31 July 2008

Is Saudi Arabia Sustainable?

While Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, it is also a theocracy, arguably a more strict theocracy than the semi-democratic Shi'ite theocracy in Iran. The royal family and the extremist Sunni clerics who have carte blanche to impose absurd decrees with royal patronage have a symbiotic relationship. How long can the system last?

Cats and Dogs in Riyadh

The latest news on this front is ban on the sales of dogs and cats as pets, and a related ban on walking them in public, because men use them to attract women.

The prohibition went into effect Wednesday in the capital, Riyadh, and authorities in the city say they will strictly enforce it - unlike previous bans in the cities of Mecca and Jiddah, which have been ignored and failed to stop pet sales.

Violators found outside with their pets will have their beloved poodles and other furry companions confiscated by agents of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the official name of the religious police, tasked with enforcing Saudi Arabia's strict Islamic code.

The commission's general manager, Othman al-Othman, said the ban was ordered because of what he called "the rising of phenomenon of men using cats and dogs to make passes at women and pester families" as well as "violating proper behavior in public squares and malls."

"If a man is caught with a pet, the pet will be immediately confiscated and the man will be forced to sign a document pledging not to repeat the act," al-Othman told the Al-Hayat newspaper. "If he does, he will be referred to authorities." The ban does not address women.

The Saudi-owned Al-Hayat announced the ban in its Wednesday edition, saying it was ordered by the acting governor of Riyadh province, Prince Sattam, based on an edit from the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars and several religious police reports of pet owners harassing women and families.

Early implementation of the ban has been spotty, but honestly, it is just one more straw in a heap of indignities that have been imposed upon the Saudi people.

The dog and cat ban, like the ban on women driving cars, appears to be a case of Saudi Arabian exceptionalism. There isn't anything inherently Islamic about either, although both are conducted with religious authority. The Islamic world is a big place, and most are far less circumscribed in their regulation of people's daily lives (although most Muslims in predominantly Muslim places also not nearly so libertine as Americans).

The Future Of The House of Saud

The current king is 84 years old. The crown prince is 80 years old. Of course, the House of Saud is in no danger of running out of heirs. Under current Saudi succession rules, there are over 150 people eligible to be the next crown prince, "though consensus and competency would limit this number." But a generational change in leadership is bound to happen before too long. The youngest member of the current King's generation is sixty-eight, and it is possible that some members of the current generation would be passed over in the process of reaching a consensus of the successor to the current crown prince.

Due to the common practice among male members of the Saudi royal family of having many children with multiple wives, the size of the royal family is immense. The late King Abd al-Aziz had 22 wives (no more than four at a time), 45 legitimate sons, and about 50 daughters. His next successor, King Saud King Saud had 53 sons and at least 54 daughters. There are now thousands of descendants of King Abd al-Aziz, with probably at least a thousand wives in addition. Most, if not all, of the widows, wives and descendants of the many potential crown princes and late male descendants of King Abd al-Aziz, have been raised with immense wealth and privilege, elite educations, and close proximity to power. But there are only so many positions of power that a country like Saudi Arabia, which has fewer people than California, has available to allocate to the innumerable princelings. Also, there are elites within the roughly 20% of Saudi residents who are immigrant foreign workers, and within Saudi elites outside the royal family, which have members who are more competent than the lesser princelings whom the royal family would like to reward.

In the traditional European monarchies, most royal descendants were bastards and the youngest legitimate princes and princesses couldn't expect much for their descendants. Both European and Chinese monarchs traditionally insisted on the pre-eminence of the eldest son in the line of succession. Bastards and younger sons were traditionally sent off to be senior soldiers in the innumerable wars of these monarchies; the princesses, legitimate or not, were married off and cast their lots with whatever husbands they were married off to in order to cement alliances. But, in the Saudi system, legitimate close male desendants are abundant, the order of succession is more fluid, deadly wars have been scarce, and the Ottoman practice of killing off rival siblings has been abandoned. Far more people have a claim on the family's power and resources than in historical royal dynasties.

Can It Last?

Is this kind of political system really sustainable? When does it all fall apart? What will be the last straw? Perhaps the regime can survive until the oil runs out, because there is no domestic position movement of consequence known to the outside world, but it can't last forever.

Anecdotal evidence abounds that large swaths of Saudi society, including much of the most practically educated and competent part of its elites, publicly follow the rules, but ignore the rules in private.

Many Muslim women, particularly in France within the West, adhere to an Islamist feminism that embraces the distinct roles of men and women in Islam and welcomes the veil. But this doesn't mean that they support a system where women can't drive, the Internet is profoundly censored, satellite television is sometimes forbidden, cell phones are suspect, dogs and cats are banned, religious police met out summary justice to vulnerable women on the street, and women are punished for being victims of sex crimes.

The kind of middle class that Saudi Arabia needs to transition to a less oil dependent economy is also precisely the kind of middle class that has historically demanded political reforms, economic freedom, the rule of law and cultural liberalization.

