Pure Imagination: Saudi Arabia in Peril?

Is Saudi Arabia a kingdom in peril? This was the key question under discussion at a packed event held at the Frontline Club on Monday 27 April. Following the accession of King Salman and the ongoing conflict in Yemen, a panel, chaired by journalist Owen Bennett-Jones, discussed the potential destabilisation of the regime and the possibility for change within the country.

Robert Lacey, an author who has covered Saudi Arabia for almost 40 years, said that although talk of its imminent demise and the collapse of the House of Saud had been repeatedly anticipated, these predictions failed to take into account “the Saudis very sophisticated system” that operates extremely effectively within the country.

Carool Kersten, senior lecturer in the study of Islam and the Muslim world at King’s College London, agreed that while in the past the Saudi states have been threatened, the dynasty has always demonstrated an “elasticity” which has “enabled it to bounce back.”

For former ambassador to Saudi Arabia Sir William Patey (2007-10), it boiled down to a question of external perception versus a very different internal reality.

“From Whitehall it was almost a dialectical argument, that [Saudi Arabia] would collapse under its own internal contradictions. But Saudi Arabia is different [from regimes and systems like the Soviet Union]; namely that it is run by the Al Saud who have survival in their DNA. It’s a very cautious, a very slow moving system operating by consensus. But the times when they move quickly are when they are in peril.”

From dealing with the threat of Nasserism in the 1960s to the assassination of King Faisal and the siege of the Grand Mosque in the 1980s, which saw the regime develop a more Islamist approach, the Al Sauds have “a history of doing just enough, just in time,” said Kersten.

On whether there was the potential for regime change in the kingdom, Patey described his experience of the Iranian revolution. From a diplomatic view, the failure to anticipate the overthrow of the Shah “was not a failure of analysis but rather a failure of imagination. We failed to imagine what the Middle East would be like without him.”

In relation to the current context, Patey offered a note of caution: “just because we don’t like the look of the Middle East (and especially the Gulf) without the Al Saud, let us not close off our imagination to the possibility.”

Safa Al Ahmad, a Saudi freelance journalist, said that it is not a question of collapse but a question of peril. Saudi Arabia is entering a new phase of existence and will need to deal with the changing geopolitical and regional realities.

“Saudi Arabia at the moment is too big to fail,” said Kersten. “This is even the view of the population who have too much to lose to really rise up. I think the Al Saud are masters, and have been for 250 years, of playing to this fear and doing the right thing just in time.”

This is represented not only in the often contradictory suppression of opposition and internal dissent – be it of the Shia minority, liberals or online activists (Saudi Arabia has the highest number of Twitter users per capita in the world) – but also through the co-opting of Saudi citizens by the government who play on the turmoil of the Arab spring, which has seen Saudis less willing to take a risk with regime change.

For Kersten, the difference with many of the surrounding countries is that Saudi Arabia is not ruled by a single dictator but by “a dynasty with 3000 potential pretenders to the throne.”

“The country’s not called Saudi Arabia for nothing. It’s a Saudi State, there is no Saudi nation – rather five countries with regional and ethnic differences internally. The Al Saud have capitalised on that to present themselves as the only people who could hold it together.”

On the question of where and how change could originate, the panel were divided. Kersten suggested that it could come from the economic elite who have the means and influence but cannot develop under the Al Saud as they would in other countries, while Al Ahmad reasserted that “the worst case scenario is to have that change come from the outside.”

Citing post-Gaddafi Libya, Al Ahmad said that within Saudi Arabia “everybody wants reform but not to the extent of removing the royal family… the idea of the House of Saud not being there is the scariest option of all.”

For Patey there is no single thing that would bring Saudi Arabia down, but rather a combination of factors.

“There would have to be a perfect storm. A threat from political Islam, a regional crisis, and economic crisis, crucially a division within the Al Saud… all of those things could potentially produce Saudi Arabia in peril, but any one of them on their own is not enough.”