Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Governing the Saudis

Continuing yesterday's exploration of events in Saudi Arabia, I came across this.

Abdullah is very unlikely to alter the Saudi system of rule by consensus among the senior princes, and close consultation with senior technocrats, religious figures, key tribal figures, and key businessmen. Saudi Arabia may not be a democracy, but it also has little relation to the Western concept of an absolute monarchy. Rulers are expected to show merit and the ability to govern, to consult, and to be open to appeal of their decisions.

Decisions at the top are generally reached by consensus, and often after extensive conversations with those outside the royal family. When major disagreements do persist, decisions tend to be deferred. Power is also often compartmented, with senior princes taking clear responsibility in given areas -- a compartmentation that minimizes rivalry and tensions between them.

This arrangement sounds to me very much like American business enterprise. Nobody who understands anything about stock ownership would claim that a corporation should be operated democratically, each person having a vote. No, the way it works is that shares of stock represent "votes" and if I have fifty-one percent, then I have control.

But experience shows that when there is conflict, just having control does not mean having cooperation. Ask any leader who has tried to bring about change. Winning the "hearts and minds" of subordinates, to borrow a phrase, is as important to success as having the power to fire people. The chemistry of leadership is very nuanced. What we call "delegation" is a way of allowing senior subordinates to change their minds from opposition to support when "new ideas" are introduced, and in turn lead their subordinates in supporting changes and innovations.

It is a stretch to compare American business leadership with Saudi politics, but it is not a stretch to suggest that Saudi politics and American business are intimately connected. The two have been joined at the hip for decades. Somebody understands something in this arrangement.

Continuing with this analysis, Anthony H. Cordesman continues.
Get ready for a labyrinthine piece of writing...

The choice of Sultan as the new Crown Prince has been agreed to since the mid-1990s. Sultan is, however, only slightly younger than Abdullah (they both are reported to be 81), and has uncertain health after an operation for stomach cancer. He is, however, still very active and a key power in the Kingdom, and his son Khalid has emerged as a major force in the Ministry of Defense and Saudi Arabia's security structure.

If there is a succession issue, it many come after Abdullah and Sultan. Analysts have raised the issue for some years that the direct sons of Saudi Arabia's founder are growing old, and how and when a King will be chosen that is not a direct descendent of Saudi Arabia.

There are, however, two princes in line for the succession, both sons of King Abd al Aziz, that are roughly ten years younger. Prince Naif is 72, He is the Minister of the Interior, is perhaps the most conservative senior royal, and one who's potential status as "No. 3" has been the subject of debate inside and outside the Kingdom. Naif is deeply conservative, and there have been reports that he is anti-reform, has quarreled with other princes, and has acted to block reform.

In practice, however, the fact that Naif has given some ill-judged public speeches may be misleading. He does not seem to be anti-reform as much as pro-security His success in dealing with terrorism and Al Qa'ida has strengthened his reputation, as has the success of his two sons in dealing with internal security matters.

The Naif vs. Abdullah and the reformers debate postulated by some outside analysts may reflect some real differences over policy, but both princes have shown they can work closely together in the past, and it seems premature to judge Naif's potential actions or see him as any block to Abdullah's efforts in areas like economic and educational reform.

Prince Salman,, age 71 and the Governor of Riyadh, is another Prince with a high reputation, and one seen as more pro-reform. He has been a leader in advocating religious dialogue with the West, and his son has been a major force seeking educational reform.

As for the leading princes of the next generation, Prince Khalid is emerging as a public figure. Crown Prince Abdullah's son Prince Mitab also has a solid reputation. Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal and his brother Turki both have high reputation in the Kingdom, and are seen as key figures in the reform movement. Younger Princes generally are expected to keep a low profile and to defer publicly to their fathers, but this scarcely means they are not active in government, competent, or eventual potential candidates for the throne.

Got that? (Eyes glaze over...)
Yeah, right.
Well here's a punch list for the Saudis to work on.

The key issues Crown Prince Abdullah will face in the near term are
(i) Islamist extremism as an internal and regional threat,
(ii) uncertainties over Iraq,
(iii) rise of a nuclear Iran,
(iv) the lack of meaningful progress in the Arab-Israeli peace process,
(v) instability and economic problems in Yemen, and
(vi) the overheating of the Saudi economic and stock market with so much oil revenue that values threaten to create a bubble that could produce a major collapse of stock market values.

Longer term issues include
(i) the problem of "Saudisation" and finding jobs for Saudi Arabia's rapidly expanding population;
(ii) dealing with the high cost of modernization and expanding Saudi Arabia's infrastructure to deal with population growth; expanding and modernizing the Saudi educational system,
(iii) diversifying the economy to reduce dependence on oil export income and create jobs,
(iv) developing a long-term strategy for investing in the development of Saudi upstream and down stream oil and gas resources,
(v) modernizing Saudi social customs without creating tensions with Islamic conservatives, and
(vi) modernizing the political system to expand the political role of those outside the royal family and reduce or eliminate subsidies to the princes and princesses who do not make a major contribution to Saudi governance.

That's all. Just get all that worked out and everything will go swimmingly.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A Burke Chair in Strategy at the CSIS. He and Nawaf Obaid have written Saudi Security: Military and Internal Security Developments, which will be published by the CSIS and Praeger this fall.
LINK. Thanks to John Burgess

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