Continuity and Change in Saudi Arabia
I’ve published a piece in the Tufts Daily on the historic reforms recently decreed by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, and what they mean more broadly for Saudi Arabia going forward.
It’s been a busy week of reform for King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia’s octogenarian and progressive monarch. Over the past few days alone, he has granted Saudi women the right to vote and stand for office in municipal elections, and overturned a sentence of 10 lashes handed down to an activist who defied a female driving ban.
On the one hand, these changes are nothing short of historic by Saudi standards. Under the kingdom’s puritanical brand of Sunni Islam, women must be fully veiled, cannot travel without a male chaperone and face restrictions on everything from jobs to inheritances. This is only part of Saudi Arabia’s dismal human rights record, where foreign workers are treated like modern-day slaves while Shia Muslims and religious minorities remain second-class citizens.
But these concessions also do not go nearly far enough. King Abdullah, who pledged to “open all doors for Saudi women” over a decade ago, has struggled to even keep the few doors he has opened ajar due to fierce backlash from the conservative religious establishment. Even though his latest decree on political participation would only come into effect in 2015 — rather than in time for elections last week — he still faced stiff resistance from hardliners who tried to undermine his reformist push.
Yet the Saudi people’s patience for glacial reform could soon wear thin. For decades, the ruling royal family has held the reins of power through its vast oil reserves, strict Wahabbist Islam and nimble mix of co-option, coercion and change. Now, the Arab Spring abroad and a winter of discontent at home are coalescing into louder demands for change. Forty percent of Saudi youths are unemployed, while their cabinet ministers, who average 65 years of age, continue to line the pockets of patronage networks to prolong their rule. Saudi liberals, Islamists and disaffected youth, through a string of online petitions, have called for protests and a constitutional monarchy, inspired in part by similar uprisings by their Arab brethren.
Few expect a revolution in the kingdom soon. The House of Saud has a firm grip on its patronage networks and security services, and continues to co-opt key elements of the opposition. Predictably, the regime has also responded to the latest wave of domestic discontent and foreign instability with a counterrevolution of its own. To stem the tide of Arab uprisings, Saudi Arabia has, among other things, sent tanks to Bahrain, housed Yemen’s embattled president Ali Abdullah Saleh and poured financial assistance to Jordan, Morocco and friendly political movements in the region. And at home, the king unveiled welfare decrees earlier this year with $130 billion earmarked for things like job creation and unemployment assistance.
All this may just kick the proverbial can down the road. The kingdom’s strategy of throwing money at problems is proving more unsustainable and earning fewer returns. The oil price at which its budget breaks even — now just above $80 per barrel — is expected to soar to $110 by 2015. Attempts to increase public jobs will expand an already bloated bureaucracy where almost 50 percent of total government outlays are for salaries while also undermining private labor markets needed for long-term economic growth. And Saudis are displaying their dissatisfaction with the system by voting with their feet: last week’s election suffered from an incredibly low turnout. Abroad, the kingdom’s money and meddling have sometimes not produced desired outcomes, in part because of divisions within the aging royal family about what to do in places like Yemen.
It is still unreasonable to expect the Saudi regime to collapse like a house of cards under the weight of the revolutions sweeping the Arab world. But there are clearly cracks slowly emerging in the House of Saud; ones that money may not be able to fix for long.
Read the article at the Tufts Daily website here.