Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Saudi Arabian monarchy entering troubled waters

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the conservative Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has threatened to ban the controversial anti-Islam video that has predicated so much religious outrage around the Muslim world recently.

The Saudi government September 19 requested the giant search engine Google block all YouTube links playing the film. Equally unsurprisingly Google has of course declined to co-operate.

Saudi Arabia, according to the Dubai School of Government, registered 90 million YouTube video views per day. This is the highest number of YouTube views in the world per internet user, so a little trepidation on the part of Riyadh is understandable.

Riyadh is not the only government coping with reactions to the anti-Islam video. Over 20 countries including Libya, Lebanon, Egypt, and Pakistan weathered protests this past week in response to the perceived offensiveness of the video.

However, it is more dangerous for Saudi Arabia; Riyadh is already experiencing an extraordinarily complex year. And this complexity is compounding with no end in sight.

Important figures in the Saudi monarchy are dying, internal instability simmers among a youthful population, and their historically proximate rival Iran is challenging the Kingdom over energy dominance in the Middle East.

Such a video may not normally have stirred such reactions in the Saudi Kingdom. But coupled with spreading access to the internet and a looming succession minefield, the monarchy elites are justifiably nervous and lashing out.

Deaths of two crown princes in the past eleven months continue to whittle down the experienced second generation elites.  As their numbers decrease, an approaching generational shift will test stability in the country with world’s second largest oil reserves.

One of this year’s landmark changes occurred with the death of Saudi Crown Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz on June 16. The Saudi prince was part of a declining legacy of Saudi elites with a chequered record of state governance.

Naif was the last major member of the Sudairi Seven. This powerful group of Saudi Princes are the full brothers and sons of Abdulaziz bin al-Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi kingdom.

However, the death of Naif is another lost member of the generation that has ruled Saudi Arabia since the 1930s. Due to the advanced age and worsening health of the senior ruling elites, the Saudi monarchy is facing challenges to a well established process of succession.

A time is fast approaching when the Saudi royals will be forced to increase the number of third generation princes into key government posts.

Five to ten years from now the kingdom will likely be in a period of political unfamiliarity as the newer, less experienced generation prepares to take power.

As this older generation shrinks – Saudi King Abdullah is nudging 90 years old and is constantly in hospital – the newer generation are still relatively behind experientially.

When, not if, King Abdullah succumbs to his illnesses he will probably be replaced by Sudairi faction member Crown Prince Salman, another second generation prince. Salman is only ten years Abdullah’s junior, hardly a spring chicken.

Many major members of the newer generation currently hold regional positions of power in 12 of the 13 Saudi provinces.

So while the experience question is not urgent, there is a possibility in the future of individual power grabs. It is not clear their allegiance is completely behind the Saudi kingdom as a traditional monarchy. An affinity with the traditional tribal structure that has nurtured them is not guaranteed.

There is at least a decade before the second generation princes cede power to the upcoming generation. A buffer like this should give the monarchy time to prepare sufficiently.

Ideally, the older princes will leave the Kingdom to a generation that places stability of the state above personal ambitions.

However, the new generation is much more educated in general than the second generation elites ever were. This buffer might just encourage factions to develop among this new breed of Saudi princes, leading to potential destabilisation in the future.

The monarchy had expected Naif’s death for some time and is coping with the power transition well. Although since Naif’s death his position as Crown Prince, Deputy Prime Minister, has remained vacant and unfilled by a third generation prince.

This potentially signifies a more formal succession process underway instead of the traditional method of royal announcement, a process that is a direct response to the shifting internal mindset among common Saudis.

Attempting to censor the anti-Islam video demonstrates an evolving approach to Saudi religious discourse, traditionally dominated by the House of Saud.

Religious leaders have dictated what is culturally acceptable for very nearly a century. Yet social media and the internet are attracting more young Saudis who utilise it to challenge the authority of the clerical elite.

Openly criticising the monarchy has historically not been tolerated. The coercive state apparatus is quick to clamp down on any fledgling dissent, something foreigners can become personally familiar with if the strict religious rules are not observed.

Aside from the digital arena there are few places to congregate in Saudi Arabia and even less chance to mobilise. Social media, as seen around the Arab world recently, is slowly making it simpler for Saudi youth to spread ideas and criticise the monarch relatively safely.

Such a new phenomenon as the internet so rapidly introduced into a deeply traditional, tribal, and familial culture will be hard to contain for the emerging third generation leaders.

An exposure to alternative worldviews can challenge anybody, but for an insular state with a large youth population coming suddenly upon the internet as they have, such exposure can potentially be deeply disruptive.

Indeed, Twitter CEO Dick Costelo explained recently that Saudis are the fastest-growing group on the social networking site. Apparently the number of Saudi Twitter users increased by 3000 percent in June alone. Some 400,000 people use Twitter, according to Time magazine, with around 4 million Facebook users also.

The incoming generation of Saudi elites will not inherit a docile, controlled populace that have been such a blessing to the current leaders for almost a century. The internet has put paid to that.  

The basis of Saudi nationalism is loyalty to the House of Saud.  A question arises for the incoming generation of leaders to see if they can manage a population willing to flex its democratic ambitions, and whether this can be achieved smoothly and without turmoil.

They will have to balance a populace with increasing exposure to and alignment with democratic ideals, and a traditional process of formulating government.

If the trends toward democratic upheaval around the region are bellwethers, the democratic urge may win out in the end. What that will do to oil prices is anyone’s guess.

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