Thursday, 10 February 2011

The Day After in Saudi Arabia

Today a controversial news site Islam Times pronounced that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had died yesterday in Morocco at the age of 86. Quickly, the Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal responded, "I'd like to assure you about the health of the King. He is in excellent shape." That reassurance did not assuage oil futures, which rose throughout the day. In the midst of what is ongoing in Egypt, the news in Saudi Arabia has taken a backseat. In fact the Egyptian armed forces released a cryptic statement  - amid the prospect of President Hosni Mubarak stepping down - that captured headlines, indicating it would support the "legitimate demands of the people."Without verification, major news organizations have not reported on the Saudi story directly - to verify one way or the other - although there were indications that pointed to King Abdullah's passing. In the Middle East, however, you can never be certain of any situation. What today's story did do, was bring back into the limelight an unenviable but inevitable prospect.

There is tremendous uncertainty that faces many regimes with aging octogenarians at the helm. The Economist played the role of Nostradamus last July, with the headline "Thank you and Goodbye: For good or ill, change is coming to Egypt and Saudi Arabia soon." In truth the day after has been a scary proposition hanging over the Middle East and the West as a dark cloud. King Abdullah has been a giant of history, ruling Saudi Arabia in effect since 1996 (first as regent and then as King starting in 2005). In many ways he has been a progressive and his passing could be a devastating blow not only to the country's leadership but also to the society-at-large and the wider Middle East. There was never a credible plan 'B'. The few weeks after King Abdullah will be pivotal. Yet stability will not be in the cards for the next several years regardless, until much more substantive changes occur and a formidable younger leader emerges in the country. 

King Abdullah has a tremendous legacy that is often clouded by very real concerns of human rights abuses that have occurred over the last 15 years and the widespread luxury that the ruling family enjoys. However, the King, especially in recent years, has been a force for modernization and even progressivism in the Kingdom. In a blog post I wrote last year, I highlighted this succinctly: 

In multiple ways the King is encouraging an entirely new ecosystem for education, from creating a new first-rate education program for gifted and talented students to modernizing and internationalizing the university network (see KAUST, which will also have both men and women in the same classroom). On human rights, Saudi Arabia has been at the forefront of creating a new human rights organization for the Gulf, as well as introducing 'human rights' to its educational curriculum. The Human Rights Commission in Saudi Arabia is also actively soliciting cases. And on women's rights King Abdullah is pressing the country to tackle taboos and cross new frontiers. He has appointed a woman for the first-time to a cabinet-level position (for women's education) for example. Saudi Arabia is also ahead of other Gulf countries in tackling domestic abuse. A recent report by a think-tank in Riyadh showed that 40% of articles during the first two months of the year in print media addressed women's issues.
In a volatile region that has seen in the last decade a continuation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the upheaval in Iraq, the stalemate with Iran, and the attacks by Al Qaeda (often specifically targeted at Saudi Arabia), the regime under King Abdullah has been able to maintain a sense of stability and order within the country. In May 2003, Riyadh was the site of violent suicide bombings that claimed 35 lives. It was the peak of the Al Qaeda pseudo insurgency which the King managed to effectively stamp out. This does not mean that Saudi has been without other problems, but as President Bashar al-Assad stated in a key interview after the Egyptian crisis to the Wall Street Journal, Arab societies need to keep "changing" and "upgrading" the society and institutions or suffer from the same uprising and desperation seen in Egypt. It is not necessarily about political rights; the leadership needs to provide positive change. As Tom Friedman wrote in his column yesterday, "China deprives its people of political rights, but at least it gives them a rising standard of living." This was the role King Abdullah has played to a degree in Saudi, at least directionally. 

