Sunday, June 08, 2003

This Matthew Yglesias post and the ensuing comments bring out the difficulty of how to solve the myriad problems involving Saudi Arabia, which stands accused of questionable internal stability and fostering ideologies which incite terrorism. I think part of the problem with finding answers stems from the difficult time the American media is having coming to grips with the Saudi situation. For example, the Saudi royal family is not the impediment to social progress, it is the engine of social progress - no major development of the past century has come without their sponsorship and deal-making with the Wahhabi establishment that aided their rise to power over the nomadic tribes and oasis communities which pre-dated the monarchy.

Today the kingdom has two major problems - an ideological one amplified by an economic one. Ideologically, the early Saudis allied themselves with the early Wahhabis, the latter of whom persuaded everyone to follow the monarchy in exchange for essentially getting a monopoly over religious policy. This meant that while the Saudis were able to gain popular legitimacy, they were also dependent on holding the approval of the religious leaders on whom that legitimacy depended, leaders who advocated a very extreme form of Islam based entirely off proper behavior and resistance to innovation. During the 1970's, there was an oil boom which created vast wealth the Saudis used to set up a national infrastructure; however, the collapse in oil prices and a population explosion resulting from improved health care meant that the system could not be sustained in its present form. This has created - especially in the underdeveloped Najd and 'Asir regions - large numbers of unemployed young people who have turned to following the most extreme of the religious leaders mentioned above.

There is no golden bullet solution to this situation, which developed over time as a governing system which would have been easily recognizable to Harun al-Rashid struggled to find its footing in the modern world. However, I have some suggestions. The most important tackles both the ideological and economic issues. Saudi Arabia's claims to leadership have always been pan-Islamic, as opposed to pan-Arab. Therefore, encourage them to become more Islamic. Traditionally, Islamic states supported all strains within Islam. In the middle ages, cities had judges of all four major schools of Islamic law. Therefore, let Saudi Arabia truly seek to become a center for all Islam by inviting religious scholars from Indonesia to Belgium to come teach in newly endowed madrasas, bringing with them the diversity of ideas which pass in most countries for orthodox Islam. If done as traditional waqf endowments even Taliban-like scholars would have trouble opposing them, and they would include things like agricultural development to help provide jobs and develop underdeveloped areas while diversifying the Islamic discourse within Saudi Arabia. My gamble is that tha extremist Wahhabis would lose a fight for support against the moderate Wahhabis, royal family, and foreigners with impeccable Islamic credentials who come bearing money. From the Saudis' perspective, a Maliki scholar can support their rule as easily as a Wahhabi.

Secondly, the royal family is huge due to the fact that Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud formed political marriages with every Tom, Dick, and Harry who happened to be the leader of some patch of ground as part of consolidating the kingdom. Let's cut off some insignificant lines, freeing up money for economic development while shrinking the circle of powerful figures the immediate royals have to appease. If this causes rebellion in some areas - which I think unlikely - the U.S. should guarantee the sale of military training and equipment, as well as intelligence support in suppressing them. The only thing I'm uncertain of here is the role these groups play in succession battles, which given the age of the King, Crown Prince, and most other top figures may make cutting them off difficult.

Critics will argue that I'm basically setting up the immediate royals as stronger monarchs than they are now - I think, however, that we have no real alternatives. You will not get a democracy in Saudi Arabia at this point in time..."secular" is a charge Saudi leaders defend themselves against, not a serious political orientation, and even the Islamic liberals call for a "consultative assembly" rather than democracy. The Saudi government's instincts have always been pro-American, and freed of the need to appease their most radical elements they can continue to be a strong ally, one with whom we can discuss democracy down the line. In the meantime, the pace of social change can increase as increased debate under the auspices of Islam takes place at the local level over such issues as whether or not women can drive (they can in Iran, which is quite obviously Islamic).

Those are my ideas. Hack away...


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