by Willem van den Berg
“There is a cottage industry forming to predict the impending fall of the House of Saud,” wrote William Quandt in Foreign Affairs in 1995. More than twenty years later the cottage industry is still churning out the same story. Publications around the world continue to dish up a spate of “Fall of the House of Saud” articles to Western readers eager to witness the end of what they see as a morally bankrupt regime. Examples from this past year include works published by Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Carnegie, The Independent, The Sunday Times, and The Australian. With oil prices at a ten-year low, a costly war in Yemen, a brash and inexperienced new deputy crown prince, a Western rapprochement with Iran, and a revival of suspicions that the Kingdom had deeper ties to the 9/11 acts of terrorism than officially reported, many believe the time has finally arrived.
Not quite. Although it is true that Saudi Arabia is a deeply fractured country built on an uneasy alliance between the Al Saud dynasty and the religious elite, political stability has proven remarkably durable. That is not to say that the kingdom is not facing a pressing set of issues that contribute to a mounting sense of instability: oil will run out and is already at historic low prices, the private sector is sclerotic, the educational system is mismanaged and deeply conservative, there is widespread youth unemployment, the Shia in the East are suppressed and distrusted, and Saudi society continues to be fertile soil for terrorist recruitment and financing. To cap it all off, there is a basic disagreement among Saudis whether the solutions to these problems lie in the 21st century or the 7th. Yet, for seven decades the Kingdom has faced a cocktail of problems similar to the current state of affairs, and in all that time not a single viable rival to the monarchy has emerged
But these problems, however slow and painful, will be tackled by the government. Change is already occurring, and it is through evolution, not revolution. Economic modernization and liberalization are a real priority for the current regime, which has begun to implement plans to diversify away from oil. Short term plans include an initial public offering of the state run oil company, Saudi Aramco, and a reduction in the massive utility subsidies that have given Saudi Arabia a reputation for immense wastefulness. The domestic educational system remains poor, but more than 200,000 students have been given government scholarships to study abroad since 2005, and they are returning with new expertise and societal views. Women are slowly being empowered through education, with women making up more than half of all students in Saudi Arabia and Riyadh now hosting the largest women’s university in the world. Elections – for admittedly powerless municipal councils – were first held in 2005, and in 2015 similar elections allowed women to vote and run as candidates. All of these changes are long overdue, many will be poorly implemented, and some are mostly symbolic. But there is a slow and steady evolution.
Revolution does not, however, seem likely. The revolutionary fall of the Al Saud is unlikely for three reasons that are surprisingly often overlooked: they are extremely resilient, there is no real domestic appetite for revolution, and the regime is widely supported internationally. Firstly, for all of its corruption, hypocrisies, and past failures in reforming either the political or the economic system, the Al Saud has stood the test of time remarkably well. In the last generation, Saudi Arabia has faced a series of economic, security and political threats, including the 1980s oil glut, Saddam Hussein’s brief invasion of northern Saudi Arabia in 1991, Al Qaeda’s attacks in 2003, and the Arab Spring in 2011. During the 1980s oil price plummet alone, Saudi GDP per capita fell from more than $17,000 – higher than the US at that time – to less than $6,000, yet the regime managed to remain in power.
Unlike other regimes toppled in the past few years, the power of the House of Saud is not focused on a single individual like a Mubarak, Ghadaffi, or Assad. There are thousands of royal princes occupying most of the important government positions in the country. And even though the family has its fair share of in-fighting and bickering, the princes realize that if they do not stand united, they will fall. Moreover, the country as a single state is in many ways inseparable from the House of Saud. It was the Al Saud who created the country by uniting different Arab tribes, a process that was first attempted in the 18th century and was finally achieved with the third attempt in 1932. Taking the Saudi from Saudi Arabia leaves Arabia, a dated term that used to describe a region of competing tribes and factions.
