The Saudi Question

After the Soviet Union collapsed, it became clear that Western analysts had known very little about how its system had actually operated.

One suspects that such ignorance is pretty standard fare even when it comes to outsiders trying to understand the decision-making of open and democratic states. Opacity is the essence of successful politics despite the cant about transparency. With fully closed systems, the task becomes almost impossible. Saudi Arabia is, in this respect, the Soviet Union de nos jours.

Analysts of Saudi affairs have often been complacent - just as Kremlinologists had been complacent - because little 'happened'. It provided the illusion of perfect stability despite the apocalyptic expectations by some of Islamist takeover. Even the bumps along the road - the deposition of King Saud in 1964 - were 'adjustments', not revolutionary shifts in the power structure. However, the accession of King Salman last year has resulted in some rethinking, not so much because of him but because of his choice as Crown Prince of Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud.

The Crown Prince has positioned himself as a strong man in security and foreign affairs but there is something deeper going on here. Hitherto, strength just meant the strength of the alliance with the US as junior partner, a Middle Eastern equivalent of Britain's special relationship in Europe. Now it means direct action in the region. Dynasticism does not generally sit well with nationalism (they are historic rivals) but a nation seems to be being forged as something more than the property of the Crown. There is a model for this sort of state-building - the United Kingdom.

In the UK, there are no citizens in the French meaning of the term. Everyone is a 'subject' of the Crown and yet the United Kingdom's feudal nationalism has morphed into a democracy whose future definition is at the heart of the current Brexit debate. Half the population want to take the next step to European citizenship. Half prefer to remain subjects (or independent republicans). The Queen's 90th Birthday, celebrated today, ensures, for much of the population, an almost 'spiritual' bond between an ancient feudalism and a sense of nationhood that goes back at least to Henry V.

Although no democracy and unlikely to become one soon, the Saudi Kingdom's new national pride strikes this commentator as a positive act of modernisation, somewhere between the enlightenment brutality of Frederick the Great and the radical authoritarian reformism of Stolypin in Tsarist Russia. Executions have gone up and Islamists are determined to play the role of Narodnaya Volya but the powers of the religious police have been curtailed and a more liberal economic policy is being instituted much as Stolypin introduced his reforms from 1906-1911.

Stolypin, an avowed monarchist, failed to create a strong modernised feudalism but there is no reason why he could not have succeeded (the example of Bismarck also springs to mind) if he had not had to contend with the machination of courtiers and the assassin's bullet. What is going on in Saudi Arabia may be a throw-back to an earlier era from a European perspective but its trajectory may help us assess whether the Kingdom's fate will be to suffer an Islamist 1917 or become a viable modernised monarchy that will still be in place, alongside the United Kingdom, in a hundred years.


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