So this ‘popular movement’ thing is finally making its mark in Saudi Arabia– the only country in the world that is named for one (still-ruling) family.
Today, worldwide oil prices spiked after the markets absorbed news in an Egyptian newspaper yesterday that the Saudi authorities yesterday arrested a Shiite cleric called Tawfic al-Amir, described by the FT’s James Drummond as “a prominent Shia cleric from the east of the Sunni-dominated country.”
The east of the country is where most of its oil reserves are. Bahrain, which has had a resilient, multi-week pro-democracy movement whose participants (both Shiite and Sunni) are challenging the concentration of power in the little country in the hands of a resolutely Sunni, anti-Shia monarch from the Al-Khalifa family, is also, as it happens to the east of Saudi Arabia, and connected to it by a causeway.
The Saudi blogger “Saudi Jeans” had a good roundup post yesterday in which s/he described the latest pro-democracy developments in the country.
Here is how s/he started the blog post:
- I know I said don’t expect what happened in Tunisia and Egypt to happen in Saudi Arabia anytime soon. But I also added that things are happening. In addition to the buzz in social media, the past week has seen the release of several statements and open letters demanding reform…
* * *
I guess I had always assumed that the current pro-democracy (for want of a better term) movement in Yemen was more threatening to the Saudi monarchical elite than that in Bahrain. After all, the rulers of Saudi Arabia (25.4 million) have traditionally– and from an ethical point of view, entirely rightly so– been much more concerned by the gross disparities in economics and living standards between their kingdom and Yemen (population 23.6 million), than they have been concerned about Bahrain (population 776,000) … But I guess this business of “Shiite equality” that is animating the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain touches a very raw nerve in Riyadh…
The Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm yesterday reported that:
- Eyewitnesses have reported seeing an estimated 30 tanks being transported into Bahrain from Saudi Arabia on Monday night at around 6:45pm local time. The tanks were sighted along the King Fahd causeway, which links the small island-nation of Bahrain to Saudi Arabia.
Commuters traveling along the 25-km causeway were held up due to the presence of “15 tank carriers carrying two tanks each heading towards Bahrain.” Civilian eyewitnesses could not, however, confirm whether the tanks belonged to the Saudi military.
* * *
Saudi Arabia is currently mired in one of the longest-running succession struggles the world has ever known. This just about guarantees that the monarchy’s response to the many challenges that “suddenly” now confront it is almost bound to be hesitant, inept, sloppy, and dangerous for everyone concerned.
The current monarch, King Abdullah, is 87 years old, and not in great physical shape. The designated Crown Prince (and thus immediate successor) is his half brother Prince Sultan, age 82. After Abdullah dies, the “senior princes” of the Al-Saud family are all supposed to come together in something called the “Bayaa 9Allegiance) Council” to come to agreement on who the next “King” will be. Most people think this will be Sultan’s full brother, Prince Nayef, who is a “sprightly” 77 years old.
You may see a pattern emerging here. Basically, ever since the death of the country’s patriarch, King Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud, in November 1953, the line of succession has been running down through some of the scores of sons sired by that fertile old guy. Throughout his 51-year reign, Abdul-Aziz was using dynastic marriages as a way of winning/cementing the allegiance of disparate tribes to his own royal house. Smart, from one point of view. At the time. But since 1953, that tactic has been a compete deadweight on the ability of the “Saudi” monarchical system to generate and regenerate effective layers of national leaders. Instead, we have had this succession of very competitive brothers and half-brothers, most of them from different mothers, and all hanging onto the perks and privileges of power with an iron grip, whenever they could.
Some of Abdul Aziz’s more competent grandsons are older than many of his sons. I don’t know about the competency of the former King Faisal’s oldest son, Prince Abdullah, but he died in 2007, aged 85. Another of Faisal’s sons, Saud al-Faisal, is a relatively “youthful” 70 years old this year. He’s the world’s longest serving Foreign Minister, and sadly plagued by Parkinson’s and other diseases of old age.
These princes all have access to the most amazing medical and anti-ageing care in the whole world. But that really cannot compensate for the fact of their physical– and in many cases also cognitive– frailty.
Not exactly a sturdy foundation on which to build a pro-American order in the Middle East, I think…. And now, it seems that some of those chickens of increasingly gerontocratic and sclerotic monarchy, easy access to unearned oil wealth, and the virulent anti-Shiite sectarianism of the Saud family’s longtime allies, the Wahhabis, are coming home to roost.
I do feel some sympathy for individual Saudis, including Saudi princes and princesses, who, having been cosseted and pampered from their infancy with the availability of lavishly flowing oil money, the service of indentured and completely rights-less household help and the services of very rights-restricted contracted professional advisers, may have grown up with the idea that they somehow “deserved” all this while Yemeni nationals or those “Godless Shiites” somehow only deserved much less.
But life ain’t like that. All human persons are, it turns out, equal. Maybe it’s time that the Saudi kingdom’s rulers, faced with sudden unexpected challenges from all around, finally figured out how to deal with that?