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Will Saudi Arabia Ever Change?

James Hill/Contact Press Images
Portraits of King Abdullah when he was crown prince (left) and the late Prince Sultan (center), who was heir apparent when he died last year, on the outskirts of Riyadh, September 2003
It’s a funny place, Jeddah. Nobody knows the half of what goes on.
—Hilary Mantel, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street


On September 25, 2011, the aging ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, gave a remarkable speech to the Majlis al-Shura, the formal advisory body to the Saudi monarchy in Riyadh. Beginning in 2013, the king said, women would be allowed to serve on the 150- member body; and beginning in 2015, they would also be permitted to vote and run for office in municipal council elections.

To most outside observers, these moves were hardly worth noting. In 2011, popular revolts were toppling autocratic regimes across the Middle East; even fellow monarchies like Morocco and Jordan were amending or changing their constitutions to show they would be more accountable to the people. By contrast, the Saudi king’s speech conceded no new authority to the Majlis al-Shura, an unelected body with limited powers of consultation only, and Saudis have shown little interest in the largely symbolic local councils, only half of whose members are elected. Moreover, Abdullah’s innovations, such as they were, would only happen in the future: the 2011 municipal elections, which took place a few days after the speech, were, as in the past, open to men only.

Yet in a country whose only written charter asserts the Koran as its basic law and in which women have few legal rights, let alone the right to vote, the announcement struck many as revolutionary. Liberal Saudis and women activists called the decision “historic,” citing it as further proof that their nearly ninety-year-old monarch was a “reformer.” For their part, members of the government rushed to reassure the country’s powerful ulama—the religious leadership, which adheres to the puritanical branch of Hanbali Islam known in the West as Wahhabism—that the new women members of the Shura would not mix with the men. The king himself, in making the announcement, carefully noted that “since the time of the Prophet, the Muslim woman has had valid opinions and [sound] advice that should not be regarded as marginal.” Even so, prominent Saudi clerics suggested that the decree did not have religious backing, and two days later, as if to assert their continuing writ, a court in Jeddah sentenced a woman to ten lashes for driving a car.

Thus the king’s revolutionary speech was also a deft maneuver to preserve the status quo. On the one hand, the monarch was appeasing one of the country’s most aggrieved constituencies—educated Saudi women—and openly acknowledging that the country’s political institutions must evolve. On the other hand, he left the Saudi system hardly more democratic than before, and by raising the ire of religious leaders, reinforced the divide between the two groups—liberals and Islamists—that pose the greatest threat to the monarchy. “In effect, nothing has changed,” Mohammad bin Fahad al-Qahtani, an economics professor and human rights activist, told me in Riyadh last May. (A few weeks after I spoke to him, al-Qahtani was put on trial for starting an unauthorized human rights organization and could face up to five years in prison.)

The same might equally be said of Saudi foreign policy. Mindful of the political awakening sweeping through the region, the king has shown a degree of support for uprisings elsewhere, from arming the rebels in Syria to reconciling with the new Islamist leadership in Egypt. Yet the only direct intervention by Saudi Arabia has come in neighboring Bahrain, where, in March 2011, a Saudi-led force was sent to stave off a popular revolt and prop up the Bahraini monarchy. Riyadh has also been using its influence in the Gulf Cooperation Council, the alliance of autocratic Persian Gulf states, to pull together support for the beleaguered royal houses of Morocco and Jordan. The White House has remained silent. The US does more trade—overwhelmingly in oil and weapons—with Saudi Arabia than any other country in the Middle East, including Israel, and depends on close Saudi cooperation in its counterterrorism efforts in Yemen.

Indeed there are few signs that the Saudi monarchy is even contemplating serious reforms. During a recent visit to several parts of the country, I spoke to academics, journalists, members of the Shia minority, and young bloggers, as well as clerics and government officials, and many were outspoken in criticizing the government; one journalist who had worked for official media told me, within minutes of our acquaintance, “I can’t wait for this regime to collapse!” But almost without exception, no one seemed to think that would happen anytime soon. I asked one prominent women’s rights activist why more Saudis weren’t agitating for a full written constitution—a moderate reform that could provide a more rigorous legal frame for continued Al Saud rule and that was discussed publicly during a brief opening after the September 11 attacks. She replied: “No one’s talking about it anymore. All the constitutional monarchists have been jailed.”

Among the many enigmas about the increasingly elderly group of brothers who have ruled Saudi Arabia since 1953—the year in which their father, Abdul Aziz, the country’s modern founder, died—is how they have continually evaded the forces of change. Despite Saudi control of the largest petroleum reserves in the world, decades of rapid population growth have reduced per capita income to a fraction of that of smaller Persian Gulf neighbors. Even the people of Bahrain, a country with little oil that has roiled with unrest since early 2011, are wealthier. Having nearly doubled in twenty years to 28 million, the Saudi population includes over eight million registered foreign residents, many of them manual laborers or domestic workers. Illegal migrants, who enter on Hajj (pilgrimage) visas, or across the porous Yemeni border, may account for two million more.

With three quarters of its own citizens now under the age of thirty, Saudi Arabia faces many of the same social problems as Egypt and Yemen. By some estimates, nearly 40 percent of Saudis between the ages of twenty and twenty-four are unemployed, and quite apart from al-Qaeda, there is a long and troubled history of directionless young men drawn to radicalism. The country suffers from a housing crisis and chronic inflation, there have been recurring bouts of domestic terrorism, and the outskirts of Riyadh and Jeddah are plagued by poverty, drugs, and street violence—problems that are not acknowledged to exist in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques.

