Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How Stable Is Saudi Arabia?


protests in Saudi ArabiaReuters Anti-riot police facing off with protesters in Qatif, Saudi Arabia, on Mar. 11. 
Anxiety about political unrest has grown in Saudi Arabia as revolts sweep across the rest of the Middle East. The Saudi government quelled a day of protest on March 11 with heavy police presence in Riyadh and sporadic violence elsewhere. On Monday, Saudi troops along with forces from the United Arab Emirates moved into Bahrain to help control the protests there, prompting concern from the Obama administration.

King Abdullah remains popular, but like other nations in the region, the kingdom has a young population, an unemployment rate of 10 per cent, rising inflation, and growing wealth disparity. Late last month he announced a $37 billion package of housing and unemployment benefits to help low- and middle-income people.

What are the likely prospects for change in Saudi Arabia? Can the monarchy defuse frustrations by doling out benefits or are pressures for reform mounting? What might reform look like? 

What Makes the Kingdom Different

March 14, 2011
Bernard Haykel is professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University where he also directs the Transregional Institute and the Project on Oil and Energy in the Middle East. He is writing a political history of Saudi Arabia.
The quick and relatively peaceful ouster of the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt in the recent Arab uprisings has given the general and false impression that regimes in the Middle East are frail and easy to topple. The war in Libya is proving otherwise, as do the limited demonstrations in Saudi Arabia on March 11.
Unlike other countries in the region, Saudi Arabia has deeper resources and strategies that it can use to stave off serious threats in the short term.
Two things are worth keeping in mind about this region: 1) the countries differ from one another in socio-political structure and history and 2) the regimes have varying claims to legitimacy — some stronger than others — as well as different coercive abilities. In other words, Saudi Arabia is not Libya, nor is it like Egypt or Yemen.
The avuncular King Abdullah is popular amongst his subjects. His family, the Al Saud, are numerous and deeply rooted (they’ve been ruling since at least the 1740s) and are not the product of European colonialism or some military coup. Furthermore, given the size of oil revenues, they have enormous economic means at their disposal to co-opt the population and to put in place economic development policies that can provide jobs for a young and restless population. Finally, large numbers of Saudis cannot imagine the country remaining unified without them in power and, moreover, have too much to lose if the regime is overthrown.
The so-called “Day of Rage” did not come off last week because the Shiites, about 10 percent of the population, made a terrible blunder by demonstrating early and frequently, thereby giving a sectarian tinge to what otherwise would have been a national movement for reform.
The Shiites gave the Sunnis, who make up 90 percent of the population, an excuse to bond together. Furthermore, the regime in Riyadh, which has been stating that Iran is behind many of the revolts in Bahrain and elsewhere, was able to confirm some of its claims when the Shiites started demonstrating, with and without provocation from Riyadh. And now that Saudi troops have entered Bahrain, presumably to quell Shiite-led protests and to back its Sunni rulers, Riyadh is signaling that any opposition to its rule will be considered part of a broader Iranian plot against it.
Saudi Arabia has many of the conditions that have led to the demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt, namely the political and economic problems associated with a youth bulge. However, unlike other countries in the region it has considerably deeper resources and strategies that it can draw upon to stave off a serious threat in the short term. One of these is to play the sectarian card.
Over the longer term, it will certainly have to put into effect policies of reform, economic and political, if it is to remain stable and the authority of the Al Saud unchallenged. It has started doing this with the reforms of King Abdullah, albeit tentatively. More effort is needed, namely to put in place an industrialization plan that will provide the three million new jobs needed over the coming decade, a more open political system that can root out corruption and allow non-royals to have power in the decision-making process. Such steps will become urgent if the price of oil falls, as it has done cyclically in past decades, and the regime’s ability to co-opt the opposition becomes constrained.
There is one additional issue that bears repeating: Saudi Arabia has 25 percent of the world’s proven petroleum reserves and produces around 9 million barrels of oil a day, and potentially 12.5 million barrels if all its claimed spare capacity is indeed produced. Because of this accident of geology and this production capacity, Saudi Arabia cannot become unstable without the world coming literally to a standstill. The kingdom is in a category by itself with respect to energy markets and its role in the global economy. One need only look at the behavior of financial markets whenever its fate is in question to know this with certainty.
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Pierce Randall
Atlanta, GA
March 14th, 2011 8:37 pm
These are all reasons too, but reason number (1) is they got guns!!1 Lots of them, mostly sold by the United States. Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia, by contrast, are or were weak powers. Further, the US gives Saudi Arabia more military aid than we do Israel, which is quite a bit, and speaks somewhat to our government's willingness to intervene to promote stability (i.e. aid a monarchy--a dictatorship by a nicer name) there.

