Over the past half century, critics have often predicted the fall of the House of Saud or emphasised the fragility of its rule. They were invariably proved wrong because the Saudi monarchy enjoyed limitless oil revenues, had the support of the US, and avoided becoming a front-line combatant in Middle East crises.
Saudi strengths and weaknesses may have been long debated but the Kingdom’s vulnerabilities have seldom been so starkly on display as they were last Tuesday because the coincidence of two very different events. Before a rally in Mississippi, President Trump stated – brutally and without qualification – the dependence of the Saudi monarchy on US support and the price it must pay for such backing.
“We protect Saudi Arabia,” Trump told the cheering audience. “Would you say they’re rich? And I love the King, King Salman. But I said ‘King – we’re protecting you – you might not be there for two weeks without us – you have to pay for your military’.” Outbursts by Trump tend to be more calculated than they sound and he only humiliates allies in this way when he knows he can get away with it.
Trump’s contemptuous reference to the instability of Saudi Arabia was given greater significance by another dramatic event which happened a few hours earlier some 6,000 miles away in Istanbul. The prominent Saudi journalist and critic of his country’s government, Jamal Khashoggi, failed to emerge from the Saudi consulate where he was doing some paperwork relating to his divorce and impending marriage.
Khashoggi has not been seen since. The Turkish authorities, no doubt delighted to be able to present themselves as defenders of journalistic freedom, say he is still inside the consulate. Saudi officials claim that he left the building, though surveillance cameras prove he did not do so on foot, so, if he did leave, it was presumably in a diplomat’s car, possibly in the boot. Khashoggi’s fiance was left waiting disconsolately outside the consulate gates.
The best that can be hoped for is that the blast of international criticism over the incident will lead Khashoggi to reappear, perhaps denying that he was ever detained. This was the bizarre experience of the Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri in November last year when he disappeared during a visit to Riyadh and resigned his post on television before reappearing thanks to French government pressure.
The fate of Khashoggi, whatever the outcome of the present furore, carries an important message about the present state of Saudi Arabia. If he has been forcibly detained, as the Turkish government says, then it is a self-harming act of stupidity. It elevates him from being a minor irritant to a cause célèbre and a continuing mystery about his whereabouts ensures that the story is not going to go away.
It is early days yet but the Khashoggi disappearance has released a torrent of negative publicity about Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This was wholly predictable. It is a curious fact about publicity that horrendous events – like the Saudi-led war in Yemen that has brought five million children to the verge of starvation – has failed to make its way to the top of the international news agenda. The slaughter is too great and the place too distant and ill-reported for most people to take on board and react to the horrors underway there.
Something on a smaller scale, like the disappearance of a critic of the Saudi government while his fiance waits for him in the street, is much easier to understand and respond to. Often, the all-too-common disappearance of journalists has the simple objective of silencing them and intimidating others. “Let them hate us so long as they fear us,” is the point being crudely made.
But the crown prince had hoped for a more positive image in the international media and his expectations have seldom been disappointed. Take a look at the piece by The New York Times columnist Thomas L Friedman in November last year about the four hours he spent with him: “We met at night at his family’s ornate adobe-walled palace in Ouja, north of Riyadh,” he writes. He describes Saudi Arabia as being in the throes of its version of the Arab Spring that ‘”will not only change the character of Saudi Arabia but the tone and tenor of Islam across the globe. Only a fool would predict its success – but only a fool would not root for it.”
Khashoggi was one of those fools who balanced between reasoned criticism and outright dissent. Going by Friedman’s account of Saudi public opinion he was a lonely voice because “not a single Saudi I spoke to here over three days expressed anything other than effusive support for this anticorruption drive.” But could it be that this impressive display of unanimity might have something to do with the fact anybody expressing a hint of criticism – like economist Essam al-Zamel – may find themselves clapped in jail on charges of terrorism and treason.
Hagiographic journalistic reports on Saudi Arabia may be more difficult to retail in future in the wake of the Khashoggi scandal. Already, some longtime backers of the country are jumping ship. One of them, Elliott Abrams, is quoted as saying that “the Saudi government is either keeping him [Khashoggi] in the consulate building or has kidnapped him and taken him to Saudi Arabia.” He warns that the reputation of the current Saudi government could “be harmed irreparably.”
The proposed economic reforms in Saudi Arabia have always sounded like wishful thinking. Deep scepticism is the correct approach to government-backed radical change in any country dependent on revenues from oil and other natural resources. Anticorruption campaigns simply redistribute the spoils to a new gang of well-connected predators. Much of the population has got too used to getting well-paid patronage jobs in return for little or no work. Domestic industry and agriculture cannot compete unless heavily subsidised. The system is too convenient to too many to be uprooted: opposition to corruption and patronage gets a thumbs up so long as it involves no personal sacrifice of any kind.
Saudi economic problems are serious, but not necessarily disastrous. More destabilising for the Kingdom is the extent to which Saudi Arabia is now demonstrably operating beyond its real strength in the region as its its more adventurous foreign policy over the last three years backfires.
The list of failures is impressive: Saudi-led bombing in Yemen since 2015 has not defeated the Houthis, but it has produced the greatest manmade famine on earth; increased help for the Syrian armed opposition the same year provoked Russian military intervention and has brought President Bashar al-Assad close to victory; the quarrel with Qatar has weakened all the Gulf monarchies; confrontation with Iran is a conflict that can never be won.
As Mikhail Gorbachev discovered after the first heady days of trying to change the Soviet Union, reforms are more likely to capsize an existing systems of government than improve it.