Static Saudi Arabia

January 11, 2013 Topic: Autocracy Region: Saudi Arabia Blog Brand: The Buzz

Static Saudi Arabia

In a wide-ranging review of three recent books on Saudi Arabia, The New York Review of Books’ Hugh Eakin paints a picture of the massive question mark hanging over the Kingdom and its future. Its unusual succession model, which puts brothers ahead of sons, helped hold the kingdom’s many competing princes together—and ensured that the buffoonish King Saud was succeeded by his highly effective brother Faisal instead of one of his young sons.

Now, however, it means that the kingdom is still ruled by the children of a man whose birth was closer in history to the War of the Austrian Succession than to the present. The structure of the state and its economy is just as clogged—many bureaucracies have become so bloated that there is a small industry devoted to helping businesses find a path through it. The cleric-dominated education system combines with the promise of work in government-funded nonjobs to leave many young people with few practical skills yet a sense that blue-collar work is beneath them. Oil money made all this possible; the growth of the population means it's becoming harder and harder to sustain.

Unlike many who comment on Saudi Arabia, Eakin does not succumb to the Western tendency to view all societies through the lens of democratization. Instead of darkly warning that a more participatory system must be implemented quickly to avoid total breakdown, or taking every idle hint of reform seriously (Foreign Affairs suggested Faisal might implement a constitution back in 1966; there still isn’t one in the strictest sense). Eakin notes that in spite of growing criticism of the government, 

the few dedicated oppositionists one encounters in Jeddah and Riyadh have until now seemed less like the vanguard of a broader movement than as outliers, rejectionists who have fallen through the cracks of an all-encompassing system. . . . Indeed, far more young Saudis appear to be concerned about violent upheavals in neighboring countries than about the repressive order at home. . . . If this is the case, then the continued viability of the Saudi regime will depend little on the particular strengths or weaknesses of the current ruler and his immediate successors.

Saudi Arabia's unusual government, society and economy might change. They might even change rapidly and suddenly. There's just very little evidence to suggest it'll happen soon.