Economic Pressures Stir Democratic Changes in Saudi Arabia

November 21, 2002

A booming population and the subsequent need to create nearly 500,000 new jobs a year are resulting in unexpected democratic changes in the political life of the world's leading oil-exporting country, according to Jean-Francois Seznec, a professor of Arab studies at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Seznec spoke to the J.B. Moore Society for International Law Nov. 20.

"If I were to talk about democracy in Saudi Arabia, that would be a very short subject because there is no such thing," said Seznec, who has lived in Saudi Arabia and traveled there more than 100 times. "But a lot of things are happening that are very surprising. There are faint stirrings [of liberalization]. The press is a lot freer than it used to be. We used to get newspapers with holes in them where articles had been cut out. Timemagazine would be one-third its true size. Now you see articles critical of the royal family."

Furthermore, though the members of the Shura, an advisory council to the king, are all named by him, the assembly's size has been increased to 120 and with no royal family members among them. "They are mostly 'younger' people, mostly western-educated technocrats, but also two Shia Muslims. Historically, the Saud family has killed many, many Shia. Now they are including minorities." Seznec also noted that the opening of the assembly was handled with ceremony, like Queen Elizabeth opening Britain's Parliament, and some of the discussions were broadcast on TV.

"People are feeling more free to talk. They are talking like crazy, including about corruption in the royal family," he said.

Driving these changes is a population boom. "Sixty percent of Saudis are below age 18. The country has a growth rate around 3.2 percent that is requiring it to create 300,000 to 500,000 new jobs a year," Seznec said.

The official policy response has been to open the economy but not the political structure. "King Fahd realized he couldn't control his family [the royal family numbers about 15,000] so he divided power in two. The royal family controls matters of defense and security. Matters of industry—Saudi Arabia is booming in petrochemicals, oil production, finance and trade—are handled by a professional civil service. The division is designed to protect commoners from interference by the royal family. The royal family is officially above the law in Saudi Arabia. The royals fear that suppression of the private economy, of the commoners, could end up destabilizing royal power. Fahd's solution has kept peace in the valley," Seznec said.

"But now this bureaucracy controls nearly everything. The government is trying to destroy this bureaucracy, but it is fighting back. Why? Because they know they reflect social needs—they're very professional, trained mainly in the U.S—and because they know if they let go [of their power] the royal family will take over."

"All it would take, in my view, [for democratic reforms to proceed] is for the king to say that the royal family, 'now you follow the law like everyone else'. The law now is the Sharia, the religious law that is about justice, not contracts or precedents. Disputes are decided according whatever the judge thinks is just. So you have this paradox that you will get democratization only if you have a very strong king in power to force the family to observe the general law. Otherwise they will stay in the Middle Ages. Under pressure to evolve, the country is leaving the royal family behind."

Seznec said that competition among possible successors is preventing the government from making timely decisions. King Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke in 1998 and has been incapacitated since then. His 74-year-old half-brother, Prince Abdullah, is second in authority but not yet king. "Once Fahd dies, tribal rules will take over," Seznec said. "The next king must be a direct son of Abdul Aziz, the founder of the Kingdom. But he has to be acclaimed king by the rest of the family. The prince can't make hard decisions before being king because he can't risk alienating the family. Meanwhile he faces competition from Prince Sultan, who wants Fahd to stay alive. Fahd has 34 western doctors at his side around the clock. The Sauds do not kill each other. There are no assassinations. They are very careful to negotiate with each other. The royal family itself is somewhat democratic and makes decisions on consensus. Thus, changes are peaceful." Seznec said the history of the area proves that feuds in royal families can end up destroying their rule and this lesson is not lost on the Sauds.

Seznec said the royal family looks warily on the developments in neighboring Bahrain, where elections were held in October under the aegis of King Hamad, who also created a bicameral parliament and is a proponent of voting rights for women. Conservative Islamists won the majority of the seats in the lower house. Seats in the other house are appointed by the king and represent his more liberal views. "Bahrain's liberalization is creating ferment in the Gulf region," Seznec said. "Qatar is a similar story and they are pushing Saudi Arabia in the same direction." He said Saudi tourists in Bahrain were impressed by the open political campaigning there before the elections.

Asked about the impact of an American-led war against Iraq on Saudi democratization, Seznec said, "The royal family is completely uninterested in elections. If Saudi Arabia were democratic today, you would have 90 percent of the people against the United States. The entire Gulf is absolutely opposed to U.S. policy entirely because of U.S. support for Israel. They believe the Palestinians have had a raw deal. Only the royal family is holding back popular sentiment because they know they cannot oppose the U.S. after 9/11. Arabs want Israeli settlements on the West Bank and Gaza removed. Their level of unhappiness with the U.S. is unbelievable today. They are angry about anti-Saudi stories in the Wall Street Journal. The Saudis do not see themselves as extremists. There is a 'neo-con' element in Saudi Arabia that believes the Koran is the answer to everything, the Wahhabis, but they are not respected. They're regarded as 'old guard.' And there are jihadis, who are anti-Western, anti-Christian, anti-Russian and anti-American, and are viewed as extremely dangerous by the Saudis themselves. U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia are at the lowest ebb ever. I don't know how it will be solved. I am not optimistic at all."

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