Think it can’t happen here? I would rather not live to find out.
In any authoritarian regime, instability seems unthinkable up to the moment of upheaval, and that is true now for Saudi Arabia. But even as American influence recedes across the Middle East, the U.S. soon may face the staggering consequences of instability here, in its most important remaining Arab ally.
….Despite the conventional wisdom that Saudi Arabia is unique, and that billions in oil revenue and an omnipresent intelligence system allow the regime to maintain power by buying loyalty or intimidating its passive populace, it can happen here.
The many risks to the al Saud family’s rule can be summed up in one sentence: The gap between aged rulers and youthful subjects grows dramatically as the information gap between rulers and ruled shrinks. The average age of the kingdom’s trio of ruling princes is 83, yet 60% of Saudis are under 18 years of age. Thanks to satellite television, the Internet and social media, the young now are well aware of government corruption—and that 40% of Saudis live in poverty and nearly 70% can’t afford a home. These Saudis are living Third World lives, suffering from poor education and unable to find jobs in a private sector where 90% of all employees are imported non-Saudis. Through new media the young compare their circumstances unfavorably with those in nearby Gulf sheikhdoms and the West.
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Over the years, the royal family—now numbering nearly 7,000 princes—has come to pervade every corner of Saudi life, but it has lost public respect in the process. Almost every Saudi business, key ministry and mayoralty is headed, or figure-headed, by a prince. …
Exacerbating the problem is that the royal rulers are old, infirm and largely out of touch. King Abdullah has been out of the kingdom for three months receiving medical treatment in the U.S. and Morocco. Crown Prince Sultan, 85 years old and ill with cancer and Alzheimer’s, rarely is seen in public. Rounding out the ruling trio is the deputy prime minister, Prince Naif, who is 77 and suffering from diabetes and osteoporosis.
After them? No one knows. What scares much of the royal family and many ordinary Saudis is that the succession, which historically has passed from brother to brother, soon will have to jump to a new generation. That could mean that only one branch of the family will have power, a prescription for potential conflict as 34 of the 35 lines of the founder’s family could find themselves disenfranchised.
As events in Cairo have played out, some worried younger princes have privately acknowledged the need to curb corruption, better serve citizens, and reform the dysfunctional government bureaucracy. Still, to a man, even these princes stress the inevitability of al Saud rule. “We united Arabia and we remain the glue that holds it together,” says one.
What these reform-minded princes fail to understand—or at least acknowledge to foreigners—is the degree to which many young Saudis no longer respect or fear the royal family. Rather, they increasingly resent the indignity inherent in having to beg princes for favors that should be a public right.
Frustrated by these daily indignities, young Saudis experiment with drugs, steal cars and vandalize government property. Saudis at all levels of society are becoming increasingly lawless, emulating their leaders in doing whatever they can get away with. A recent target of youthful ire is a new camera system that tickets speeders. The system has been repeatedly vandalized by youth who claim that their fines enrich the Minister of the Interior, who is also responsible for the kingdom’s invasive intelligence agencies. In choosing this target, young Saudis protest both royal corruption and state intrusion into their lives.
Still, most ordinary Saudis do not crave democracy. They fear that traditional tribal divisions, coupled with a lack of social and political organizations, would lead to mayhem—or to even greater domination by the conservative religious establishment that is well-organized through the kingdom’s 70,000 mosques. If in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood is considered a potential threat, its Saudi equivalent already dominates Saudi society.
What Saudis hunger for are standard services provided by far less wealthy governments: good education, jobs, decent health care. They also want to be able to speak honestly about the political and economic issues that affect their lives. Yet when a professor of religion at Imam University dared in November to suggest on the Internet that Saudis be permitted to take public their private discussions on succession, he was jailed.
“The gap between reform here and the demands of our young is widening,” warns a senior prince. “It is a race against time because the young are tired of the status quo, tired of talk.” Saudi Arabia is not Egypt. But even in this most shrouded and supposedly most stable of Arab societies, time is running out.
