Where Is Saudi Arabia Heading? :: An excerpt from Author’s New Book ::

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The problem of social change

Let us from the outset make this clear: Social change does not mean necessarily changing the government. Neither does it mean regime change. The society can undergo changes without upsetting the established order, through a revolution, a war or a Coup. However, it is highly probable that what occurs on the political scale, inside the State apparatus, in connection with power, has the greatest impact on the social system. It may even cause an evolution of the social forces towards a more or less precise orientation. On the other hand, what occurs inside the society, which is necessarily marked by the conflict, in its turn, will influence the political system. State and society may then evolve more or less harmoniously or slip to a greater dissociation, while in the distance separating them, either a self-regulation of the conflicts’ system will be set up, or the place will be open to a growing schism that may lead to a regime change. We would speak then of a major crisis.

In the Saudi Kingdom, as in other Arab countries, the problem of political reform really became serious only when the regime was confronted to a beginning of an armed protest. Before that, Islamic activism existed in Saudi Arabia like elsewhere, but it was never perceived like a threat. Nowadays, it has become usual to say that an intense debate stirs the Saudi elite since September 11 in connection with reforms and possible changes. It is partially true; because obviously that event alarmed the authorities about a phenomenon, which they have ill-interpreted and disastrously managed: Islamist activism, whose bases in Afghanistan they had themselves, with the active encouragement of the American ally, helped to create. But partially also because the debate was already present in Saudi Arabia, though in a timid mode, shadowed, and certainly much less violent as to the consequences of the regime deafness.

Among the questions thrilling the observers, there is of course "the succession". A question to which several answers were given. We will not examine them all – nothing is less sure than to claim a systematisation of any kind-; consequently, we can always provide some examples and examine them. The classic way to put the problem, as it seems to us, is to wonder whether the Saudi regime in the present circumstances has really the will, the determination, and the means of undertaking a self-leading change that some fear and others wish, within the very centre of the royal family? In addition, when some observers talk about "succession", what do they mean exactly? Is succession just the transition of power from a man to another, or does it assume a substantive change that may reach the operating form (style) of the political power, even its structure, while having an echo within the Saudi society? To what may generally lead a succession? What would change? Does a succession on the throne reflect (could it reflect) the wishes of the mass of the Saudis? This may result in questioning the nature of the relations between the throne and the street man. How do ordinary Saudis look at the king and the royal family? What is the position of the latter inside the society?

Numerous are the questions and we are aware that within the limits of this study, we cannot always answer them with an equal depth. Some are raised to lead us to others, more important. Some will remain open even after completing the reading of this study.

But there is nonetheless a question, which remains at the basis of this research. For at last, the main problem may be summarized this way:

  • What is changing in Saudi Arabia? Who by? And Who for?
  • These are, in our opinion, the crucial questions.
  • The “Who” opens up several possibilities to us: initially internal, then external.
  • On the internal level, it will be necessary to define with the most possible precision the actors having the means of weighing upon the balance of power, because it is them the first concerned with any change which can reach in a way or another their interests. If these people or these groups are influential, they have necessarily sights and wishes, not to say plans featuring the future for themselves or their close relations. It is the first sphere: that of the royal family.
  • The third sphere is that of the religious Establishment.
  • The fourth sphere is that of the political opposition or politico-religious, including those who act inside the kingdom, and those who are exiled.
  • The fifth sphere is that of the people or the mass whose reactions and mood show through sometimes in the sways of the crowd, or in the media, the surveys, and the statistics.

Thus, it will be necessary to distinguish these elements in the analysis, as it is advisable to always distinguish the actors from their actions, and the social facts from their representation.

As we have previously said, there are external elements in addition to those interns that make the debate about change a political priority. But if we put the emphasis on the internal elements, this is not only because of our concern to cast light on the picture and to anchor the analysis in its ground, but also because with all which happened since September 11 on the international theatre and particularly in Afghanistan, Iraq and in all the area, we have the feeling that the demand concerning reform does not emanate anymore from the local populations, which is in itself enough grave as to distort completely the analysis. With the Initiative on the Greater Middle East and the emergence of several Western projects (American and European) pressing the Arab countries to reform, notably in order to tackle the terrorist threat, it may seem that the changes to come, if they are not imposed from the outside, are at least its request. Anyway, the confusing combination is quickly made; and if it were done within the framework of past-things’ recollection/projection, it would be easy then to associate the movements towards progress and democracy with the imperialist and neo-imperialist projects, as it had been the case with the reforms and the colonial project of the 19th century.

This is a vicious approach which makes of all those who act for a democratic change in their country the "agents" of imperialism, as their political rivals –” in power since decades –” already do not miss to insinuate. Thus, we read here and there in the Arab press some comments which while condemning Western interference and hegemonic aims, identify the projects of democratisation preached by the opposition groups or by individuals independent as being those of the Western governments. It is a hard problem over which we will not last, because it actually bypasses the restricted framework of this study.

We have deliberately opted for an approach emphasizing particularly the internal problems and casting the light on the actors without neglecting the external factors. For us, it remains clear that a major crisis shakes the Arab world, of which Saudi Arabia is just a portion. We thus start from the hypothesis that the need for change and reforms is intrinsic to these societies, and that it emanates from the very nature of their socio-historical evolution, from its paradoxes and its necessities, well before becoming an international requirement within the framework of international states’ cooperation in order to eradicate terrorism. We will try to check the validity of this assumption by confronting it with realities, which crosses the Saudi society.

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* The text is extracted from the foreword of Author’s new book, "Où va l’Arabie Saoudite?" (Page 30 – 33)

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