February 13, 2005

Saudi Elections

Er… I'm not sure Matt Yglesias' skepticism over the recent elections in Saudi Arabia is quite on target (though it's close):
To make a long story short, Abdullah did everything possible to ensure that Islamists would win the election. He also managed to ensure that no matter what the result, he wouldn't lose any real power. Upshot -- articles in the western press calling him "reform-minded" and that build the case for him not to engage in further democratization since, as we just saw, Abdullah's earnest efforts at reform are counterproductive since they just bring Islamists to power.

It's everything an absolute monarch could dream of in an election. He keeps absolute power, gets credit for being a reformer, and gets off the hook in terms of pressure to reform. Meanwhile the American media will continue to assist the House of Saud in its campaign to get al-Jazeera of the air so that it can be 100 percent insulated from criticism in the Arab media, too. Abdullah is a very clever man.
Nit-picking for a second, no one would consider Prince Abdallah an "absolute monarch"—at the very least he's on the same level as his half-brother Prince Nayef, who controls most of the security services and has somewhat closer ties with radical Islamists. I'm not in any position to say whether there's really a rivalry between the "Islamist" Nayef and the "reformist" Abdallah—Michael Doran tried to peddle this theory in Foreign Affairs two years ago and Prince Nayef, I think, had to get on Saudi TV and scoff at it—but this seems like the wrong way of looking at things.

More likely, all or most of the key royals in the House of Saud are deeply afraid of the rising militant Salafist movement in the kingdom, and they all have their own ideas about how to turn the tide. Prince Nayef, it seems, would prefer to lean on his secret police to crack down on excessive militarism, as he did in late 2003—in fact, I would wager that the renewed counterterrorism efforts within the kingdom are largely his doing (in conjunction with pressure from other, more pro-Western royals)—whereas Abdallah prefers the political route.

That's where things get interesting. Even "reformers" like Abdallah and Prince Sultan Abdulaziz appear flatly uninterested in calls from both liberals and moderate Islamists for restraints on the ruling family, more transparency, allowing real political parties, etc. On the other hand, some of the more conservative Salafists don't seem to much care about institutional reform—they just seem to like democracy because it helps them expand their influence over the country's social climate. By winning municipal elections, they can leverage their newfound power to knock down all those crazy "liberal" ideas about expanding women's rights or censoring radical textbooks.

Now I don't think Abdallah has any problem with that, especially—and here's the key—if steering the conservatives into government helps channel off some of their frustration and helps fragment the Islamist opposition. As I said the other day, not only does this "incremental reform" charade get the U.S. off your back, but it also keeps your domestic opposition busy playing politics, too occupied to start blowing shit up. As a side note, it also drives a wedge between those political Islamists who want to "play the game," and hard-liners like Ayman al-Zawihiri who has declared that anyone who compromises even a tiny bit with the infidels through the political system is himself an infidel.

So to make my long story short, Prince Abdallah and co. are indeed very clever folks. But the Saudi royals are undertaking these reforms primarily to deal with domestic problems and not merely to put on a kabuki show for the Bush administration. Quite frankly, I doubt President Bush's hollow calls for reform mean much of anything to them, though that's a possibility.
-- Brad Plumer 3:43 AM || ||