of Saud.” It was published in 1994. Long before then, pundits had been predicting the imminent collapse of the royal regime.

The carnage in Khobar will certainly excite more speculation that the dynasty of Abdul Aziz is on its last legs. That analysis, in some quarters at least, will be wishful thinking.

The Saudis have been good friends to the West, but have received little thanks for their co-operation. Liberals dislike them for being repressive, theocratic and misogynistic. American neoconservatives bitterly oppose them because of their perceived softness toward al Qaeda. Everyone — European and Arab alike — resents their being rich and vulgar.

It may be hard to love the Saudis, but it is in our interests to continue supporting them as they try to weather what is looking like a particularly bad patch. The “Iron Fist” crackdown last year after the attacks on Riyadh compounds that killed 43 failed to deter al Qaeda. The security forces seem incapable of preventing attacks or handling them when they occur.

Al Qaeda operatives now concentrate on soft ancillary targets connected to the oil industry, aimed at driving out foreigners, damaging production and sending shudders through the markets. The resultant effect on energy prices and the implications for the global economy will confirm the organization’s view, formed after the Madrid bombings, that a relatively little violence can go a long way.

The continuing ability of al Qaeda to operate in Saudi Arabia suggests there are enough sympathizers to sustain it. The royal family is paying the price of a deal it struck a quarter-century ago when violent fundamentalists took over the mosque at Mecca. Their leader, Juhaiman al-Utaibi, accused the government of material and moral corruption and demanded its overthrow. He and his followers were captured and publicly executed.

The royal family, though, had learned a lesson. Some excesses were curbed. The Wahhabi religious establishment was flattered and indulged, and the powers of the moral police increased. At the same time, the oppression of women was intensified and a code of public puritanism imposed.

In return for these concessions, the family was left free to rule unmolested. From time to time, there have been vague promises of reform that have failed to gain any real momentum. The bloated ruling house continues to dominate public life and commerce.

This did not matter too much as long as the population remained tranquilized by its massive oil wealth. A rising population, growing unemployment and a challenged economy means the drugs are wearing off. Saudi Arabia now has a population of nearly 20 million nationals, 42 percent under age 14. Every year, 100,000 men, and increasingly women, leave university. Less than half get jobs, many in state sinecures.

Young men are bored, idle, resentful and deprived of fun. On a hot night in Jeddah, they are reduced to cruising the Corniche in their cars, trying to make eye contact with heavily chaperoned girls travelling in the next lane.

Restrictions on women are in fact being slightly relaxed, but only out of economic necessity. Mothers who were once attended by a retinue of Filipinas are being forced to go to work, and office etiquette is adjusting accordingly.

Judging by the increasingly assertive conversations of Saudi Arabia’s small band of intellectuals, the royal family can no longer buy the unconditional loyalty of the population. Yet that is what it needs if it is successfully to confront its fundamentalist opponents.

One obvious way of doing so would be to cede some of the freedoms many of the people — while still far from demanding anything like Western democracy — are eager to acquire.

The need for reform is admitted by the rulers themselves. Yet their cripplingly cautious approach to change, as well as internal family tensions, means progress has been minimal.

Earlier this year, the government sent members of the consultative council — presented as a fledgling parliament — to Britain as heralds of the new commitment to change. During their visit, 13 liberals and academics who tentatively proposed a constitutional monarchy were arrested in the kingdom.

Reform, hesitant though it is, is backed by Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler respected for his comparatively simple lifestyle and piety. His ability to maneuver, though, is curtailed by the influence of his half-brothers, in particular Prince Nayef, interior minister for almost 30 years.

Resistance to reform is based on an appreciation of the fragility of the kingdom’s political structures. Saudi Arabia remains in many ways a primitive society. Beyond the perverted religious motivation of the al Qaeda operatives there is evidence tribal loyalty and ambition play a part. Of the Saudi 15, four were members of the large Ghamid tribe from the southern province of Asir.

In the good times, family and regional loyalties could be overcome by strong leadership and the abundant largess and patronage the ruling family was able to dispense. The royal family’s instinct has always been that any loosening of authority would accelerate the peninsula’s fissiparous tendencies.

The disintegration of Saudi Arabia would be a disaster for the world, creating a vast power vacuum at the heart of Islam that al Qaeda would rush to fill. The House of Saud has had plenty of time and encouragement to formulate a program of cautious change. Each time it has steeled itself to do so, it has been in response to a catastrophic event — such as the first Iraq war and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States — and in the end little has happened.

Despite the consistent predictions of its demise, the family has proved itself remarkably efficient at hanging on to power, perhaps because it has taken to heart history’s lesson that conservative regimes are most vulnerable when they start to reform. From our point of view, their survival is preferable to any of the plausible alternatives.

Patrick Bishop is a writer for the London Daily Telegraph.

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