On top of this, Saudi Arabia also seems to possess several of the attributes that have led to broader revolt in neighboring countries. There is a restive and well-organized Shia minority in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, who have engaged in a series of street protests since early 2011.1 And young men and women all over the country are exceptionally well connected by new media: only Egypt ranks ahead in Facebook usage in the region; a higher proportion of Saudis now use Twitter and YouTube than almost any other nation in the world. This has made it easier to expose alleged corruption by members of the royal family, as one anonymous Twitter user, “Mujtahidd,” with apparent inside sources, has been doing, attracting more than 800,000 followers in the process. (A mujtahid is a scholar with independent authority to interpret Islamic law.)

In stark contrast to the country’s youthful population, the Al Saud dynasty often seems geriatric and disconnected. Though he has worn the crown for only seven years, Abdullah was crown prince for twenty-three years before he became king, and commander of the National Guard for nearly half a century. He has not been in good health; his medical visits to the United States often generate as much comment as his trips as head of state. Moreover, owing to Saudi Arabia’s unusual system of succession, there is little likelihood that a charismatic young reformer will soon ascend to the throne. The current monarch is supposed to designate a successor, or crown prince, from among his younger brothers—the remaining survivors of the founding king’s thirty-seven sons by more than twenty wives—before the monarchy passes to the third generation, many of whose members are already middle-aged.

In 2006, King Abdullah established an “allegiance council” made up of senior princes to ratify succession decisions, a step that also seems designed to reinforce conservatism. Two of Abdullah’s successive crown princes, themselves in their late seventies and mid-eighties, respectively, have died in the past year; the current crown prince, Abdullah’s half-brother Prince Salman, is a comparatively young seventy-six. Meanwhile, there are now some seven thousand princes in the ever-growing royal family, each getting some share of the mostly hidden national budget.

Faced with such intractable challenges, can the US-backed regime survive? Two new surveys of the country, both written since the Arab Spring by veteran American journalists, arrive at dramatically different answers. Karen Elliott House, a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, sees a country whose people are “seething” with discontent and whose leadership reminds her of the “dying decade of the Soviet Union.” In her book On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines—and Future, she envisions a potential “crash” when the crown passes to the third generation.

Covering much the same ground, however, Thomas W. Lippman, a former Washington Post reporter who has been traveling to Saudi Arabia for more than three decades, finds “scant evidence that any substantial portion of the Saudi population wants to replace the regime.” In Saudi Arabia on the Edge, he is generally bullish about a monarchy he regards as surprisingly adaptive and exceptionally well armed with cash. “For better or for worse,” he writes, “the outside world can assume that the House of Saud will stand—provided that oil revenue continues to flow into its coffers.”


Contrary to its desert image, Saudi Arabia is a highly urbanized country in which five large metropolitan areas—Riyadh in the center, Jeddah, Mecca, and Medina in the west, and Dammam on the Persian Gulf—account for more than two thirds of the population. Riyadh, the Saudi capital, is a Houstonian sprawl of offices, malls, and SUV-clogged thoroughfares; it is possible to miss the Grand Mosque if you are not looking for it. More affluent districts are filled with American fast food chains, British department stores, and French hypermarkets. Scruffier neighborhoods, like Bathaa in Riyadh’s Old City, feature the usual array of outdoor market stalls, electronics stores, and long-distance call centers, many of them clearly catering to a large immigrant population from South Asia. Seen from a car window, there is little to distinguish it from large cities in many other countries.

And yet at ground level, everything is different. The SUVs are all driven by men, many of them foreigners: since women are forbidden to drive, it is standard for middle-class households to employ a driver; but it is frowned upon for women to be chauffeured by Saudis (or other Arabs) who are not their husbands or fathers. Though women can purchase the latest upscale Western fashions at almost any Saudi mall, they are expected to wear a black abaya at all times and may be harassed by the Committee to Prevent Vice and Promote Virtue, the country’s religious police, if their hair shows just outside their veils. And in downtown Riyadh, not far from one of the main shopping districts, is a square where public beheadings sometimes take place.

Mike King

Lippman and House are both sensitive to these disconcerting contrasts. Yet the contradictory insights they draw suggest how hard it can be to get a handle on the Saudi regime. For example, looking at the proliferation of fatwas by different Saudi clerics on issues like gender mixing, Lippman sees a system in which “rules of behavior and appearance are not fully codified,” allowing the ruling family to use religion to tighten or loosen its grip as needed; while House thinks the monarchy has “largely lost control of an increasingly diffuse and divided Islam.”

Regarding Saudi women, however, House finds appalling evidence that some are subjected to “virtual slavery, in which wives and daughters can be physically, psychologically, and sexually abused at the whim of male family members, who are protected by an all-male criminal system and judiciary.”

Both authors lament the Saudi education system, which in the clutches of the religious establishment has produced what Lippman calls “a lost generation” of young Saudis. But Lippman argues that the king has embarked on an “education revolution”—purging school textbooks of “inflammatory material,” spending nearly $4 billion to establish a top-flight coed university north of Jeddah, and sending more than 100,000 young Saudis abroad to study; while House maintains that the government’s vast outlays have produced few results (Saudis still perform near the bottom of international tests) because the “religious-educational bureaucracy remains largely impervious to reform.” The two books concur that the Saudi government has made hardly any progress in weaning itself from oil. For House this shows how “unproductive,” “dysfunctional,” “brittle,” and “ossified” the economy has become. Yet Lippman observes that the steady flow of crude has allowed the regime not only to withstand the Arab Spring but also to “spend hundreds of billions of its revenue” preparing Saudis for a post-oil future.

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    A full account of the Shia uprising can be found in Toby Matthiesen’s coming book Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t (Stanford University Press, 2013), an early draft of which was kindly shared with the author. 

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