The members of the next generation of leaders also know that Saudi Arabia is deeply out of step with most of the rest of the world. Many members of the ruling royal family have traveled, studied and lived abroad extensively, and are comfortable in that entirely different world.

Both the group of people whom their mini-royal welfare state supports, and population that the larger national welfare state must support, are growing much faster than their nation's wealth, with the royals outpacing the general population's growth. If national wealth declines, resentment towards collateral members of the royal family who have economic privileges may heighten.

Reading from the muddy tea leaves of official pronouncements, there seems to be a tendency in Saudi Arabia's official governmental structures towards an oligarchy in which all legitimate male descendants of the first King in the current dynasty form a de facto House of Lords, with equal voices and votes in their non-binding recommendations, and with a first priority for appointment to senior positions in government and business (like church and state, they are also not so distinct in Saudi Arabia). The group of men eligible to be heirs to the throne has been constituted as a sort of college of cardinals to choose the next crown prince.

The Future Of Saudi Arabian Oil and the Timing Of Political Change

Most importantly, many members of Saudi Arabia's next generations of leaders are no doubt acutely aware that their nation's oil supplies, that have made the existing system possible, won't last forever. Saudi Arabia will be hard pressed to maintain current oil production levels for another decade, and could easily see oil production drop 75% in thirty years.

After seven decades of supposedly investing the nation's oil wealth back into the health and welfare of the Saudi Arabian people, their nation still earned 75% of its GNP (this 75% is about $15,000 per capita on a purchasing power basis) and 90% of its export wealth from oil, and still has to import in the form of foreign labor a huge share of its skilled and unskilled labor force.

A 75% reduction in national oil wealth would reduce Saudi Arabia's per capita GNP (on a purchasing power basis) to less than that of Mexico, even in the unlikely event that the foreign workers who sustain the economy stayed on when the oil wealth of the country dried up, even before accounting for anticipated population growth (which tends, perversely, to accellerate in times of economic scarcity).

Without any oil wealth, Saudi Arabia's per capita GNP would fall to that of China, even before population growth and the lose of the economic engine of foreign workers, and to sub-Saharan African levels once those factors were considered. Continued investment in human and physical capital, sovereign wealth funds, and reductions in the massive drain that the royal family imposes on the nation's wealth could buffer this catastrophic economic decline for Saudi Arabia, but only genuine modernization can prevent a collapse or mute it in the long run.

Political consequences of an inevitable long term decline in Saudi Arabian oil production are likely to come much sooner, probably not long after declining oil revenues and rising populations start to make a serious dent in the national standard of living.

Saudi Arabia's political system is a bread and circuses affair. Its no representation system survives because there is no taxation and there is an ample welfare state. But to maintain even a shadow of the current welfare state, taxes on the general public will be necessary in ten or twenty years. History has shown that democracy and expansion of the franchise is closely linked to the need of the ruling class to tax its subjects.

The Peaceful Change Option

Given these pressures and trends, a close parallel of English political history of several hundred years earlier, seems like the most plausible model for gradual political change if Saudi Arabia manages a peaceful and gradual political and social transition.

In this scenario, Saudi Arabia would develop a powerful House of Lords made up of men eligible to be the next King that periodically elects a crown prince to serve as successor to a current king with real political power; a subordinate elected parliament whose power primarily is limited to control over the funds contributed to the public fisc from taxes; and religious authorities of the established Islamic religious authorities, who would monitor and constrain political authorities in a manner similar to, but probably less absolute than, those of Iranian religous leaders. And, if Saudi Arabia takes that path, this might happen in the time frame of ten to twenty years, when the forces that sustain Saudi Arabia's current system seem likely to fall apart.

But, the British style gradual political evolution has very much been the exception, rather than the rule, in world history. Most countries have had messier political histories, and even the English one had to endure to Republican "Glorious Revolution" led by Cromwell, before a monarchy was restored.

The Post-Soviet Model

A Soviet Union-like implosion without warning, once the older generation is cleared out of key positions of power, with traumatic reform initiated from the top before spiraling out of control, seems possible. Russia actually had two such reforms, one in 1917, and the other two generation later. Neither ended particular well or stayed on course precisely as expected. Both spawned more authoritarian counter-revoultions. But there is hope that the current transformation in Russia could produce a happier ending the one that followed Russia's brief flitation with Western style democracy in 1917.

Given the many quite old but competent potential heirs to the Saudi Arabian throne available, who seem to be firmly in charge and quite conservative, an opportunity a Soviet style implosion initiated by liberalism at the top may come too late. Economic circumstances may force fundamental political and social change in Saudi Arabia sooner than anyone in a position to bring that about appears on the scene.

Revolutions and Coups As Political Options

Two other time honored mechanism of political change when existing systems don't work any more are on one hand, popular revolutions instituting revolutionary authorarian rule in the name of the people (not ripe now, but perhaps someday), and on the other, military coups which lead to civilian dictatorship which lead sometimes after several iterations to fragile democracies that may or may not eventually become secure.

