Saudi Arabia faces political, economic, cultural changes

by Aditya RamachandranStaff Writer (aramacha@fandm.edu)

“In one generation we’ve gone from riding camels to riding Cadillacs. The way we are wasting money, I fear the next generation will be riding camels again.” These were the words of the visionary leader of Saudi Arabia, King Faisal, sometime in the 1970s. Passed off by the international community as blatant hyperbole, in the contemporary context his royal highness’ old warning seems more relevant than ever before in the history of the Kingdom.

In Saudi Arabia today there is a growing sense of national decline, courtesy of the state’s lessening clout on the global stage and growing internal problems, which are threatening to strip Saudi’s citizens of the sense of security and dignity they have so casually taken for granted since the days of the oil boom. Long stereotyped as a society with seemingly inextinguishable reserves of wealth, poverty and income inequality are as prevalent as ever in the Kingdom and simply do not seem to be waning.

Furthermore, His Royal Highness King Abdullah’s attempts to curb the power of significant internal threats,  such as the Wahabi Salafi establishment, are losing ground, and the foundation of Saudi Arabia’s internal security is undoubtedly weakening.

Saudi Arabia is a perfect example of the falsity of the old adage, democracy is destiny. Members of the Saudi population, though predominantly under the age of 40, are educated by inadequate public institutions that do not equip them with the skills to do the type of work the 21st century requires.

Furthermore, given the lack of commercial competitiveness within the nation it is inevitable the young and restless Saudi Arabian population will experience skyrocketing unemployment in the coming years. Based on historical trends, it is foolish to think this rise will not see this population press for more collective representation — something that will completely transform the political, cultural, and social landscape of the historically totalitarian Kingdom.

Riding on the coattails of its oil boom, Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s to the mid 21st century was the center of the Arab world — a hub where delegations from around the region and, indeed, from around the world, would flock to prostrate in front of Saudi rulers and their petro-dollars. But today, the Kingdom seems to have been stripped of its title as the center of the Arab world. Indeed, the balance of power seems to be shifting to nations like Qatar — a nation on its way to becoming a regional diplomatic powerhouse — and, to a lesser extent, the United Arab Emirates.

Furthermore, none of the regional foreign policies created under the purview of King Abdullah II have addressed the fundamental challenge facing the Kingdom: most importantly, the erosion of its wealth. The United States is set to inherit the mantle of the world’s energy superpower due to its shale revolution and, by 2030, Saudi Arabia is set to be a net energy importer—not the other way around. This will undoubtedly reverse the traditional patron-client relationship that has characterized the West’s ties with the Kingdom.

It could well be that Saudi Arabia, a nation built on tribal identity, could fragment in the coming decades.

An outcome along these lines would shatter the security of the Gulf region and, consequently, the Middle East, causing geopolitical tensions of enormous magnitude especially in the context of long-term American military withdrawal from the region.

It is critical for regional and global security that younger and more modern members of the Saudi establishment spearhead a political transformation in the Kingdom, based on a system of checks and balances and a government whose rule is accepted by all the people.

Such a transformation would undoubtedly trigger similar economic and cultural reforms, which would unleash the creativity, dynamism, and productivity of Saudi’s young population. It is indeed time for the winds of the Arab Spring to pick up, once again, in the direction of Riyadh.

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