The Choice for the House of Saud: Reform or Resistance?


The Middle Eastern turmoil until now spared only Saudi Arabia among the great Sunni majority countries (Libya, Egypt, Syria and Turkey preempted it). But with the continuation in the quagmire of the Yemeni war and the recent escalation with Iran after the execution of the Shia leader Al-Nimr, also the House of Saud, the owners of the country since 1744 (since the first Saudi State was founded and the alliance with the Wahhabi sect started) could be soon affected by the implosion of the post-Ottoman regional order. The free fall of oil prices and the retrenchment of the US from the area makes it difficult for Saudi Arabia to maintain the stability it enjoyed in recent decades. If the octogenarian King Salman will live enough (or otherwise his probable substitute, his favored son Muhammad bin Salman) he might have to choose between two alternatives for the Saudi political future.

Two options that are related specifically with treatment of the minorities (first of all Shia) inside Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen: the Moroccan King path or the Bashar Al-Assad one. Monarchs or dictators at the end of the day are the same: when the excluded part of the population, because of religious, ethnic, age or gender differences, ask for more inclusiveness, freedom and democracy, the autocrats have only two paths: appease or engage the dissent, that means reform or repress. If Al Saud family will chose the first will be able to remain in power in a way or another in the long run, otherwise it could risk to foment a rebellion that could even lead to a civil war exactly as is happening in Syria.

Monarchies are the last bastions of old traditional societies based on clans and dynasties, instead of citizenship and parliaments. They are not adapt to modern and globalized times, because the populations are more educated and informed, the economies are unable to defend themselves anymore from external shocks as in the past, and the natural march of liberation of human societies is unstoppable even by the worst dictatorships, as Fukuyama would remember. Therefore also Saudi Arabia, the last big absolute monarchy, together with its affiliated relatives in Qatar, Oman and United Arab Emirates, will have to come into terms with current modernity, economically, politically and religiously.

Either the country will be able to reform (and I am not talking here about some low level municipal elections in which even women now can participate, but political, economic, structural and cultural reforms) or it could risk sooner or later an implosion, as the rentier state effect of buying out the population will not be able to go on forever. A recent Gallup survey showed that Saudi Arabians are among the top most optimistic (70%) and happiest (86%) people in the world, but this could be the calm before the storm, as the low oil prices will reduce the happiness of these people quite soon, if the state banks will start to finish the money.

Also repressive medieval cults, besides monarchies, have problems to survive in modern times. Not only because of the pressure coming from the international community and society increasingly expressing their criticism, but because of internal strives fueled also by external exposition. As we all know Wahhabism created the disastrous extremism and radicalization with the regional and world consequences of today, but Wahabism cannot monopolize the Salafi movement anymore for long time (as DAESH demonstrated) and neither the Islamic holy places of Mecca and Medina forever, as Iran started to show, with the recent stopping of the Haji after the stampede that killed more than two thousand people last year (many of Iranian nationality).

Wahhabism has its geographical and historical core nucleus in central Arabia, were will remain whatever will happen to the country, but other Sunni interpretations and Shia sect are predominant on the costs of the Peninsula and around the Gulf. And these other religious minorities are starting to express their voices, not only religiously and spiritually but politically. It is the natural consequence of the Saudi population empowerment, that was hijacked and suspended since the 18th century alliance between Al-Saud and Al-Wahhab, and also the long consequence of the Iranian revolution, with the ayatollah Khomeini predicting the expansion of the Islamic values of the Revolution also in corrupted and materialist Gulf monarchies. It took time since 1979 because of the petrol dollars from the West that kept Saudi Arabia protected, but as the saying goes “all chickens come home to roost”, so the time is coming also for Saudi Arabia to choose its future path between reforms towards inclusion and modernization or the risk of rebellions and even civil war, Syrian style, in the long future.

Judging from recent actions unfortunately the Saudi family doesn’t seem so enlightened as the European monarchies of 18th and 19th century, who started the constitutional path that would have brought to the creation of modern republics, and that also the King in Morocco seems to follow today. King Mohammed VI of Morocco is much younger than King Salman, he studied in France and started not only to reform institutions but also to increase the respect of human rights in his country, with the creation of the Equity and Reconciliation commission, and to be more inclusive with the minorities, for example allowing the broadcast in Tamazight, the Berber language.

Instead King Salman, even if on one side seems ready to open Saudi Arabia’s economy, following a kind of Chinese style (he announced the possible sale of shares in the national oil firm, even if will not be easy attract foreign investors in a region in turmoil), on the political and social arena, both domestically and internationally, he keep closing himself to the new winds of reforms. And he look for allies in its geopolitical chessboard to recuperate the balance of power that he felt was lost with the Iranian nuclear deal. He went for example recently to Pakistan, another country with a dictatorship and a big Shia minority, to ask for help in eventual future regional clashes amid growing tension with Iran. Pakistan obviously said that it will respond to any threat to Saudi Arabia, given the fact that if Saudi Arabia is threatened also Pakistan, that is similar, could be in the same situation sooner or later.

Judging from recent history tough, the regimes that defend themselves from internal threats with external support, attacking instead of appeasing internal minorities, don’t seem to follow exactly the best strategy. Time will say but the future doesn’t seem rosy for one of the last absolute monarchies of the planet. Fortunately, we should say, even if the fear is always with the population. In particular in the absence of an international community, unable to stand up to defend innocent civilians from the hands of their tyrants, as we saw recently.

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Maurizio Geri is a ‎PHD Candidate and Research Assistant in International Studies at Old Dominion University.

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