Saudi Arabia Unprepared For A Wave Of Change

By Hossein Valeh* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

TEHRAN (IDN) – Saudi Arabia is the name of both a society and a government. In fact, it stands for a very traditional, closed, and semi-tribal society, which is prone to very profound and increasing conflicts while being impregnated with a host of potential changes. The existing conflicts can be divided into three major categories:

1. Cultural conflicts: This group contains those conflicts, which are mostly pivoted around the two main axes of religious bigotry as opposed to religious liberalism. The outcome of such conflicts is emergence or religious divides in the society;

2. Economic conflicts: Such conflicts usually exist between the poor and the affluent classes in any society and, in turn, have their root in the divide that exists between the ruling elite and people as a result of which certain social classes are marginalized; and

3. Political conflicts: These conflicts are usually due to an ongoing competition for grasping more power within the political structure of the country. In fact, their main cause is the power struggle, which has been institutionalized within a profoundly traditional and very old patriarchal system of government which makes up the petrified organization of Saudi monarchy.

The main cause for the increasing conflicts within the Saudi political system is also rapid economic developments that are taking place in this country as well as the changing model of communications. Changes in these two factors have been very rapid.

For example, Saudi people have become very rich during the past three decades as a result of which, during this relatively short period, the volume of accumulated wealth in Saudi Arabia has increased several times. At the same time, no major shift has taken place in social classes to match the huge rise in social wealth because a dictatorial and tribal political organization has practically prevented balanced growth from taking place in Saudi society.

On the other hand, the expansion of communications with the Western countries has opened the eyes of formerly traditional people of Saudi Arabia to a totally different lifestyle.

As a result of these two factors, a highly closed traditional society has been suddenly equipped with modern means of communication as well as extraordinary financial might. These changes, inevitably, create new expectations in any society where they occur. In case of Saudi Arabia, the existing political and social organization is not capable of coping with multitude of new expectations. Under these circumstances, the traditional models used to control social behavior finally turn into obstacles on the way of increasing social demands. This issue is, in turn, the origin of conflicts, which gradually appear in the society in different ways.

This is the true image of Saudi society: a society, which is constantly boiling and is better known as disturbed and disorganized. While part of the society has totally distanced from traditional values, another part is still loyal to those values and there is no way to encourage interaction between these conflicting tendencies. The proportion of highly educated Saudis has sharply increased in the past few decades.

As a result of the monetary policy that the government has adopted in the wake of the Arab Spring developments, it has been relatively able to appease its people by greatly increasing their purchasing power. As a result of changes that have taken place in Saudi society, their contacts with the outside world (including cultural, commercial and trade contacts), as well as virtual communications have grown to such high proportions that cannot be easily compared to other countries in the region.

On the other hand, unlike the Iranian society, the Saudi society has not been exposed to a major cultural, political and social change in the past 100 years. The Saudi society is a backward and closed society based on tribal relations, which has suddenly fallen in the vortex of great changes which promise to leave no stone unturned in this country.

Diverse tendencies

There are various kinds of tendencies in this society from the most radical and most extremist ideas about the outward practice of the religion, which are rife among Saudi religious leaders, to those classes in Saudi society, which have totally passed over all kinds of religious tendencies, but are not allowed to give voice to their opinions.

A glance at Saudi media will clearly show this. The political spectrum, which marks the political tendencies in Saudi Arabia, includes a wide range from the most Westernized, secular, and anti-religious tendencies, all the way to the most traditional, most closed and most orthodox religious ideas.

A glance at Saudi Arabia will show you a different continuum containing all kinds of people from the most radical terrorist warlords (like Osama Bin Laden) to those who have totally said goodbye to their past traditions and have even rose against them. There is constant friction among these two spectrums. The existing political organization has proven unable to manage all these conflicts along a rational path. The political organization in Saudi Arabia has its roots in a patriarchal ruling hierarchy, which is based on believing in total obedience to the king and his rule.

As such, the country has never seen an election throughout its history and the ruling system is trying to run the country’s affairs on the basis of a petrified mentality. The main reason behind the survival of this ruling system is the high financial capacity of Saudi Arabia as a result of the huge oil reserves that the country contains. Saudi Arabia is the biggest exporter of crude oil in the world and the West will need its oil for many long years to come. Therefore, the West actually has to protect the Saudi government.

A wakeup call

The latest developments in the Arab world have been a wakeup call for the Saudi government and society. The developments in its southern neighbor, Yemen, had the highest impact on Saudi Arabia. This is true as any major change and development in the social and cultural structures of Yemen usually has direct cultural and social effects on Saudi Arabia.

This was why Saudi Arabia did its best to resolve the Yemeni crisis in the best possible way and in the most peaceful manner and has been relatively successful as well. However, untoward developments in the Arab world have also elicited certain reactions within the society of Saudi Arabia, which have at times added to the existing conflicts and have taken on a social dimension as well.

By offering a series of economic incentives, the government of Saudi Arabia has been trying to cushion the social pressures for political change and has been to some extent able to rein in political developments inside the country.

However, the worst is not yet behind Saudi Arabia. Due to its extremely conservative nature, there is a risk that the Saudi government will try to shift the burden of the crisis to outside its borders. By doing so, Riyadh will try to either increase its distance from a social and political crisis or, at least, postpone its emergence as far as possible. The overt intervention of Saudi government in Syria crisis is a major example of this situation.

In fact, we are not faced with a government, which has worked out a new strategy from a position of power and in a very constructive manner. On the opposite, we are faced with a government, which is in a position of weakness and is an example of “a drowning man will clutch at a straw.” As a result, it will spare no effort to get out of the dire straits it has found itself in. This is the main phenomenon with which we are faced now.

Under these circumstances, we must see what tools and facilities are available to this country, and to what level of destruction it is ready to resort when faced with higher degrees of anxiety and distress. There is no doubt that if Saudi government’s concerns are intensified and its standing in the region is further undermined, it may resort to more radical methods. However, if, on the other hand, its concerns decrease, it will certainly try to distance from this policy as much as possible.

*Dr. Hossein Valeh was the Political Deputy at Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s Office and Iran’s Former Ambassador to Algeria. He is now the Faculty Member of Shahid Beheshti University. This article was originally published on Khabaronline News Website and translated and reproduced in Iran Review on February 13 under the headline Will Saudi Arabia Be Finally Swept with Wave of Change? It is being published by arrangement with the editors of the non-partisan website. [IDN-InDepthNews – February 15, 2014]

2014 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Photo: President George W. Bush with the Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, April 25, 2002. Image copied from English Wikipedia

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