And hey, I'm not making value claims here. I'm suspicious of any moral high ground we might take in the region, but maybe we're picking the right balance, and maybe not with respect to a very large and economically important country like SA. I'm inclined to think that's illegitimate, but it's not as plainly foolish as would have been blatant support for Egypt during their revolution.
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John in CT
New Haven, CT
March 14th, 2011 11:23 pm
Well, the "Royal" family in SA operates exactly like the Soprano clan in my view. Are they better than any alternative? Probably, but let's quit the hype about spreading Democracy and other such drivel and get our troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq. Did the Saudis ever pay the bill for Gulf War I?
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March 15th, 2011 12:39 am
Age of the King and his designate, as well health of both, are on a losing side and that military might cannot prop them up. The infighting among the family to get the throne will be a terminal event. The coming year or so, all this will be played out. In the end the people, not the King, will win . Democracy will ensue.
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March 15th, 2011 12:43 am
I'm not sure we give Saudi Arabia military aid. I think they pay for it. US couldn't afford our oil crack habit if KSA didn't subsidize us.
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Syed Waqar
Karachi Pakistan
March 15th, 2011 12:46 am
The revoulation against the kingdom of Saudi Arabia by some miscreant element would destabilise the whole region of Middle East. It would strengthen the Iran to bring extremist base party into power.Then in the name of democracy corrupt and criminal minded people will grab the power.Iran would also involved in inciting the people in the so- called of revoulation in Bahrain and other Gulf States in order to bring here the party of his own minded into power and create the enrgy crisis.I humbly request USA please intervene in these situation and try to resolve the crisis through dialouge and peacefull manner.Other wise it would be disastorous and Extremist based party follow the Khumeni doctrine would make whole the region like hell and also it would threaten the USA interest in the region.
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Beverly Hills, California USA
March 15th, 2011 12:53 am
America’s Selected Democracy!

I think that after the unseating of two Dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, the United States Government, President Obama in particular, is lackluster about the people’s plight in Libya for one sole reason.

I can’t say for sure but my intellect tells me that Obama (and his advisors) perhaps believe that if the people of Libya overthrows Mummar Gaddafi, (A strong but brutal Dictator) then enormous momentum would be generated and the rest of the Arab world Dictators, especially those like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and others, would also fall, and the White House calculation is that; “we would be in a precarious predicament as to our influence and our Middle Eastern Oil Supply.”

Hence, this “democracy” that “we America” espouse to the world should be renamed, “Selected-Democracy.” If this is the case, sooner rather than later we would have enormous regrets. At the present time we spend well over 700 billion dollars on defense and most of the money that are being spent is for the fight against terrorism. Well, I contend that none of the uprising thus far has had anything to with anti America cynicism, but if we allow Gaddafi to crush the uprising, then the 1.5 billion people in the Middle East “would blame us.”

You may ask, why blame America? Well, no other country has stuck their nose as deep in Middle Eastern Affairs as we have; and no other country “props-up” Middle Eastern Dictators like we do! So, of course we would be faulted and justly so!

Flip the coin and suppose we do help in whatever manner we could so that the 1.5 billion people could live a life like we do; “hopes and dreams for better tomorrows, with freedom, justice and the pursuit of happiness;” we would then face a far lesser threat of terrorism as we do at the present time. The reason would be is that the “people” would for the first time see America as a country that not only talk the talk, but walk the walk, because America and Democracy would be – “betwixt!”

Thus, in the final analysis; “people often doubt what you say but they always believe what you do!”

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Saudi Arabia
March 15th, 2011 1:09 am
Living in the Kingdom for two years has made it clear that things will not change significantly here anytime in the foreseeable future. The combination of culture, religion, money and tradition are too powerful to change quickly. The nexus of both political and religious authority in a single person of the King is one of the key elements of stability. The absolute intolerance for any dissent, the medieval punishments like beheading, cutting off hands, lashes, etc., combined with the pervasive military presence and naturally religious conservatism cannot be compared to any other modern country. This country will have to change, but change will be very, very slow.
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March 15th, 2011 2:14 am
All monarchies are a result of a land grab at some time in history. The louts in control of Saudi Arabia aren't special just because they have been at it for 250+ years. These tyrants are as bad as Qaddafi and they too shall fall, one of these days.

