I seem to have a habit of experiencing important geo-political events from what, at least for me, represent unlikely (if not exotic) locales. Two years ago last month I watched the United States inaugurate its first African American president from behind the barbed wires and concrete bollards protecting my hotel room in Karachi, Pakistan. Two weeks ago, I watched Egyptians flood into Tahrir square from the lobby of my Riyadh hotel, alongside countless other Arabs, some Saudi, some foreign, all of us sitting transfixed by the Al Jazeera coverage, despite the Kingdom’s official public indifference to developments in the capitol of their Western neighbor.
The reaction within the Kingdom was remarkable for its simultaneous restraint and schadenfreude fascination. The Saudi Times, the Kingdom’s English language daily and a publication best known for its heavily state-influenced reporting, could not avoid featuring Egypt as its front page, column 1, above the fold news, day after day. They struggled to find sufficiently noncommittal statements from His Highness King Abdullah, who appropriately spoke strongly in support of the Egyptian people, but stopped short of supporting an overt removal of Mubarak.
The next day, I met with a business partner for lunch and found myself in a candid conversation with a scrupulously gracious and recent Egyptian expat, roughly my contemporary, who in his candid thoughts found himself profoundly worried about events back home. At first I thought his duty to provide Arab hospitality to his visitor perhaps extended to accommodating what he knew to be the view of the US Government: namely that Mubarak, virtual dictator though he was, was relatively preferable to a destabilized and potentially radicalized Egypt. But even Arab hospitality has its philosophical limits, and my colleague showed all the signs of real conviction: the specter of a state run by the Muslim Brotherhood, overtly hostile to the West, to the minority Egyptian Christian population, and leaning towards extremist isolationism was enough to make my friend lose his appetite. He began smoking constantly, until his mother called. From Egypt. To tell him she was alright. And then he calmed down a bit – at least for a while. But he kept smoking.
Now that I’ve left the Kingdom, I can say that the reports on Western news media that “Saudi might be next” or that the unrest in Jordan is but a harbinger of a complete democratization of the region are at once both hopelessly optimistic (speaking of the region as a whole) and naively ignorant of the facts (speaking of the Kingdom in particular). The Saudi monarchy bears little resemblance to the Mubarak régime: it has developed a broad-based and effective system of wealth distribution that keeps it firmly both in power and on the friendly side of what otherwise become the restless middle class bourgeousie. It has also struck a 30-year deal with its Wahabbi extremist constituency which keeps it both in power and cloaked in the vestments of religious authority.1 They have effectively managed diverse constituencies and, even if we know that the average Saudi is restive and possibly susceptible to persuasion by extremists to become terrorists, at the same time the monarchy has paid attention to constituencies and dynamics which Mubarek et al. chose to ignore. For that reason alone they may receive some flak for infrastructure failures (the virtually annual Jeddah flooding and the virtually annual street protests come to mind), but they remain firmly in power and respected. And US media theorizing notwithstanding, they show every sign of staying that way for the foreseeable future.
At the same time, Americans and others who see the recent Egypt developments as “a miracle” ought to bear in mind that this triumph of democracy has brought with it an 80 million person power vacuum. If the Muslim Brotherhood has its way, peace treaties with Israel disappear, the Christian minority becomes a persecuted apostatic underclass, and Egypt flirts with the fate of Afghanistan after the Soviets. We can – and should – celebrate the removal of a brutal autocrat. But we should also brace ourselves for a messy destabilization. If my Egyptian friend is right, most of his 80 million fellow countrymen want I peaceful, nonradical state. On behalf of one peripatetic and worried American, I profoundly hope he and they get what they want.
- The relationship between the House of Saud and the Wahabbis in fact stretches back nearly 300 years, but it was the Kingdom’s need for a fatwah “authorizing” their counter-attack on the dissidents who took over the Grand Mosque in 1979 which rolled back the modicum of liberalization seen in the Kingdom during the ‘70s and cemented their symbiosis for decades to come. [↩]