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>> The Financial Times


The Financial Times - August 30, 2012

by Abeer Allam

Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy watched the demise of its close ally, President Hosni Mubarak, with alarm. The Al Sauds had sought to avoid this dramatic moment of change in the Arab world, even pleading with their American friends to save the Egyptian despot’s regime.

Eighteen months on, however, the conservative rulers of the world’s largest oil producer and the biggest Arab economy are learning to adapt. The country last month became the first to host Mohamed Morsi, Mr Mubarak’s successor, even though he was the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organisation Riyadh views with great suspicion.

Driven by its customary pragmatism – and the need to keep Egypt on its side in the multiple crises facing the region – Saudi Arabia appears to be coming to terms with the new realities. “Whoever is the Egyptian president, [the Saudis] know they have to deal with Egypt and have good relations with Egypt,” says Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi commentator. “Saudi Arabia is totally pragmatic.”

A similar approach characterises its policy towards Syria. Riyadh fears the civil war could lead to the replacement of President Bashar al-Assad with an Islamist – yet for almost a year it has been among the most vocal advocates of the opposition, and one of the few countries believed to be supplying rebels with money and weapons. It sees the toppling of Mr Assad as a way of weakening Iran, an ambitious regional rival with whom Mr Assad is allied.

Meanwhile the most urgent regional crisis – Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear programme and its perceived desire to dominate the Gulf – has intensified. The failure of Tehran’s negotiations with world powers has heightened the prospect of Israeli attacks that would further unsettle the region.

As a result, Saudi Arabia today faces one of its most difficult periods since it was founded 80 years ago.

The domestic situation compounds the problems. An ageing monarchy resistant to political change must focus on appeasing a young population – increasingly connected to the outside world – concerned about transparency in government decision-making; the distribution of the country’s resources, including oil wealth and land; and a dearth of jobs.

Oil prices, currently above $110 a barrel, have provided Saudi Arabia with a fiscal cushion. The central bank’s net foreign assets rose to a record $591bn in June from roughly half that level five years ago. The International Monetary Fund’s 2012 economic growth forecast is 6 per cent, a contrast with the outlook for struggling western states. But the country is still heavily dependent on oil; non-oil exports represented only 12 per cent of the total last year.

“Saudi Arabia has faced several challenges throughout its history, but after the Arab spring these challenges have become greater,” says Hassan al-Mostafa, a Saudi writer. “This is an extraordinary internal and external situation but they are trying to control it [by] using the oil bonanza and by ensuring a smooth transition of power.”

On that score, the royal family has its own troubles. King Abdullah, 88, remains active and continues to attend meetings – but he has lost two of his appointed heirs since the onset of the Arab awakening. Their replacement, 76-year-old defence minister Prince Salman, is likely to pursue a similar path to King Abdullah, who has sought to improve the efficiency of the economy but shows little interest in political change, although he has expanded freedom of speech and given women the right to vote.

The crown prince “understands the crises facing the state”, says one Saudi reformer. “He listens, he negotiates, and he has taken a more diplomatic approach with the opposition than some others, but he is hardly a political reformer.”

Professor Gregory Gause of the University of Vermont highlights four priorities for Prince Salman. Alongside keeping the political situation quiet in neighbouring states and checking Iran’s ambitions, these include “dealing with the aftermath of the Arab spring, which means spending money the king has already promised” and “continuing to block any kind of political mobilisation at home”.

Saudi officials assert that the kingdom’s social and political stability arises from a form of “tribal democracy” seldom appreciated by the west. The royal family, they argue, is deeply entwined with the public, unlike the Arab presidents toppled last year. But it also draws upon a religious establishment with which it is closely allied, a potent security apparatus, and a tendency to distribute oil wealth in response to crises.

Inspired by the Arab uprisings, reformers including writers, clerics, human rights activists and professors in February last year petitioned King Abdullah to establish a constitutional monarchy. The calls were ignored – but he soon afterwards announced subsidy packages worth $130bn in salary rises for civil servants, and housing and unemployment benefits. He also allocated funds to clerics who had declared protests were against Islam, and outlawed criticism of them.

In addition, an anti-corruption authority was established to monitor public spending. There is, however, no clear mechanism for scrutinising the spending of the royal family or the source of its wealth and extensive land ownership by influential families that stirs anger among a population struggling with steep property prices.

A crackdown on activists, especially those who called for a constitutional monarchy, has grown increasingly severe. High-profile cases include that of Mohamed al-Bajady, sentenced in April to four years in prison for helping to establish a human rights group.

The most persistent dissent has been in the oil-rich Eastern Province, where the Shia minority has long complained of discrimination. Protests broke out in February last year as the families of several prisoners held on terrorism charges since 1996 demanded the trial or release of their relatives. The government responded with a combination of heavy security and negotiations between Prince Mohamed bin Fahd and protesters.

However, demonstrations intensified after troops were sent to Bahrain last year to prop up a fellow Sunni royal family facing a popular Shia uprising. The interior ministry in November blamed “foreign powers”, widely understood to be code for Iran. Although they remain confined to certain villages in the city of al-Qatif, protests still erupt regularly. Nimr al-Nimr, a radical Shia cleric and a harsh critic of the government, was arrested in July after the government accused him of inciting sedition. His arrest sparked protests in which two men died. So far 11 people have been killed, including a security officer.

