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Yet, Abdullah’s designated successor, Crown Prince Sultan, is himself 85 and also in very poor health. However, after Sultan, who is next in line to the throne is unclear, despite the presence of the Allegiance Commission, expressly created in 2006 to decide the line of succession after Sultan.
Still, there are still those who are quick to point out that recent Saudi protest efforts constitute at best a nascent movement with little chance of success, one dwarfed in size and scope by the massive demonstrations seen in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen.
Although Saudi Arabia’s high unemployment and near total lack of democracy are parallel factors to the ones present in the Tunisian and Egyptian rebellions, there also key differences.
For starters, Saudi Arabia has little historical experience with opposition politics, evidenced by the fact its royal family has been consistently backed by both conservative clerics and political reformers. It’s a view best expressed by reformist blogger Al Nafjan: “For the majority of Saudis, we still believe in our monarchy. It’s just that we want reforms.”
Secondly, the Saudi government enjoys enough surplus reserves to spend on job programs to appease both an unemployed and underemployed populace. For example, Saudi foreign reserves are 101% of its gross domestic product compared to 15% for Egypt.
Furthermore, the Saudi government has embarked on an $800 billion investment program that runs until 2014. Its 2011 budget also calls for an increase in spending of $155 billion, the third straight record budget for planned spending. As King Abdullah noted in December 2010, “Fiscal budgets in future years will not decrease, but rise and rise.”
Finally, Saudi Arabia’s own geography is an obstacle to protest movements, as its population centers are spread out across a wide area with few densely crowded enclaves where a mass of demonstrators could defy government authorities.
As such, critics argue Saudi Arabia remains relatively immune to the region’s revolutionary virus. If anything, they counter, the concern of Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim ruling elites comes not from a potential challenge to their rule, but rather, from a genuine fear of Shiite Iran’s imposing hegemony.
It is one reason why this most Islamic of Arab states has long supported secular authoritarian regimes, like Egypt, as powerful allies against Iranian expansion, one which led the Saudi government to be so aggressive in its efforts to support Mubarak.
Even while Iran is momentarily tied down with its own internal unrest, the Saudi government believes that Iran has not abated in its desire to see a destabilized Arab world. According to Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, “Iran will try to take advantage of the spreading catharsis and this will challenge the Saudi foreign policy establishment even more.”
Perhaps, in the end, the greater challenge for Saudi leaders will be to become less preoccupied with the dangers posed by these external threats and more focused on the dangers posed by the discontent cropping up among their own people. As recent events in the Mideast have clearly demonstrated, failure to do so can lead to a quick and unexpected end. If they don’t believe it, they can ask former Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak.
Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank’s work at his blog, www.politicallyunbalanced.com.
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