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    Middle East
     Oct 26, 2011


COMMENT
House of Saud risks oblivion
By Mahan Abedin

The demise of Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, the heir to the Saudi throne, at the weekend highlights, above all, the decrepit and dinosaurian nature of the Saudi leadership. Aged 85, Sultan had assumed his first official role in 1947 and had served as the kingdom's defense minister for almost half a century.

His most likely successor, Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud (who is 78), has served as the kingdom's interior minister since

 
1970. This thrusts the issue of succession - and the long-term stability of Saudi Arabia - into sharp relief as King Abdullah is himself 87 years old and reportedly in poor health.

Saudi Arabia's geriatric dynastic politics may not be so important were it not for the phenomenon of the Arab Spring which has released potent political and social dynamics that are reshaping the region's political architecture beyond recognition.

The extraordinarily violent death of Libya's long-time ruler, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, at the hands of a baying and delirious armed mob, highlights - in extremis - the ferocity behind the quest for change and renewal across the region.

Hitherto, it has been widely assumed that Saudi Arabia - on account of its vast oil-based wealth and its innate deep conservatism - will escape the turmoil of the Arab Spring. To most observers the key question is not whether Saudi Arabia can withstand the Arab Spring, but to what extent the kingdom will be changed by it.

This observation is true to the extent that the House of Saud will not escape the long-term repercussions of the Arab Spring, as Saudi citizens are bound to clamor for more political and social rights in due course.

But in the light of breath-taking changes that have swept the region since December 2010 - changes that came apparently out of the blue - nothing can be ruled out. The frail and dying Saudi rulers must be a terrified bunch at present for they know better than everyone that their system lacks the flexibility, imagination and the soft power resources to deal effectively with a sudden and widespread popular protest movement.

Broadly speaking, three factors mitigate against the emergence of an Egyptian-style mass protest movement in Saudi Arabia, for the time being at least. Foremost, there is a lack of credible and organized opposition to the Saudis. While there are many trends and individuals who voice anywhere between mild to strident criticisms, there is no large organized group that can give shape and direction to these dissident voices.

An exception in the making may be the London-based Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA) led by the veteran dissident Saad al-Faqih. MIRA broadcasts messages and instructions into the kingdom on a weekly basis, but the organization is hampered by a lack of funds and a concerted attempt by the Saudis' foreign allies to keep Faqih in check.

Second, even by Middle Eastern standards the kingdom's political culture is immature, as evidenced by the total absence of political parties and trade unions, or for that matter any form of political or social organization independent of the Saudis and the rentier state under their firm control.

In addition there is lack of adequate experience in organizing protest movements and demonstrations. An exception may be the Shi'ite-dominated Eastern province, where decades-old grievances regularly manifest themselves in street protests and clashes with the security forces.

Third, there is a genuine fear on the part of the ordinary middle class - particularly in the big cities of Riyadh, Jeddah, Mecca and Medina - that political agitation and revolt against the House of Saud may unleash barely concealed centrifugal forces that could tear the kingdom apart along regional, religious and sectarian lines.

In particular, there is a deep fear of Shi'ite political empowerment, which to the Sunni middle classes is tantamount to Iran gaining a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula.

But even if the Arabian masses do not immediately come out onto the streets to demand basic political and social rights on a par with the great majority of Middle Easterners, the long-term trends do not bode well for the House of Saud.

The transformation of the North African and Middle Eastern political map, and specifically the development of more transparent and accountable political systems, does not only weaken Saudi Arabia's strategic position in the region but it threatens to expose the kingdom's citizens to all manner of subversive ideas and aspirations.

In the years to come Saudi dissidents are going to multiply and opposition in all its forms is bound to grow exponentially to the point of drowning the official half-hearted reformist discourse championed by King Abdullah.

In order to avoid or neutralize these potentially existential challenges, the Saudis must begin a genuine process of reform with immediate effect. Genuine reforms mean introducing universal suffrage and beginning the process of decoupling the state from the royal family and the atavistic Wahabbi clerical establishment.

If the House of Saud wants a fighting chance of survival in the first half of the 21st century, they must move quickly to grant Saudi citizens the same rights enjoyed by virtually every other major Middle Eastern country. While no one expects Saudi Arabia to develop into a mature democracy overnight, the process culminating in a relatively transparent and accountable government, in addition to far greater social and cultural rights, must begin now.

But the prospects do not look good for the al-Sauds. As vividly portrayed by its geriatric and dying face, the entire Saudi regime is weighed down by inertia, leadership deficit, corruption, not to mention the deeply polarizing and toxic impact of the reactionary Wahhabi establishment, which simultaneously produces conservatism and extremism.

As the Middle East and North Africa regions embrace democracy and gradually catch up with the developed world in terms of social and political inclusion, as well as cultural freedom and innovation, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia looks more and more like a dangerous aberration.

Similar to its decrepit and dying leadership the entire House of Saud is staring oblivion in the face.

Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Middle East politics.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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