Could the House of Saud come tumbling down?What would happen if 'our friends, the Saudis' were no longer our friends? Karen Elliott House writes in the Wall Street Journal that the consequences could be quite serious and the chances of the House of Saud falling are increasing.
In any authoritarian regime, instability seems unthinkable up to the moment of upheaval, and that is true now for Saudi Arabia. But even as American influence recedes across the Middle East, the U.S. soon may face the staggering consequences of instability here, in its most important remaining Arab ally. While a radical regime in Egypt would threaten Israel directly but not America, a radical anti-Western regime in Saudi Arabia—which produces one of every four barrels of oil world-wide—clearly would endanger America as leader of the world economy.Well, I sure hope they don't expect Obama to do anything about this.
Thirty years of visiting Saudi Arabia, including intensive reporting over the past four years, convinces me that unless the regime rapidly and radically reforms itself—or is pushed to do so by the U.S.—it will remain vulnerable to upheaval. Despite the conventional wisdom that Saudi Arabia is unique, and that billions in oil revenue and an omnipresent intelligence system allow the regime to maintain power by buying loyalty or intimidating its passive populace, it can happen here.
The many risks to the al Saud family's rule can be summed up in one sentence: The gap between aged rulers and youthful subjects grows dramatically as the information gap between rulers and ruled shrinks. The average age of the kingdom's trio of ruling princes is 83, yet 60% of Saudis are under 18 years of age. Thanks to satellite television, the Internet and social media, the young now are well aware of government corruption—and that 40% of Saudis live in poverty and nearly 70% can't afford a home. These Saudis are living Third World lives, suffering from poor education and unable to find jobs in a private sector where 90% of all employees are imported non-Saudis. Through new media the young compare their circumstances unfavorably with those in nearby Gulf sheikhdoms and the West.
What these reform-minded princes fail to understand—or at least acknowledge to foreigners—is the degree to which many young Saudis no longer respect or fear the royal family. Rather, they increasingly resent the indignity inherent in having to beg princes for favors that should be a public right.
Frustrated by these daily indignities, young Saudis experiment with drugs, steal cars and vandalize government property. Saudis at all levels of society are becoming increasingly lawless, emulating their leaders in doing whatever they can get away with. A recent target of youthful ire is a new camera system that tickets speeders. The system has been repeatedly vandalized by youth who claim that their fines enrich the Minister of the Interior, who is also responsible for the kingdom's invasive intelligence agencies. In choosing this target, young Saudis protest both royal corruption and state intrusion into their lives.
Still, most ordinary Saudis do not crave democracy. They fear that traditional tribal divisions, coupled with a lack of social and political organizations, would lead to mayhem—or to even greater domination by the conservative religious establishment that is well-organized through the kingdom's 70,000 mosques. If in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood is considered a potential threat, its Saudi equivalent already dominates Saudi society.
What Saudis hunger for are standard services provided by far less wealthy governments: good education, jobs, decent health care. They also want to be able to speak honestly about the political and economic issues that affect their lives. Yet when a professor of religion at Imam University dared in November to suggest on the Internet that Saudis be permitted to take public their private discussions on succession, he was jailed.
"The gap between reform here and the demands of our young is widening," warns a senior prince. "It is a race against time because the young are tired of the status quo, tired of talk." Saudi Arabia is not Egypt. But even in this most shrouded and supposedly most stable of Arab societies, time is running out.
What could go wrong?