Now, Saudi must prepare for what comes next. King Abdullah has been a beloved figure who united many in the country. Yet, until now, no grandson of the founding monarch King Abdul-Aziz, who died in 1953, has assumed the throne. The mantle passed from Sa'ud to Faisal to Khalid to Fahd and finally to Abdullah, all sons of King Abdul-Aziz. That means that since 1953, there has not been a father-son transition in Saudi Arabia. Today, the Crown Prince and King in waiting is Sultan, who himself is 83 years old. He has been reported to be suffering from severe illness intermittently over the past couple of years. King Abdullah created an Allegiance or "Princes" Council to deal with this uncertainty. The 35-member body representing the sons of the founding King Abdel Aziz (if the son was not alive then a representative would serve), would be tasked with electing a crown prince. However, in a paradoxical move, roughly two years ago, King Abdullah appointed Prince Nayef, a perceived conservative, as the so-called crown prince in waiting (the official title being second deputy prime minister). Prince Nayef himself is no spring chicken at 77 years of age. Moreover, reports have indicated that Nayef has not been a fan of the reform agenda espoused by King Abdullah. 

Saudi Arabia has the same youth situation that faces Egypt, Tunisia and the rest of the Arab world, which is described most evocatively in the book Generation in Waiting, edited by Tarik Yousef of the Dubai School of Government and Navtej Dhillon. 55% of Saudis are under the age of 25 and there will have been a 13.7% increase in new university graduates between 2009 (when the unemployment rate stood at 10.5% officially) and 2013. This is a key driver for the new movement that is emerging in the Arab world of 2011 (described here). King Abdullah has been vociferously pursuing changes to satisfy the social and economic concerns of young Saudis. Simply put, it is hard to see Prince Sultan or Nayef holding the same confidence of these youth. It is similarly unclear as to who would succeed Prince Nayef (or Sultan for that matter) that would play that role. Much of the rest of the GCC has started to see that second-generation of monarchial leadership emerge in the last two decades (see UAE, Qatar as examples) but it is something that is a pandora's box for Saudi. And make no mistake about it. Many Saudi youth are very globally-aware, technologically plugged-in, exposed to the West, and will want to have input into who their next leader will be; at the very least they will want somebody representative - at a minimum level - in spirit, of their generation's concerns. 

Saudi Arabia has a $500 billion dollar GDP and holds approximately a fifth of the world's oil reserves (although a recent Wikileaks cable may contest that). It is also a pivotal country in the Arab and Muslim world. Thus the next few weeks and indeed years will be concerning for Saudis, its neighbors (both near and far) and the world at large. The immediate consequences will likely be a hardening of both external and internal policy as the regime seeks to re-consolidate control and avoid instability. That would mean a halt to extensive forays of foreign diplomacy, such as the Saudi-Syrian initiative. It would mean a downplaying of its leadership role vis-a-vis what is happening in Egypt and elsewhere. Domestically, the old guard and religious leadership, that in some ways was marginalized by King Abdullah, may seek to reassert their influence. Ultimately, the Saudi state is predicated on an alliance between the religious philosophy of Abdel-Wahhab (see Wahhabi) and the political clan of the house of Saud. After King Abdullah, the conservative elements within the royal family may seek to move for more power in an alliance with religious hardliners, in the absence of a modernizing political leader who commands influence. This could lead to a slow-down of the very little political reforms that have been underway. 

The likely scenario is a Saudi state at odds with itself and in reflective confusion. Even so-called reformers would not be able to describe a path towards sustainable progress that would be politically feasible. The truth is that in a post-King Abdullah world, Saudi Arabia is pandora's box. There will be uncertainty. There may even be instability. It will likely take more than a couple transitions before a stable leader emerges. Even then, that leader may not have the answers demanded by the country's young population. If anything is clear, it is that change is coming. The question now is, will it be for the better or for the worse? 

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Don't cry for me Egypt - I'm never going to leave you

Today we are witnessing the unfortunate escalation of the situation in Egypt. Things are changing by the minute but it is an extremely dangerous environment now in Cairo specifically. How the next few days play out will have wide-ranging effect not just on Egypt but on the region more widely. If violence and intimidation are used successfully by Mubarak to extinguish this new form of peaceful opposition it will be exercised accordingly across the region by other regimes, in response to the new wave of unrest that has reached several countries.

Here is my most recent take on what Mubarak is thinking from The Mark, a Canadian online publication.

Mubarak Won't Leave

Step down he may, but don't expect Hosni Mubarak to dismantle the regime he has spent his life building and sees as the ultimate source of Egypt's stability.