The structure of the state that the Al Saud have created also bolsters their resilience. A clear example is how the Saudi security forces are divided into several groups under different administrative control. For instance, the 150,000 man National Guard is not under the control of the Ministry of Defense, but rather functions as the personal army of the King. Any attempted military coup would face crippling coordination problems as each different security group has its own unique loyalties, grievances and incentives.
Second, there is no real domestic appetite for revolution. One of the paradoxes of Saudi society is that it leaves both liberals and conservatives dissatisfied about the country, but mostly content with the principle of monarchy and the Al Sauds. The liberals want to open and modernize society, while conservatives are unhappy about the progressive reforms that are occurring and are furious at the hypocrisy within the Kingdom. Both want a change of direction, but their visions are radically different. Their conflicting visions manifest in debates on topics such as whether cinemas should be allowed again or whether the mixing of genders at Aramco is sinful, but not on the royal family. The overwhelming majority of both conservatives and progressives realize they need to work together with the monarchy to change Saudi society.
Political culture is also severely lacking. Unlike many other Arab countries, there is no colonial legacy of democratic institutions, and nothing resembling political movements – the Muslim Brotherhood has long been banned and in 2014 was labeled a terrorist group. Saudis are mostly apolitical and are quick to point out that their country is stable and safe, unlike the Arab Spring countries where living conditions have worsened. Strikingly, the very architecture of Riyadh seems designed to quell protest. Numerous five-lane highways cut the city into lots of small rectangles, government buildings are spread far and wide, and without a car most of the city is inaccessible. The protests in Tahrir Square are difficult to imagine in Riyadh if only for the fact that there is no such square in central Riyadh.
Finally, the Saudi regime is supported both by its neighbors as well as by the West. Regionally, Saudi Arabia is seen as a counterweight to an Iran that is increasingly flexing its muscles. As the richest Arab nation and the custodians of Mecca and Medina, the Saudis are the de facto leader of the Sunni world. Riyadh is the capital of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Saudis are leading a coalition in the controversial war in Yemen, and in 2015 the Saudi Minister of Defense launched the 39 member Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, also headquartered in Riyadh. In addition to the other Gulf states, Saudi Arabia has been drawing closer to Egypt and Turkey. It has announced the construction of a multibillion dollar causeway over the Red Sea linking it to Egypt, and has found itself on the same side as Turkey on many issues related to the war in Syria. Despite no official diplomatic relationship with Israel, the Israelis understand the Saudis role in regional stability and exchange intelligence with them on Iran.
Although President Obama has expressed exasperation, the West also continues to support the Saudi regime. The US, Britain and France prioritize stability in the region. Additionally, the Saudis provide the West with extensive counter-terrorism intelligence; it is easy to forget that Al-Qaeda and its ilk detest the Al Saud as much as they detest the US government. The Kingdom is also the largest arms importer in the world and buys hundreds of billions worth of weaponry from these three Western powers. Obama may claim that he wants to move away from the Saudis, but in practice he remains a supporter. In 2010 he signed a $60 billion arms sale to the Kingdom, the largest arms deal in US history. Only recently, he has promised to veto a Congressional resolution put forward by his Democratic ally, Senator Chuck Schumer and supported by Hillary Clinton, that would allow for the families of 9/11 victims to the sue the country. As much as Obama dislikes the Saudis as an ally, he clearly recognizes that the US has few other options in the region.
Saudi Arabia faces many difficulties in the coming years, but the Al Saud are not nearly as fragile as they are often made out to be. Importantly, this is not to suggest that the monarchy will last forever or that such an outcome would even be desirable, but it should instead be taken as an acknowledgment of their extraordinary resilience, in spite of all of their deficiencies. As has been the case for the last thirty years, rumors of the fall of the House of Saud remain greatly exaggerated.
Willem van den Berg works as a consultant and freelance journalist. He spent the last half year in Saudi Arabia where he wrote for Al Arabiya English. He previously worked with the European Commission in Brussels and holds an M.Phil in International Relations from the University of Oxford.