Tuesday, August 02, 2005

A few thoughts about The Kingdom

Isn't it funny that after all these years I still use that name? For those who may wonder what the hell I'm talking about The Kingdom is the name commonly used by citizens of Saudi Arabia to refer to their country. The strange and complicated country where I lived from the age of 9 to 15 has been on my mind today because the King, Fahd, died. My first thought was to worry that there might be a fight over the succession which might destabilise the country. From an objective point of view this seems unlikely, as Abdullah has been running the country for years and has had plenty of time to consolidate his power base, but given the Byzantine levels of corruption and intercine warfare within the Saudi royal family a succession battle seemed like a possibility.
In reality it looks like a fairly smooth transition is in progress. The question is, why was I worried that this would not happen? I have no love for the House of Saud, who run a brutal dictatorship that tramples all over the human rights of their people, treats women like pets and suppresses any sign of dissent. I'm not a big fan of royalty in general. So then why the worry?
I suppose on some level I'm just worried about the effect that chaos in the Kingdom might have on the rest of the world. At least a quarter on the world's oil reserves are in The Kingdom, and chaos there could have a severe impact on the world economy. I also worry about the effect that political chaos always has on a civilian population.
But in reality, there's a lot more going on than that. Like it or not (and I don't like it very much) Saudi has a disproportionate effect on the rest of the Middle East. Whoever rules The Kingdom is in a position to do either a great deal of good or a great deal of harm in the Middle East. By Saudi standards Abdullah is somewhat of a moderate. He has allowed modest increases in freedom within The Kingdom. He's far from ideal, but he's a good politician who seems to actually want The Kingdom to modernise at least a little, and there are many other factions in Saudi life who would be much, much worse.
I must admit that, when I want to take the temperature of political feeling in the Middle East, I often read the Saudi papers. Although they don't have anything approaching a truly free press yet they have become a great deal more free since Abdullah has been running the show. In recent years they have even criticised the government, which in the Middle East is almost unheard of. Most surprisingly, Abdullah himself wrote a piece in which he actually apologised on behalf of the Saudi government for not tackling the issue of Hussein's misbehavior both domestically and towards his neighbors. It was a strange piece which stuck with me and which I've been trying to find a link to (no luck so far), but the basic gist of it was the powers that be in the Middle East should "deal with" problems such as Hussein's agressiveness towards Iran and Kuwait internally and not allow a situation in which the Western powers feel the need to intervene. the tone was very much "if we don't deal with this stuff ourselves The West will continue to interfere, and we don't want that". I read this as partly a coded apology for the Saudi government's ill-fated decision to allow American troops to use The Kingdom as a base of operations in the first Gulf War and partly as a suggestion that Abdullah would like to see the Saudis use their power and influence to exert greater dominance over the region. Given that they already exert a great deal of economic influence through charitable contributions to organisations like Hamas and Hezbollah I am assuming that he meant a more direct kind of influence, which could be either very good or very bad depending on what he has in mind. I have been watching carefully to see how the other regional leaders react, and will post more if I see any interesting responses. I suspect that part of his piece may have been the kind of "we are a proud and poweful nation" posturing that all politicians do, but I really did get the feeling that he wants The Kingdom to play a far more influential role in the region, and there was definate suggestion of a wish to distance the Kingdom slightly from the US and to create somewhat of a EU-style regional nexus of power. This is very interesting stuff and it bears further watching.
By the way, if anyone wants to get an idea of what's going on in The Kingdom there are several papers that publish in English. The following site in particular usually has a good roundup of local and regional news and is considerably more work safe than Al Jazeera, which is very interesting reading but which I would strongly suggest that no-one try to access from a computer that can be traced back to them.(Call me paranoid, but I don't trust the Bush administation not to start going after people for accessing non-approved reading materials.) The relative loosening up of the press in the Kingdom under Abdullah has been quite striking, and within the Gulf region the Saudi papers are probably the most worthwhile reading (if you're interested in the Levant then the Lebanese papers are a good place to start, and I can probably find links if anyone needs them).


Also, a more general question. Would anyone actually be interested in reading more stuff about the Middle East in general and the Kingdom in particular? I've been obsessing about my childhood exposure the Islam and the ways in which it influenced my political beliefs lately, but I'm not sure if anyone else wants to read about that stuff (although I do owe a guy at Muslim Wakeup an article about Libya).


FoolishOwl said...

Sure, let's hear what you've got to say.

I often hear The Angry Arab praised, and apparently the proprietor was interviewed on Democracy Now! this morning. I don't visit it often enough.

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