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Watching and Waiting in the Gulf

February 6, 2011

Today’s Asharq Alawsat has published an article, What About the Gulf, Your Excellencies?  from Saad Bin Tefla Al-Ajmi, the former Kuwaiti Minister of Information. He articulates the view of his own generation that change within the Gulf is inevitable, but not at the expense of the stability that the ruling families of the region currently provide. He also accepts that his generation is in no position to second-guess the thoughts and attitudes of the succeeding internet generation. An interesting admission, coming from a former minister of information who is currently a member of the National Assembly.

I have had a few conversations in recent days about whether the events in Tunisia and Egypt will impact on the stability of Saudi Arabia. The country has a large number of unemployed youngsters and a significant portion of the middle class impatient for change. Could the Kingdom be in for some rough times?

My answer would be almost certainly not – at least not in the current conditions.

Here are the reasons.

The roots of the Saudi royal family go deep into society. There are thousands of descendants of the founder of the modern state, King Abdulaziz, and of his immediate family. They have built up a huge network of patronage through serving in national and regional government. Many are involved in business, and have links with some of the country’s largest private and public companies.

King Abdullah is perhaps the most popular monarch since King Faisal, who died over thirty years ago. He is moving ahead with gradual reforms, and is widely respected, indeed loved, across the whole spectrum of Saudi society. It’s fair to say that those reforms are not fast enough for some, but he is is treading a careful path between conservative interests and the reform-minded in his country.

Saudi Arabia has an exceptionally competent internal security and intelligence service. 9/11, the internal terrorist attacks of 2003 and continuing threats from Al-Qaeda have kept them at high alert throughout the past decade. They have been extremely effective at dealing with the current threat from exiled Saudis operating within the Al-Qaeda group in Yemen. If there were signs of a dangerous level of unrest, you can be sure thay they are watching for them.

The state has always shown its willingness to come down rapidly on public protest, as shown by the recent round-up of a crowd protesting at the perceived lack of response from the authorities to the recent floods in Jeddah. It has also intervened quickly to stifle sectarian unrest – both in the Holy Cities of Makkah and Madinah, and in the Eastern Province, where there is a sizeable Shia minority.

Purely in practical terms, the only opportunity for large crowds to gather under state sponsorship – excluding within the mosques, of course – is the Haj. However the annual pilgrimage season is over nine months away. One would expect that by that time Egypt’s future will be more predictable than it is today. And over the past thirty years, the government has a tightly-controlled permit system for individuals and parties wishing to perform the Haj.

Outside the Holy Cities, the main conurbations of the Kingdom – Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam – are not conducive to set-piece demonstrations of the kind seen in Tahrir Square. There are no grandiose squares, perhaps because it has never been the habit of the government to allow large public gatherings outside the religious context.

On the surface, the media would seem to be a point of vulnerability. But although the print media operates under a system of self-censorship, there is an unwritten red line across which editors stray at their peril. Satellite TV is widespread, but many of the stations are partly or wholly owned by Prince Al-Walid bin Talal, Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest businessman and a prominent member of the royal family. The blogosphere and social media are lively. Facebook and instant messaging are very popular, Twitter less so. Recently, the Ministry of Information released a set of rules governing websites, blogs and internet advertising designed to regulate the internet space more tightly. In a crisis, there is little doubt that the government would block Facebook and instant messaging.

What might affect stability in the Kingdom in the future?

The first and most obvious factor is the succession. King Abdullah seems remarkably robust for his age, and appears to have come though his recent back operation successfully. But he will not be around forever. He has set up a Succession Council that enshrines a process for choosing his successor. But it is untested. If that process results in a falling out between factions within the royal family, then the result could be that different interest groups – tribal, business, military and religious – could take sides. But that would be very different situation from a bottom-up insurrection Egypt-style.

Also, the royal family has a history of sticking together in times of crisis. Differences of opinion are dealt with within the family. The only serious family conflicts that ended up playing out in public were the dispute between King Saud and Crown Prince Faisal in the early Sixties, and the episode of the “Free Princes”, who went into exile in Egypt after criticising the slow pace of reform in the Kingdom. The former crisis ended with the abdication of King Saud in Faisal’s favour. The latter resulted in the princes concerned renouncing their criticism and returning to the country. Since their return in 1964, there have been no further public disputes within the family.

The second factor is the economy. At present, the Saudi economy is booming, and the government is investing massively in education and job creation programmes.  Vulnerabilities include creaking infrastructure in some large conurbations, most notably in the second city, Jeddah, and a high level of youth unemployment. Although poverty on the scale of Egypt is rare, there is disquiet among many young Saudis who perceive that they cannot easily get married, raise families and own  properties because their standard of living has been eroded in recent years by inflation. If political developments in neighbouring countries adversely affect the Kingdom’s earning power or other economic conditions, then visible unrest might surface.

But such is Saudi Arabia’s wealth that it is easily able to ride through temporary economic turbulence by drawing on its vast sovereign reserves. For example, if the current sharp increase in food prices – triggered by disruption to supplies from Egypt – were to continue, the government could without difficulty raise food subsidies to ease the pain. Also, in recent years, the government has been quite prepared to run budget deficits in order to support what it sees as strategic priorities.

What you can expect is that some of those strategic priorities will flex in response to current unrest elsewhere. Yesterday’s announcement by the King about increased house building projects  – and the write-off of housing loans to a number of people  who died without paying them off  – could be seen as timely. (Coincidentally, there was also an announcement by the Bahrain government about new housing initiatives in this morning’s newspapers.)

If you were to include Saudi Arabia in Saad bin Tefla’s remarks about the Gulf States, then his comments very much apply to the Kingdom:

“There is a near consensus amongst Gulf intellectuals monitoring what is happening in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan, which is that change is an inevitable duty. This is in order to protect the stability of our Gulf States and to ensure the rule of the Gulf ruling families. I write “to ensure the rule of the Gulf ruling families” because even the most radical legitimate opposition figures are not calling for the removal of Gulf regimes; this is not necessarily out of love for these regimes but due to an instinctual pragmatic awareness that their removal would mean chaos and instability and that their survival represents a safety valve for the security and stability of the Arab Gulf States which did not experience true stability until these ruling families came to power. In the past, this region was mired in the chaos of tribal in-fighting and lacked any features of state or government. The Gulf States are not brutal dictatorships in the same manner as that of the brutal Arab Republics, but they are also not fluid democracies like Finland, for example. The Gulf States are countries whose people live in a state of luxury in comparison with those around them, and this is thanks to the surplus oil reserves that some [states] have squandered and which others distribute to the people. This formula worked, and continues to work, ensuring relative stability and prosperity in comparison with the regional countries.”

Saudi Arabia has maintained a state of relative stability for the past eighty years, despite periodic turmoil and conflict across most of its borders in that period.  I would bet on both conditions continuing – stability within and instability without. But then again, I am of Saad bin Tefla’s generation.

There is always the possibility that Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan – some random and unpredictable event that nobody sees coming – will appear out of the blue and change everything.

Might that black swan arise from the murky waters of cyberspace? Who knows? But if it did, its effects would probably touch us all, not just the GCC’s most powerful nation.

From → Middle East, Politics

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