From an article in the German news magazine Der Spiegel, Feb. 7:
Suddenly it seems everyone knew all along that President Mubarak was a villain and the U.S., who supported him until recently, was even worse. However it was actually former President George W. Bush who always believed in the democratization of the Muslim world and was broadly ridiculed by the Left for his convictions. . . .
Painful as it may be to admit, it was the despised George W. Bush who believed in the democratization of the Muslim world and incurred the scorn and mockery of the Left for his conviction. Everyone was sure—without knowing any Muslims—that the Western model of democracy could not be applied in a backward society like Iraq. Everyone knew that the neo-conservative belief in the universal desire for freedom and progress was naïve nonsense. It is possible that the critics were right, albeit for the wrong reasons. The prospect of stability and order seems to be at least as important to many people.
So you think they are moderates, eh?
It’s what the good people on West 40th Street like to call a “Times Classic.” On Feb. 16, 1979, the New York Times ran a lengthy op-ed by Richard Falk, a professor of international law at Princeton, under the headline “Trusting Khomeini.”
“The depiction of [Khomeini] as fanatical, reactionary and the bearer of crude prejudices seems certainly and happily false,” wrote Mr. Falk. “What is also encouraging is that his entourage of close advisers is uniformly composed of moderate, progressive individuals.”
After carrying on in this vein for a few paragraphs, the professor concluded: “Having created a new model of popular revolution based, for the most part, on nonviolent tactics, Iran may yet provide us with a desperately needed model of humane governance for a third-world country.”
The Times is at it again. Last week, the paper published an op-ed from Essam El-Errian, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Council, who offered this soothing take on his organization: “We aim to achieve reform and rights for all: not just for the Muslim Brotherhood, not just for Muslims, but for all Egyptians.” Concurring with that view, Times reporter Nicholas Kulish wrote on Feb. 4 that members of the Brotherhood “come across as civic-minded people of faith.”
… Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949), the Brotherhood’s founder, was an admirer of the fascist movements of his day, and he had similar ambitions for his own movement.
“Andalusia, Sicily, the Balkans, south Italy and the Roman sea islands were all Islamic lands that have to be restored to the homeland of Islam,” he wrote in a message dedicated to Muslim youth. “As Signor Mussolini believed that it was within his right to revive the Roman Empire . . . similarly it is our right to restore to the Islamic empire its glory.”
Today the Brotherhood has adopted a political strategy in keeping with Banna’s dictum that the movement must not over-reach on its way toward “[subjugating] every unjust ruler to its command”: “Each of these stages,” he cautioned his followers, “involves certain steps, branches and means.” Thus the Brotherhood has gone out of its way in recent weeks to appear in the most benign light, making an ally of former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei and forswearing any immediate political ambitions.
But that doesn’t mean the Brothers don’t have an idea of what they’re aiming for. “We think highly of a country whose president is important, courageous and has a vision, which he presents in the U.N., in Geneva, and everywhere,” the Brotherhood’s Kamal al-Hilbawi told Iran’s Al-Alam TV earlier this month, referring to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust and 9/11 denials. “We think highly of a country . . . that confronts Western hegemony, and is scientifically and technologically advanced. Unfortunately, these characteristics can be found only in the Islamic Republic of Iran. I hope that Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia will be like that.”
Nor should there be any doubt about what the Brotherhood is aiming against. “Resistance is the only solution against the Zio-American arrogance and tyranny,” Muhammad Badie, the Brotherhood’s supreme guide, sermonized in October. “The improvement and change that the [Muslim] nation seeks can only be attained . . . by raising a jihadi generation that pursues death just as the enemies pursue life.”
Such remarks may come as a rude shock to James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence who last week testified in Congress that the Brotherhood was “largely secular” (a remark his office later retracted). They may also surprise a coterie of Western analysts who are convinced that the Brotherhood is moving in a moderate direction and will only be further domesticated by participation in democratic politics. Yet the evidence for that supposition rests mainly on what the Brotherhood tells Westerners. What it says in Arabic is another story. …