Even as civil rights campaigners press for political reforms, they acknowledge that the government is not under serious pressure. In a country lacking political parties, unions and any aspects of civil society other than charitable organisations run by royals, most of the population’s primary concerns are economic.

Turki al-Hugail, a Saudi economist, argues education and employment should take precedence over political participation. “What is important at this stage is [to] continue to provide for stability and security at a time when others in the region are diminishing in both aspects,” he says. “Every young Saudi wants to see first and foremost the country continuing its prosperity in a predictable domestic environment where we can build a future like our parents did.”

Most in the upper classes, living in high-walled mansions and flocking to Europe in summer, have few complaints. The middle and lower classes, however, often have to fight for homes, reliable healthcare and – with unemployment officially at about 10 per cent – jobs. The government has tried to enforce “Saudisation” in a private sector dominated by foreign workers. Under a scheme launched in 2011, many companies must ensure their workforce comprises 20-30 per cent Saudi nationals.

In practice, with Saudis commanding higher salaries while many graduates lack the requisite skills, the quota system merely increases the time businesses spend seeking favours from prominent families in order to continue employing foreigners. Furthermore, while the rules hamper the profitability of small and medium-sized businesses, they have less effect on the largest enterprises, which can find ways around them.


Although dissent levels are not yet sufficient to alarm the government, technology-savvy young Saudis appear willing to raise their voices. They note the region’s revolts and elections and – after years of poor economic decision-making, slow reform and low oil prices in the 1990s – higher living standards in Gulf states such as Dubai that lack Saudi Arabia’s natural resources.

In the remote mountain province of Abha, students protested in March against poor sanitation, demanding the dismissal of the university head, amid accusations of corruption and nepotism. Students posted videos of the protests on Twitter and Facebook, gaining support from others who shared their complaints. Some teachers, medics and airline workers have organised strikes and protests, seeking better conditions or new jobs.

Increasing numbers of young, educated middle class Saudis question the effectiveness of ruling a country of almost 27m, only 18m of whom are nationals, in the traditional tribal way. Despite years of petitioning, women lack the right to control their employment prospects, and even their own daily movements.

“The question is not ‘Is the system listening’ but ‘Does it respond to our needs?’” says Hala al-Dosari, a women’s rights advocate. “Are 9m women supposed to go and wait by a prince’s door when they can’t get their basic paperwork done because they need a male relative?’’

As Saudi rulers seek to pick a pragmatic course through changes transforming the region, the greater question they face is whether they can adapt to the subtle, but no less significant, evolution of their own society.


Succession politics

Succession politics in Saudi Arabia is a complex mix of traditional customs and power play within the sprawling royal family, whose members number in the thousands.

Power is intended to be transferred by consensus to a family member who possesses seniority, competence and prestige. Based on custom, the throne has gone to the sons of the late King Abdelaziz, founder of modern Saudi Arabia, who died in 1953. Five of his sons have already ruled as kings; a total of 18 are still alive. Any sons bypassed in the succession have been compensated, typically with senior posts, other benefits – such as land plots – or jobs for their sons.

In 1992, the then King Fahd issued the basic laws, a form of constitution, that stipulated that the throne be reserved for the sons and grandsons of the founder. The heir apparent is chosen by the king after a consensus within the ruling family has been reached.

Despite repeated speculation about an imminent transfer of power to the next generation – the grandsons of the grandsons of the founder – King Abdullah, the current ruler, has so far stuck with tradition. Analysts say moving to a new generation would pit too many rival princes against each other and destabilise the family.

Many in the second generation – Abdelaziz’s grandsons – however, have already reached an advanced age. For example, Prince Khalid al-Faisal, son of the late King Faisal and now governor of Mecca, is 72. He is also older than his uncle, Prince Ahmed, the interior minister, nominally ahead of him in the order of succession.

“It will take a consensus of all the important figures of the remaining generation of the sons of King Abdelaziz to set a succession line that achieves the generational change,” says Gregory Gause, a Saudi expert at Vermont University. “They might have already formulated a plan, for all we know.”

The formalities for change took a step forward in 2007 when King Abdullah established the Allegiance Council, a body of 35 sons and grandsons of Abdelaziz who will preside over the succession and the selection of the next crown prince after the current monarch dies. The council will also monitor the health of the current king, so that if he becomes incapacitated, a successor may take over – although such processes are tenuous and remain to be tested.

King Abdullah has also sought to give greater responsibility to the second generation. In 2010 he appointed his son, Prince Mutaib, 59, head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, an elite unit of tribal forces charged with protecting the royal family that acts as a counterbalance to other branches of the military. Another son, Abdelaziz bin Abdullah, is now deputy foreign minister.

The sons of the most prominent Saudi princes usually get top jobs. Prince Khaled bin Sultan, son of a late crown prince, is deputy minister of defence. Prince Mohamed bin Naif, son of late Crown Prince Naif, is assistant minister of the interior.




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