September 30, 2005


Time For a Saudi "New Deal": The kingdom is the global center of both oil production and the Islamic faith; its politics could endanger worldwide stability (Fahad Nazer, 27 September 2005, YaleGlobal)

Shortly after the death and burial of King Fahd, Saudi tribal leaders, senior religious scholars, and other notables pledged allegiance to the new king Abdullah in a traditional ceremony known as Bayaa – essentially the Saudi version of the social contract. However, in this model, the citizens are expected to defer all political matters to the rulers and religious authorities. For his part, the king is supposed to lead the community in accordance with the laws of God. This "deal," as Bayaa is loosely translated from Arabic, needs some renegotiating.

Just as Franklin Delano Roosevelt felt it necessary to initiate a New Deal with the American people in response to the dramatic changes since the country's founding, Abdullah must now consider similar steps. FDR's New Deal changed the basic assumptions about the obligations of the state, and Abdullah's new deal must be just as drastic.

Since the founding of the Kingdom, Saudi political discourse has revolved around mostly religious concepts, applied in a political setting. The rulers eliminated the prospects for pluralism by claiming that they alone have legitimacy, since they have the support and consent of religious scholars, the ultimate authorities on Islam. Add to that arrangement the claim that the Quran is the constitution of Saudi Arabia, and one is effectively discouraged from ever questioning the political system. The implication is always there: One who supports reforming the system is trying to improve on the Quran, the word of God.

But the ramifications of the Bayaa's rigid hold on Saudi Arabia reach far beyond the country's borders. What happens domestically in the kingdom has implications for the rest of the world. As the birthplace of Islam and the world's largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia plays a crucial global role. Should Saudi oil production be disrupted as a result of domestic turmoil, the effects on the global economy could be devastating. And as guardian of two of Islam's holiest sites, the Saudi religious establishment – along with its fatwas, or edicts – is extremely influential among Islamic scholars worldwide.

But why is a New Deal necessary? And why should the government willingly reform itself, when it controls virtually every aspect of Saudi society? The simple answer is that a more inclusive, democratic system will not only ensure the stability and prosperity of the country as a whole, but will also likely improve the chances of the royal family surviving what are bound to be turbulent times in the future.

In other words, Saudi Arabia has the New Deal--with the state controlling every facet of life it can get its hands on--but needs to get rid of it--devolving power back to society.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 30, 2005 5:39 PM

This is what happens when you apply the wrong vocabulary to a situation. Saudi Arabia is not a state, it is a family possession. It is not a nation, it is only an assemblage of tribes held together by brute force and shameless corruption. There is nothing to re-form as it was never formed in the first place. Saudi Arabia cannot devolve power back to society because there is no society, there are only tribes and families.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 1, 2005 2:41 AM