What’s it mean to be a king? Our popular image is of some bro, richly dressed, sitting on a fancy throne, throwing edicts left and right and being waited on hand and foot. Most importantly, we believe a king can do as he likes; he’s the king, that’s it, he wants your wife, he’s gonna get your wife. And while a king in his castle or palace rules supreme, kings cannot overcome the limits of a nation’s geopolitics.
And thus the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia won’t do more than nudge the trajectory of that kingdom’s path. The kingdom is a massive cruise ship; no matter who the captain, it can only turn so fast.
First, the cliff notes! Because being bored is easy.
- King Abdullah tried to nudge Saudi Arabia into the 21st century, but didn’t get far.
- That’s because Saudi Arabia has a series of conditions that continue to hold it back.
- Those are: living in a desert, being a kingdom, suffering the resource curse, and having a culture that was too isolated and put under too much hardship for too long.
- And most of all, King Salman is running out of time before Saudi Arabia’s stability cannot be taken for granted.
Oh, King Abdullah, we hardly knew ye.
Actually, we knew him quite well. King Abdullah came to power in 2005, but had, in typical Gulf Arab fashion, been running the show already for years. His older brother, King Fahd, had suffered a stroke and was more or less a figurehead during his last years on Earth.
Fahd had it relatively easy; Saudi Arabia’s enemies were outsiders (Israel, Iran, Iraq) rather than insides (al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, Saudi bloggers). King Abdullah took the throne in the aftermath of a bloody al-Qaeda uprising. While Fahd either outright supported or just tolerated mad jihadists, King Abdullah’s hand had been bitten. The Kingdom under Abdullah recognized that jihadism as proposed by Sayyd Qutb was a serious threat, and that Islamism did not envision much of a future for the House of Saud.
So King Abdullah began reforming the bits of the Kingdom that he could. He built many a university, sent record numbers of Saudi students abroad for education, experimented with mixing genders a tad, and tried to simply ignore religious laws that were too extreme. On the flip side, he was happy to utilize the Kingdom’s swordsmen to behead anyone who could be a threat to him, occasionally executing criminals in public to remind the Saudis who was still in charge.
Such an object lesson was extra necessary with Qutb-influenced jihadism taking root in Iraq, Yemen, and, later, Syria.
But what was holding him back? Well, Saudi Arabia’s conditions.
All good leaders know they can only push so far before they experience blowback. In democracies, that blowback is peaceful and means that half of Congress applauds when you note you can’t run for a third term. But in the zero-sum power politics of a kingdom, blowback can be a gunshot to the head.
In 1975, Saudi Arabia experienced that blowback firsthand. King Faisal – yes, the same King Faisal who (wrongly) told Henry Kissinger that America needed Saudi oil more than Saudi needed American money – had modernized the kingdom a bit too much for some people. During a protest against allowing television into the country, a member of the royal family was killed by police; his brother then shot King Faisal point blank as revenge. The lesson: Saudi conservatives were willing to kill whoever upset them.
Four years later, the Great Mosque siege stunned the kingdom further. There, radicals took over the Great Mosque in Mecca and held out under Saudi assault, declaring the House of Saud to be apostates and their own leader to be the true leader of a pure form of Islam. The charge was cutting: the House of Saud was being accused of not being Muslim. For the family that prided itself on its religiousness, such a thing could not stand.
In response, the Saudis went much more hardcore towards conservatism, believing that since they could not beat them, they were better off joining them.
And what produced those conditions? Let’s begin our list of Things That Make Saudi Arabia Really Problematic.
The desert problem: Saudi Arabia has some of the lowest rainfall on Earth. Crops are virtually impossible; life is hard, yadda yadda yadda. So in pre-modern times, populations couldn’t grow very much. Since the population was so sparse, and cities so rare, people gathered together as nomadic tribes and lived primarily through raiding and trading.
The one exception was the western region, where the cities of Mecca, Medina, and Jeddah are situated. They sat on the caravan route between more habitable Yemen and the thriving civilizations on the Mediterranean. They were still not awesome places, but they managed to make do from trade and a handful of wells.
This issue hasn’t changed. Saudi Arabia must spend enormous amounts of money overcoming its desert. It must use up resources on things that other states take for granted; things like having water or keeping the temperature from boiling you to death in the night. There’s hardly any relief in Saudi Arabia. Yemen has its highlands; Iraq has its rivers, but in Saudi, the desert is either sandy or rocky. It must therefore pay a massive electricity bill just to live.
The kingdom problem: In sum, the kingdom problem is that the Saudi king rules over a diverse group of subjects who don’t care about him unless he provides them with nice things and/or kills a few of them.
