Forecasting Saudi Arabia's future

March 03, 2002|By Thomas L. Friedman

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - An acquaintance here in Saudi Arabia told me this story:

He was touring the countryside by car and got slightly lost. He saw a car down the road and approached it to ask for directions, but each time he drew near, the car sped away. Eventually he caught up to it, the car pulled over, and a terrified driver jumped out to flee: It was a Saudi woman dressed like a man.

In a country where it is illegal for women to drive, that's the only way for a lady to get behind the wheel.

This story is a good reminder that not everything here operates in real life as it appears on paper - which is what makes predicting Saudi Arabia's future a very inexact science. As such, I've concluded that there are two possible models for Saudi Arabia's future. I call them the "Soviet school" and the "China school."

The Soviet school argues that Saudi Arabia is an Islamic version of the Soviet Union: an absolute monarchy that is, like the Soviet Union, ultimately unreformable. The core of this regime is an alliance between a modernizing, but corrupt, theocracy led by the al-Saud family, and the ultraconservative Wahhabi religious establishment, which provides the al-Sauds with legitimacy. The minute you try to reform it, the whole system will come unglued.

This is how the Soviet school sees it: The ruling al-Saud brothers are like the old Soviet Politburo; the 50,000 al-Saud princes and relatives are the equivalent of the Communist Party. Wahhabism, the puritanical Saudi Arabian brand of Islam, is used by the al-Sauds to unite the 40 fractious tribes of the Arabian Peninsula, just as communism was used by Lenin to unite the 100 fractious nationalities of Russia and its neighboring republics.

Osama bin Laden is just the evil version of Andrei Sakharov - the insider who steps outside the system to declare that the king has no clothes. Sakharov was exiled to Gorky for that and bin Laden to Kabul. And ultimately, both systems went into decline after unhappy encounters where? In Afghanistan.

The intense Saudi competition with Iran for dominance over the Muslim world - which involves financing competing conservative Muslim schools and mosques from Pakistan to Indonesia - is identical to the Soviet competition with China for influence over the communist world.

The Soviet school concludes that Saudi Arabia has about five more years before its population boom, declining per capita income, need for education reform to create skilled workers and attract foreign investors and excessive defense spending and the influx of satellite TV and the Internet combine to explode the Saudi system - just as they did the Soviet one.

The China school, by contrast, begins with the assumption that Saudi Arabia is a country that makes no sense on paper but in real life has a lot more cushions and ballast, which enable it, like China, to pursue two seemingly contradictory policies at once.

In China it's communism and capitalism, and in Saudi Arabia it's Wahhabism and rapid modernization. Oil is to Saudi Arabia what huge direct foreign investment is to China - a natural resource that allows the system to buy off a lot of discontent and enables people to cheat on the system and thereby let off steam, behind closed doors.

In the China school, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah is the equivalent of China's reformist Premier Zhu Rongji. In particular, like Mr. Zhu, Prince Abdullah is trying to push Saudi Arabia into the World Trade Organization to create external pressure for more rule of law and transparency - but this move is resisted by more corrupt elements of the elite who benefit from the status quo.

Finally, like China's rulers, the Saudi ruling elite knows how to stay in power and will do whatever it takes to do so. In China's case that meant bringing capitalists into the Communist Party and crushing students at Tiananmen, and in Saudi Arabia's case it will mean confronting the radical Islamists - just as the al-Sauds did before when they wanted to introduce radio, television and women's education.

Like China's leaders, the Saudi monarchy can garner support from the middle class - not only by buying them off, but also by arguing that the alternative to their rule would be chaos or extremists.

The China school dismisses the idea that Saudi Arabia will collapse in five years. It notes, instead, that for 50 years, someone has come out with a study every five years that says Saudi Arabia has only five more years.

Which school would I bet on? Ask me in five years.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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