The New Kingdom: Saudi Arabia's Contradictory Transformation
During his reign, King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has created a new leadership role for Saudi Arabia. But his changes are filled with contradictions -- and may only make the region more unstable.
This article is the first in a two-part series about the state and future of the most influential country in the Middle East. Check back next week for part two.
Saudi Arabia's rulers don't attach great importance to being called "king." There are many kings in the world. The Saudi rulers prefer to call themselves the "Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques," a reference to Mecca and Medina. It sounds modest, but it denotes a claim to power that extends well beyond the kingdom.
The footprint, which is already big enough to accommodate St. Peter's Basilica several times over, is now being more than doubled in size. Entire mountains are being removed to expand a building symbolizing the glory of Islam - and of the House of Saud. The new wing is named after the deceased King Abdullah and its next extension, already in the planning stages, will bear the name of his successor, Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
The new king has been in office for less than half a year. Given the enthusiasm he brings to his work, he seems to want to go down in history as one of the greatest kings since Saladin. It was he, the first "Custodian of the Holy Mosques," who united Muslims in the 12th century, drove out the Crusaders and captured Jerusalem.
In less than five months, Salman has realigned his kingdom -- and laid claim to a leadership role in the Middle East. Traditionally, Saudi kings have concealed their power instead of displaying it. They used their oil wealth to support friendly groups and regimes, and they created a network of preachers who spread their radical version of Islam around the world.
Now the once secretive realm acts without restraint. In Egypt, it provides financial support to the generals who have once again seized power. It fosters armed groups in Libya, Syria and Iraq. In Yemen, the kingdom has begun a war against the Huthi militias allied with its rival, Iran. No one, perhaps not even Israel, fears Iranian hegemony in the Middle East more than Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh's role in the Arab world is similar to Berlin's in Europe -- but unlike German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the king has few hesitations. Apart from its size, wealth and ambition, one wonders, can Saudi Arabia fulfill its new king's expectations?
It remains unclear whether this leadership has a vision for bringing peace to the Middle East and whether it can transform a country that is dependent on oil exports into a modern economy. It is also remains to be seen whether it can liberalize its archaic system of rulership and break the power of its religious leaders.
The New Generation
Before becoming king, Salman Bin Abdulaziz spent 50 years as the governor of Riyadh, and then became the country's defense minister. He didn't even wait until the burial of his predecessor, Abdullah, to start transforming the kingdom. On the evening of Jan. 23, his first as king, he dismissed influential members of Abdullah's staff, and within weeks he had replaced several cabinet ministers. Three and a half months later, he rearranged the line of succession.
In doing so Salman who, at 79, is not much younger than his predecessor, sickly and, as visitors report, "often digressing," initiated a long-awaited generational change in Saudi Arabia. More than two-thirds of the population is younger than 30. King Abdullah was 90 when he died, and the average age in his cabinet was 65.
All Saudi rulers since 1953 have been sons of the founding king, Abdulaziz, known as Ibn Saud. Salman will be the last of these sons to rule the country, and his successor will be the first grandson. Salman dismissed his half-brother Muqrin as crown prince and replaced him with his nephew, Muhammad bin Nayef, 55. Both men are members of the influential Sudairi branch of the family, descendants of Ibn Saud and his favorite wife, Hassa bint Sudairi. The new crown prince was educated in the United States and is considered an energetic interior minister.
But Salman's most spectacular decision was to designate his son Mohammed as the second crown prince. The prince, who is about 30, is known to be quick-tempered and impulsive, but he apparently accepts the authority of his cousin, the first crown prince. Unlike the first crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman did not study in the West. He prefers Japan, where he spent his honeymoon. When he visited the United States a few weeks ago, President Barack Obama described him as "extremely knowledgeable" and "wise beyond his years." The Saudi Arabian press, which had been touting the king's son as a savior for months, was grateful for the Obama quotes.
The amount of power concentrated in the hands of the crown prince is unparalleled in the kingdom's history. As chief of staff, he controls access to the king. He heads the Council for Political and Security Affairs, and he also runs the state-owned oil company, Saudi Aramco, and the government investment fund.
In addition to these functions, the young crown prince is defense minister and, as such, has directed the Saudi Air Force bombardment of Huthi militia positions in Yemen for the last two-and-a-half months. The country has participated in military operations in the past -- as a US ally in the 1991 Gulf War, and as an ally of Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War -- but now the kingdom has forged its own alliance and initiated a war.
A Sniper Waits
The border with Yemen passes through the mountains in the far south of the kingdom, an hour's drive inland from the port city of Jizan. Abu Ubaid, a sniper, has been stationed at the Musharak outpost there since early April. He looks through his scope at a hillside covered with bushes, on the far side of the border. Sometimes a herd of goats passes through his field of vision, sometimes a goatherd follows behind, and sometimes he spots a pickup truck on the horizon. Then he sends a report to his post commandant, who passes it on to the air force. Abu Ubaid has not fired a single bullet yet in this war. "But I wouldn't hesitate a second to do so," he says.
The Saudi-led coalition began its air strikes on Yemen in late March. Its goal is to stop the rebellion by Huthi militias and force the quarreling factions to the negotiating table. It has been somewhat successful, in that some of the hostile factions are now scheduled to meet in Geneva for initial talks.
Still, in the 10 weeks since the bombing began, 2,000 civilians have been killed, entire blocks in the capital Sana'a have been destroyed and more than half a million people are now displaced. The Huthis, however, have not been significantly weakened. In fact, last week rebels from Yemen even attacked army posts on the border and killed four soldiers, not far from the place where Abu Ubaid is stationed.
"Nevertheless, this campaign is the right thing to do," says Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist and one of the country's leading intellectuals. "The Yemen operation shows that we can lead and form alliances."