Being a kingdom is way different than being a nation-state; a nation-state like France can assume all the French people within its borders want to stay inside France. More importantly, for France, the ruling elite are not tied to the existence of the nation-state. Switch out the elite as violently as you like; France will still be France because beneath the elite lies the state, and underpinning the state is the French nation.
But Saudi Arabia is a swathe of territory held together by a single family. What does someone from Qatif, in the Eastern Province, have in common with someone from Jeddah, in the western Hijaz? Not much beyond the fact that they’re both under the gun of the Saudi family’s soldiers.
The map below shows this. Saudi Arabia has no less than three Arabic dialects, and they make total sense geopolitically. The Gulf Arabic spoken in the east is the result of centuries of trade in the Persian Gulf and with Iran. Eastern Province Shi’a are Shi’a because nearby Shi’a Iran used to be the center of their world.
Meanwhile, in the west, Baharria Arabic is the result of trade going north-south from Yemen to Jordan and Syria. The leftover bits speak Hijazi, or Saudi, Arabic, which came out of isolated, lonely Riyadh.
The point is this: nation-states homogenize their cultures and create strong nations that can survive the overthrow of a royal family, the death of a king, or a change of a government type. Kingdoms, however, do not. Thus Saudi Arabia is split between not just three dialects but three very different outlooks on life. Should the royal family wobble, the whole thing could easily come apart.
The resource curse: Ah, there you are again, my nasty friend.
As illustrated last week, the resource curse affects Saudi Arabia perhaps most of all. When people are given something for free, they take it for granted. When whole generations grow up that way, they live life demanding it. As time goes along, human capital rots because there’s no incentive to improve oneself. You needn’t worry about rent, food, or taxes, so you just relax your way to obesity and functional illiteracy.
Since Saudi Arabia is also a kingdom, it must bribe as many people as much as possible to prove that the kingdom is still a good idea. But Saudi Arabia is running out of cash to do that. While Saudi subjects have been increasingly demanding more, the Saudi budget is increasingly able to provide less.
This year it projects spending at $229.3 billion, but will take in perhaps as little as $190.7 billion. Saudi Arabia can afford to do that – for a while. But even a rich man can waste his billions if he’s not careful. Saudi may only have 20 years left in their sovereign wealth fund if current deficits continue.
Finally, Saudi’s intolerant culture: I intentionally don’t refer to Islam because Saudi Islam really is more a cultural thing than a religious thing. Saudi Arabia’s official culture comes from Riyadh. Before oil, Riyadh was an isolated, desolate place, full of tribal violence. Only through strict and clear rules could order be set to it. It should be no shock that when a warrior band emerged from Riyadh to conquer the peninsula, they were super religious and very intolerant.
Rather than moderating after their conquests to better rule the teeming masses in the Hijaz, Saudi Arabia got uber-lucky with its oil strikes that enabled it to do things other kingdoms could not. Another, just as intolerant kingdom with less money would have faced uprisings against its strictness, or it would have moderated itself to better rule its more liberal regions.
But Saudi Arabia didn’t have that problem. With oil cash flowing, Saudi Arabia was able to rapidly organize a well-equipped army to ensure stability and bribe most people most of the time to keep them quiet. Additionally, the ruling, conservative culture was given command of the education system and mass culture, helping to remake many a young mind into their thinking. Now such attitudes are so widespread that they can’t easily be undone.
Populations have skyrocketed; picking a fight with conservatives in 1950 would have been a much shorter, simpler conflict, simply because there were fewer of them. But with millions of Saudis alive today who don’t remember the days before the Kingdom, any king who tries to modernize too fast risks a full-on uprising from the very people who are supposed to be the most loyal.
So, what can King Salman do? A little here and a little there makes sense, but time is fast running out. King Salman is trapped by his desert, which makes him pay for things that other states get for free. He can’t up skill Saudis fast enough to outgrow an oil economy, since his kingdom has the resource curse. He has a limited base of supporters, since his kingdom inherently can’t homogenize all the diverse groups that were lumped into it through conquest.
And he can’t take on the kingdom’s worst culture habits too quickly, because by doing so he could alienate the base he must have if he is to keep ruling (and probably breathing). Top all of that off with a world that’s racing for an exit from Persian Gulf oil, and you’ve got a kingdom that is not an envy to rule.
It’s still wholly possible for Saudi Arabia to reform itself to the 21st century before the day comes when oil no longer pays the bills. But it’s not a task I’d personally want. That deck is stacked heavily against Riyadh.