Spain, France, Iran, China, Cambodia, and Mexico all offer examples of what can happen in popular revolutions.

Iran's model is notable because it is local and because Islamic fundamentalist clergy are one of the few independent power bases from the ruling royal family in Saudi Arabian society. An Islamic revolution in which the religious authorities would align themselves with the people against the royal family in a bid to have greater power in the face of pressure to modernize, makes much more sense from a Saudi perspective than a revolution driven by communists or Western oriented reformers. Indeed, such a revolution would be almost nationalist given the close identification that the Saudi national identity has with its local brand of Islamic practice. Dissent royals don't appear to have the power base necessary for a more secular revolution.

Spain's revolutionary example is also notable because in that case, the revolutionaries lost and in the end, a military dicatator restored the monarchy, albeit with less real power, to legitimitize his own regime. Any would be military leader in Saudi Arabia attempting to put down an Islamist revolution would be tempted to take a similar approach. Of course, as the example of France shows, restored monarchies don't always last, and military dictators sometimes establish their own royal dynasties.

The complicating factor to political change via the military in Saudi Arabia, however, absent a popular revolution that had to be put down with the force of arms (and might also forever end the alliance between the monarchy and religious leaders, secularizing Saudi Arabia), is that the royal family, which in the open oligarchic succession model of the dynasty spreads power more widely than a traditional royal family, controls most military leadership positions and has a strong stake in the status quo.

International Impact

Like a collapse of the Soviet Union, a collapse of the existing system in Saudi Arabia would have worldwide geopolitical implications.

Worldwide Islamic fundamentalism within the Sunni tradition receives much of its financing and leadership from Saudi Arabia, not necessarily from the ruling group within the ruling family or the official organs of the Saudi Arabian state, but from Saudi Arabian elites. Osama bin Laden, most of the 9-11 attackers, and a plurality, at least, of the suicide bombers in Iraq hail from Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabian sponsorship is what made the Taliban possible and fueled its rise to power. Via the Taliban, the Saudis conquered Afghanistan with ideas, money, training and trade, rather than soldiers.

Saudi Arabia is awash with young men with college degrees in extremist Islamic theology, with high rates of unemployment but no immediate need to find work, and no real future for themselves in the ordinary economy.

An Islamist revolution against the monarchy in Saudi Arabia would enchance the role Saudi Arabia plays as a threat to the West. Other courses for Saudi Arabia could maintain the status quo, or defuse the engine of worldwide Islamic fundamentalism, depending on the fine details of how they evolved.

For now, at least, when the West supports the Saudi Arabian economy and government, it is also keeping alive the beating heart of the larger state nutured Islamic fundamentalist movement, one part of which is Islamic fundamentalist motivated terrorism targeted at the West. Venues like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somolia and Keyna are mere staging points for a movement based in Saudi Arabia.

The weakness of secular society in Saudi Arabia, and in the Middle East generally, makes the prospects for change in this respect more liklely to be a product of reduced economic clout than local political change.

The U.S. Stance

Should the U.S. be selling some of our most sophisticated weapons to a country like this one?

Consider that, per Wikipedia and its cited sources, "As recently as the 1950s, the Saudi Arabia’s slave population was estimated at 450,000 — 20% of the population. Slavery was finally abolished in 1962. . . . The country has been in a state of war with Israel since May 15, 1948, the day after Israel declared its independence."

More recently and more chillingly, a public opinion survey of over 15,000 Saudis in the summer and fall of 2003 indicates that 48.7% of Saudis had a positive opinion of Osama bin Laden's rhetoric. They may not think that Osama bin Laden himself is a good leader, but there is broad public support for his message.

Even if Saudi Arabia grows more democratic, there are no assurances that this nation's foreign face won't grow more ugly. And, made in America military equipment will remain functional and even sophisticated by international standards long past the decade or two that the current regime is likely to be able to sustain.

The bet that the United States is making on Saudi Arabia as an ally, is a high stake and high risk gamble.


Anonymous said...

Bush started his presidency at war with China, which hid behind 9/11. Not only has petroleum and gasoline tripled during these years, but so has steel and other commodities. All of this is because China, unlike India, has no market to regulate usage. And don’t forget the “Honkers Union” root of SPAM attacks (google this). William Temple in “of Heroic Virtue” (1690) claimed Chinese governance exceded the wildest dreams of western utopians. Henry Wallace found FDR’s silos in the Confucian “Ever Normal Granary”. Medieval calendars marked the world’s end at 1452, when Mehmet was the first calvaryman. the scond in 1696 was Peter Alexeevic Romanov, the third was 1951 ESCC, the last is China. Note the cognates of Magog: Magyar, Mongol, Mughal, Hungar, Uyghur, Hangook to gain real understanding.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

I'll file this one under "crazy talk."