James’s Musings

thoughts, photography, and geeky stuff
from an unrelentingly curious Silicon Valley entrepreneur

Watching Cairo from Riyadh, and other reflections on Egypt from Saudi Arabia

by James G. Beldock on February 12, 2011

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 regime: 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.

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  1. 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. []

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