LONDON – It’s amazing how much subtext you can pack into a single word. Consider this recent announcement by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia: “Women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal elections and will even have the right to vote.”
On the other hand, you could easily accuse the 87-year-old monarch of dragging his feet on reform, because he waited until this year’s municipal elections were almost upon the country (they were held on Thursday) before announcing that women could vote the next time, in 2015. Boo.
But that’s not fair to King Abdullah. He’s actually moving fast on women’s rights, because 2015 will be only eight years after Saudi Arabian men were allowed to vote for the first time, in the 2007 municipal elections.
And women will henceforward also be eligible for appointment to the Shura Council, the 150-member unelected congress that the king consults with on matters of public concern. Hurray.
Hang on a minute. Two days after Abdullah made that announcement, a Saudi court sentenced a woman to receive ten lashes for the crime of driving while female. Boo. And then on Thursday the king overturned the court ruling and spared the woman. Hurray. And on and on, in a endless counterpoint of progressive measures and conservative crack-downs.
So what is actually going on here?
What we are seeing is a few surface manifestations of the struggle that is going on among the Saudi elite about how to respond to the “Arab Spring.” The pro-democracy movements are operating right along Saudi Arabia’s frontiers, in Jordan, in Yemen, and most frighteningly in Bahrain. Everyone agrees that something must be done — but what?
In the case of Bahrain, where a largely Shiite protest movement threatened to infect the Saudi Arabia’s own Shiites (who live mostly in the eastern province, where the oil is), the answer was clear. Bahrain’s democratic movement was crushed by force, with much of the force being supplied by Saudi troops that Riyadh lent to Bahrain’s ruling family.
Indeed, it was probably Saudi pressure that swung the balance in Bahrain in favor of an armed crackdown.
Elsewhere, what happens beyond the borders is of less importance, for Saudi citizens know that they are vastly richer than Yemenis or even Jordanians. But they are probably not entirely immune to dreams of democracy, so what should be done to strengthen their immune systems?
When King Abdullah returned from three months’ medical treatment abroad in February, he announced a vast new package of welfare measures, including education and housing subsidies and 15 percent pay raises for government employees. Total cost: about $36 billion. That’s about $1,300 for every man, woman and child in the country.
Thus began the latest round in the perpetual tug of war between those (including the king) who feel that some economic and political concessions are necessary to head off worse trouble, and others (including much of the royal family and most of the religious establishment) who believe that even one step back from the status quo would put the regime on a slippery slope.
This is an argument that breaks out inside any autocratic regime whenever change threatens, and it’s clear which side Abdullah is on, but he has very limited space for maneuver.
His first priority is to keep his immediate family — around 22,000, at last count — in the style to which they have become accustomed, and their expectations are very high. If they collectively decide that his decisions are endangering their privileges, they will remove him. In a system of succession that does not have a strict rule of primogeniture, that is easily done.
Then he must contend with the ulema, the senior religious authorities of the Wahhabi sect of Islam that the Saudi ruling family has been allied to for more than a century. Their support is vital to the regime’s legitimacy, and it would certainly weaken if Abdullah carried out reforms that conflicted with their austere and deeply conservative vision of Islam.
If, despite all that, he chooses to make major reforms to the political system, he cannot even be sure that they will stop the slow decline in the ruling family’s authority.
When 40 percent of those in the 20-24 age group have no work, and fully half the country’s population is under-19s who will be looking for work in the next two decades, you cannot call the system stable no matter how good the welfare system is.
There is a striking difference in what the pro-democracy movements have led to in the one-party dictatorships of the Arab world and in the traditional monarchies.
In the dictatorships, mostly military, the outcome has been revolution and regime change: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, perhaps soon Syria.
In Jordan and Morocco, by contrast, there is a good chance that the outcome will be much democratization backed by a stable constitutional monarchy.
Such an outcome is unlikely in Saudi Arabia, which has a great deal further to travel. On the other hand, there is not much visible demand for full democracy in the kingdom; maybe some cosmetic measures will suffice. King Abdullah is old and ill, and he is hoping that will be enough.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.