Khashoggi lives in Jeddah, the Red Sea port city that, with its freeways, skyscrapers and shopping malls, resembles Los Angeles more than the austere, conservative desert city of Riyadh. In the capital, women wear black abayas and family life revolves around the home and the mosque. Jeddah, on the other hand, has beach clubs and hip-hop music booming from cars driving along the waterfront promenade. Jeddah is hungry for life -- it is creative and its residents consider themselves more modern and cosmopolitan than their fellow Saudi Arabians in Riyadh. But they still don't get to question their king's claim to leadership.
Riyadh has neglected its responsibility in the Middle East for too long, says Khashoggi. "All we have done is complain when something went wrong. After the eruption of the Arab Spring, we thought that someone else would reestablish the old order for us." But now, he adds, the United States is withdrawing from the region and Iran is causing trouble from Lebanon to Bahrain, and from Syria to Yemen. This is why a new regional force is needed to keep order, says Khashoggi. "We are the ones who need to fix this broken Middle East."
In a much-noticed essay, he condensed his thoughts into a catchy formula: the Salman doctrine. Khashoggi argues that the kingdom, lead by an energetic new head of state, is putting an end to the age of Arab mawkishness, realigning the region and, most of all, pushing back against Shiite Iran. The war in Yemen, he says, is the first application of the Salman doctrine.
Years ago, Khashoggi proposed forming an alliance with Turkey to put an end to the civil war in Syria. "They laughed at me at the time, calling me 'General Khashoggi.' One person asked me whether we intended to liberate Palestine on the way home. No one is laughing today." Under Salman, a similar alliance has just become a reality.
Khashoggi can't describe Saudi Arabia's strategic goal as a peacekeeping power -- or what this realigned Middle East should look like. It is clear, however, that Riyadh's rift with Tehran is deeper than ever. The kingdom may have consolidated its influence among the exclusively Sunni members of its military alliance, but its conflict with Iran has been exacerbated by the war in Yemen and it has deepened the religious divides running through the Middle East. This poses a problem for the rest of the world -- as long as Sunnis and Shiites, and their preeminent leaders in Saudi Arabia and Iran, are not talking to each other, there will be no peace.
As long as the Arab world remains one of the most backward regionsof the world, it will fail to emerge from its deep crisis. For that to happen, the sharp contrast between extreme wealth in the Gulf States and poverty in Africa will have to recede, along with the hopelessness in large portions of the Levant and the humanitarian disaster in Yemen and Syria.
So far, Saudi Arabia, which has a higher per-capita income than many European countries, had little reason to think about its economic model. Its leadership was not swept away by the Arab Spring, nor was it even challenged, like the regimes in neighboring Bahrain and Oman. This was mostly because Saudi Arabia's rulers have distributed wealth across the country with patriarchal skill. The unspoken arrangement was that money bought obedience.
But this social contract has long been approaching its limits. The population, about 30 million today, is growing rapidly and could reach 45 million by 2050. At the same time, the price of oil has dropped from $140 (124) to $60 a barrel in the last seven years. Shale oil is now being produced in North America, and Iran could return to the international oil market, making a sustainable increase in prices unlikely. Riyadh needs an oil price of about $100 to maintain a balanced budget.
The Future of Oil
The oil ministry is housed in an unassuming building in Riyadh, a utilitarian high-rise with a façade that emulates the pointed arches of Islamic sacred buildings. If the elevator shafts in the interior hadn't been made to resemble drilling rigs and the elevators to look like oil barrels, the building could just as well house a bank or a hospital.
Ibrahim Al-Muhanna, a close adviser to Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi, occupies a large corner office. Unlike the minister, whose every word could affect billions of dollars on the commodity markets, Muhanna can speak more freely. Given that oil has always been a key element of Saudi policy, he is very knowledgeable about where the country is headed.
"The Americans are pulling out of the Middle East. If they leave behind a vacuum in the region, someone else will fill it," says Muhanna. Three countries could do that, he explains: Turkey, Iran or Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is the strongest of the three at the moment, he adds, because it has the largest number of allies.
Muhanna, in his mid-60s, has experienced so many wars and crises that he seems to be unfazed by the chaos in Syria, the disintegration of Iraq and Egypt's decline. His worldview has not changed, he says: Saudi Arabia will remain stable no matter how deeply the Middle East plunges into chaos. "We have been supplying the world with oil for the last 60 years. Europe's demand is declining and America has discovered its shale oil reserves, but our markets in China, India and Indonesia are growing." Saudi Arabia exports three-quarters of its oil to Asia today.
The oil ministry also faces generational change. The fourth-born son of King Salman is seen as a possible successor to the minister, who has been in office since 1995. The country has repeatedly announced and yet never followed through on its promise that it would fundamentally change its business model - oil for the world - and reduce its dependency on petroleum. The government still derives 90 percent of its revenue from oil exports.
To this day, Saudi Arabia has about 8 million foreigner workers, or almost a third of the population. Hardly anything would function without them. Until a few years ago, a majority of Saudi Arabians worked for the government, but now the kingdom can hardly afford such a large bureaucracy. Many young people are unemployed, while older citizens work in opulent government offices and palaces.
Most neighboring countries have modernized their economies and eliminated their dependency on oil. The United Arab Emirates focuses on logistics, aviation and trade, while Oman and Qatar promote tourism.
"They have been talking about the end of the age of oil for decades," says Muhanna, the official in the oil ministry. "Yes, it will happen one day, but not in the next 10 or 20 years." The last drop of oil will come from his country, he says. It is a message of confidence, but not one of change.
- Part 1: Saudi Arabia's Contradictory Transformation
- Part 2: The Poisonous Pact
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