The economic difficulties are very much linked to political pressures on the government. The government is not in any serious way threatened by an opposition. The groups that operate abroad are split and discredited and the Islamic militants at home, who were active in the early 1990s, are in prison and likewise rather discredited. Islamist groups - in Saudi Arabias case notably the followers of Osama Bin Ladin - attract much publicity in the West, but they are not of great concern to anyone inside the Kingdom. In Saudi Arabia and much of the rest of the Middle East Islamist politics have been given a bad image by the behaviour of governments or militant groups in Iran, Sudan, Algeria, Egypt and Afghanistan - not to mention the Kingdom itself, where there were two bombings of military establishments in 1995 and 1996. Islamism continues to exert an important influence on social behaviour, but this is a separate matter from politics.
The pressure on the government is coming in a quiet and unthreatening way from the mass of the Saudi people. In return for accepting a lowering of their standard of living, which they realise is inevitable, they are expecting to live in a freer society run by a more open government. This implies a more influential and possibly more democratic Majlis as-Shura, a freer media and a less powerful royal family less separated from the rest of the population. Some of the senior members of the family are moving the government in this direction, but, as with the economy, the change may not be fast enough.
The time scale, though, is different. The economic crisis is immediate but in politics the Saudi government may have a decade to change itself. Even if this is not to be the case, it is difficult, at present, to see how a political crisis might come about. The most often proposed scenario involves an economic crisis, which is met with an inadequate response, and possibly a foreign crisis which humiliates the government. These lead to divisions in the royal family, reforms which run out of control and ultimately a change of government. These ideas sound plausible in theory - they follow the classic pattern of revolutions - but it is not easy to apply the latter stages of the process to Saudi Arabia. The senior members of the royal family remember very well how the Al-Saud nearly fell apart in 1958-64, during the period when the incompetent King Saud was being pushed aside by his brother, Faisal, and since this time they have made a point of settling their internal differences in private. At the same time the public finds it difficult to envisage the Kingdom without the Al-Saud at its head. Saudis seem to have a strong collective memory - in most cases passed on to the present generation by fathers and grandfathers - of the confusion and violence that existed before King Abdel-Aziz (1902-53) established his authority over the country in the late 1920s. The popular view is that if the Al-Saud were to be removed chaos would reign again.
In the Western mind it is axiomatic that unresolved economic and political problems lead to disaster. But in Saudi Arabia it may be more useful to think of their being a chronic economic problem, which leads to periodic crises and reforms which are never quite radical enough. Political change is slow and does not quite live up to what the population hopes - though it is sufficient not to push the people to revolution. The result may be simply that for a generation Saudi Arabia experiences a slow economic deterioration, during which the population becomes gradually less prosperous and learns to accept the standard of living of an ordinary developing country.
© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | September 2000