It is a shame the US has chosen to look the other way as Saudi Arabia shuts down freedom of speech and refuses to reform. These dictators act as if they created the land and the oil under it -- these natural resources belong to all the people of that country, but only a select few reap its benefits and dole out a few drops to keep the masses quiet.
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March 15th, 2011 2:30 am
Americans tend to forget 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia and they absolutely despise US support for each and every action by Israel against its neighbours.
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March 15th, 2011 3:51 am
SA may have the guns but do they know how to use them. During my career in the Army, I met and worked with SA officers from time to time. In my opinion, the Saudi Officers were the worst allied officers that went through IOBC (Infantry Officer Basic Course) that I ever encountered (Chad and Turkey were represented by the best.) They put nothing into the training and got nothing in return except a resume line and a scare badge for their uniform. This little adventure in Bahrain may prove to be their undoing.
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New York, NY
March 15th, 2011 4:18 am
The only way this regime sustains itself is through fear mongering.
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March 15th, 2011 4:19 am
Troops wouldn't cross international borders without the approval of USA this is a FACT. It is an unmistakeable indication that Obama admin gave greenlight to gulf states and even Yemen to supress demonstrations. What a tragic twist of western concepts. You can bet that Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Bin Ali of Tunisia are now regretting their quick surrender. Perhaps if they held to thier positions further, USA would have given them a greenlight to supress too ..!!
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A Khokar
March 15th, 2011 4:23 am
Saudis are the big Hypocrites; propping up Bahrain dictator while opposing Ghadafi quelling actions in Libya.
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A Khokar
March 15th, 2011 4:33 am
If no one turned up to protest after announcing it on 11March 2011 as a Day of Rage; that is no good sign on the part of Saudis who are enslaved for last so many centuries; where peoples are so restricted; subjugated like the Palestinians Jews of Pharaoh time and are simply let to live a vegetative life.

If Saudi Monarchs are just peoples then where is the just distribution of God given mineral wealth which belongs to the peoples and where are the peoples who could have their say and are seen in control of the affairs of their own home land?

Why Saudis masses are so degraded that they have to look up to the bribe of 37 billion dished out to keep them shut.
At the same time Saudis are sponsoring the GCC meeting of all the tyrants of ME to ask the west to employ no fly Zone in Libya in favour of the rebel national council of Libya; what hypocrisy helping the opposition rebel, the protesters of Libya and gagging their own protestors at home.
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New York
March 15th, 2011 5:03 am
"There is one additional issue that bears repeating: Saudi Arabia has 25 percent of the world’s proven petroleum reserves and produces around 9 million barrels of oil a day"
What percent of this income goes to financing of "international left?"
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Sainagakishore Srikantham
Pune, Maharashtra
March 15th, 2011 5:26 am
Instability in Saudi Arabia is something the rest of the World can NOT deal with. Especially with the other OPEC members also facing some problem domestically. Just because Saudi Arabia holds a tight grip on the World's supply of Oil (the West in particular), powers in the West (read United States) will do anything to help the Royal Family out. Although I doubt, most of the "help" would be done in public gaze. I smell more of a CIA style mission.
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Glasgow, Scotland
March 15th, 2011 7:04 am
Often the strategic importance of a dictatorship lulls the supporters of it and the dictatorship itself into believing that they are beyond removal. When the tsunami of change comes - and it always does - driven by people who do not care about the strategic importance of the regime that must go, the world inhales sharply and then notices: we can live without those despots. They are methane in the wind.
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Bill N
Chicago IL
March 15th, 2011 7:21 am
Are you sure we give more aid to SA than Israel? Funny way of putting it. The Saudi's pay for the weapons we sell them, Israel is the largest recipient of US aid though not all their military purchases come from this aid.
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March 15th, 2011 5:23 am
The Shia are attacking South Asians here in Bahrain, in pogroms against laborers, for their jobs; yet they would never take on the kind of work that these people do. Who speaks for them? Yesterday they killed a Pakistani man, and severely injured another. The South Asians have taken out full page ads in two local newspapers today asking for help form the local police. The Bahraini policemen's hands are tied because people like Nicholas Kristoff wrote articles in the N.Y. Times, describing these attackers as "peaceful democratic demonstrators", and the U.S. president and much of the U.S. public took in the lies, hook, line and sinker; never has this newspaper fallen lower in my esteem; they make Al Jazeera look like a voice of moderation. When will Kristoff "man-up", and address his contribution to this chaos? I welcome the Saudis in; they understood Iran's role behind these "democracy demonstrators", and they have the will to support their comrade in peril, the Kingdom of Bahrain.
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Peak Oiler
Richmond, VA
March 15th, 2011 7:19 am
This Kingdom can only buy off its citizens for so long.


The Wikileaks evidence revealed in the Guardian shows that in 2007 Sadad al-Husseini, Aramco's former head of exploration, met with the US Consul to advise him of the inability of Saudi Arabia to reach 12.5 million barrels per day of output. In fact, he predicted that the Saudi oil supply was nearing its historical peak in production. We proponents of Peak Oil have been claiming this to be the case since Matthew Simmons' book Twilight in the Desert showed us how the Saudis are doing all in their power to claim reserves they do not have and that are not independently verifiable. al-Husseini noted that the Kingdom has overstated its reserves by 40%.

When Saudi output begins to fall, so will the Kingdom's welfare state. They have no Plan B aside from guns for crowd control. It remains to be seen if the end of Saudi Arabia as we know it, the world's swing producer, will also mean the end of our modern economy.

Why The New York Times brings oil-industry shills like Daniel Yergin out, instead of covering the looming oil crisis he and Exxon-Mobil seek to deny, escapes me.
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