Saudi Arabia has been expected to implode any day now for decades. How, asks the conventional wisdom, can a puritanical theocracy and absolute monarchy – a living museum from the Middle Ages – survive in an era of democracy, freedom and technology?
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Yet the kingdom has survived and has stood off successive challenges from pan-Arabism, Islamism and the Arab Spring. The equally conventional explanation is that it was saved by oil profits providing life support.
Saudi women want to drive, the young pine to escape the strictures of Wahabism, Shiites yearn to practice their faith freely and everyone wants to enjoy freedom of speech and the right to vote. But, so the story goes, all agreed to let the Al-Saud family and the clerical establishment run things in exchange for jobs, cash handouts and amenities like free universities and hospital care.
Without the petroleum to pay for all this, Saudi Arabia would have become Syria, people widely assume.
But that’s only half the story, and it’s hard for Westerners to accept the second half: there is little evidence that the Saudis are as disenchanted as outsiders think.
Paid for with petroleum
The Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia is stricter than anywhere else in the Middle East, apart from the shrinking Islamic State. But the fact is, throughout the Arab world, there is little demand for secularism, freedom and democracy as they are practiced in the West. Islamists invariably win the few free and elections there are in the region, and when there are revolutions, the few liberals are quickly and easily overwhelmed by Muslim rhetoric.
The Saudi kingdom isn’t kept afloat by oil profits alone but by a social conservatism that combines Islam with paternal rule. The royal family ensures their rule is personal, bypassing institutions like legislatures and ministries to consult directly with religious and tribal leaders and the most powerful business families. There is even the institution of the majlis that theoretically lets ordinary Saudis petition their leaders directly.
Little of this gets attention abroad, where outsiders prefer to speculate on dynastic succession and human rights offenses, but they are what makes the kingdom run smoothly .
How much longer Saudi Arabia can keep up this tribal political system in a country whose population is pushing 30 million and whose residents can communicate their fears and desires online is anyone guess. This is where oil profits come in.
The kingdom is suffering from the collapse of oil prices. Petroleum, not taxes, pays for everything in Saudi Arabia, so the government has been running massive deficits over the last two years. Its foreign reserves are shrinking so quickly that if nothing changes, the International Monetary Fund predicts that will run out by 2020.
To stem the bleeding, the government has slashed capital expenditures, cut public sector salaries and delayed paying bills, all of which has reverberated through an economy where a whopping 70% of native Saudis are employed by government, and could send it into recession.
Short on Vision 2030
Austerity alone might not threaten Al-Saud rule, but the kingdom is simultaneously determined to wean its population off government largesse.
Its Vision 2030 program, launched earlier this year, envisages an economy less reliant on oil, with a dynamic private sector and more social freedoms than exist now. The kingdom will countenance things like theme parks and cinemas, women will have a bigger role in the labor force and the religious police, or mutawa, will have their batons clipped. More Saudis will be employed by private business, where they will have to work harder for less pay than they are accustomed to.
Outsiders will no doubt praise this all as a long overdue transition to the modern world. But it’s not quite clear how ordinary Saudis will receive these new freedoms and the need to really work for a living, especially if the government doesn’t have the cash to smooth out the rough edges.
Vision 2030 not only threatens the handouts-for-loyalty tradeoff: it undercuts the principle that the royal family takes care of the people, is in touch with their hopes and fears, and looks out for their interests.
Tellingly, when the government announced the public sector pay cut in September, many Saudis expressed their support by using the Twitter hashtag, "We are the children of King Salman.” You won’t find that kind of familial relationship to those in power in the West and the time when you could in Saudi Arabia may be running out soon. Then the Al-Saud will be no different from the Assads.