Shortly before midnight on Tuesday, embattled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak declared, “The incidents of the past few days require us – all of us – the people and the leadership to choose between chaos and stability. My top priority is to restore the security and stability of the nation in order to pave the way for a peaceful transition.”
Reports estimated that close to two million people gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo to reject the Egyptian president’s pledge not to seek re-election. The crowd responded with a chant of vociferous rejection: “Irhal, irhal,” or, “Leave, leave.” The same scene played out in Alexandria and other cities around the country.
Mubarak had severely failed to satisfy the demands of the people. He had, however, announced his desire for a peaceful transition, borrowing from the terminology put forward by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this week. In some ways, Mubarak gave the protest movement a key concession: that he would not stand for another presidential term in the forthcoming September elections. Yet, at the same time, he not only refused to resign early but also called upon the security apparatus “to shoulder its responsibilities and undertake its duties” in apprehending those fomenting chaos in the streets. It was a stark warning: I will resign, but on my own terms, and I will stabilize the country before I leave.
A sense of disbelief has overtaken many observers, who wonder if Mubarak sees the writing on the wall. How can he not realize that he has to leave? However, from the perspective of Mubarak, resigning immediately was never in the cards. Before ending his speech, he remarked, partly in the third person, “Hosni Mubarak takes pride in the long years he spent serving Egypt and its people. I will die on the soil of Egypt and I will be judged by history for my merits and demerits.”
As the protests started on the so-called of "day of rage" on Jan. 25 and gained momentum last Friday, Mubarak saw the following cascading options in front of him:
1) Disregard the motivations and demands of the protestors, and suppress them using the state security apparatus;
2) Deflect the attention to the cabinet (i.e. prime minister) and policies of the government, and act to change them;
3) Withdraw his presidential candidacy for the September 2011 elections, leaving other successors of the regime to take hold; and
4) Resign immediately and allow the speaker of the parliament to be appointed as president and early elections to be held.
As Mubarak indicated in his speech, he will die on Egyptian soil, and any immediate resignation would jeopardize that pledge . This is a man who has held an autocratic grip on his country for 30 years, surrounding himself with a team of sycophantic advisors. He believes in himself as the indispensible source of stability and security for his country. When former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali snaked out of Tunisia, it was not at his own behest; the country’s military stepped in to force his hand.
Mubarak, as commander-in-chief and a decorated air force figure, will not be so easily set aside. In his view, he has to maintain the stability of the country. When options 1 and 2 did not sufficiently stem the protest movement, he very reluctantly offered not to seek another term. He has not, and will not, offer to democratize the country. If he cannot run – and his son, Gamal, is absent (he has allegedly fled the country) – then he will transfer power, in cosmetic democratic fashion, to another figure in the regime.
While Mubarak has been confident in the military’s general support – or at least neutrality – during this crisis, it is by no means guaranteed. That is why he solidified the government with the appointment of Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force commander, as prime minister, and Omar Suleiman, another military figure, as his first vice-president.
If, in the end, the military does not turn against him directly, and neither does the international community, specifically the United States, then he will simply absorb the blows. Mubarak has survived assassination attempts (including being shot) as well as insurrection by fundamentalist terrorists. He has faced angry protests before, though not at this scale, and a revolt by the country’s judiciary five years ago, without missing a beat. He has absorbed the blows and moved on.
Today, the scale of the opposition has shocked Mubarak. He had to respond with the extraordinary decision to step down. Yet, it has never been, nor will it be, in his playbook to dismantle the regime that he has spent his life building, and that he sees as the ultimate source of stability in the country, and as his raison d’ĂȘtre.
Now, Mubarak has mobilized mechanisms to solidify the regime, even if he steps down in September, as he has declared he will. It has also been said that regime elements are intentionally contributing to the growing sense of disorder in the country in an attempt to underscore the need for stability. Counter-protests in his favor are being held, and groups of thugs are clashing with the anti-regime demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Cairo, but also in other cities.
Make no mistake about it. Mubarak will seek to cement his legacy and a continuation of his regime, with or without him. If the army stays neutral and the international community stays silent, that is exactly what will happen, with many deaths and injuries along the way.