Saudi Arabia's Musk Revolution

The king has returned, bearing gifts. But government mismanagement and squabbling within the House of Saud may mean that the kingdom is in for a rocky transition period.

"The king is dead, long live the king," is a call which, in its Arabic form, is sure to be heard before too long in Saudi Arabia. In the latest chapter of the saga of the House of Saud, the ailing and aged King Abdullah returned to the kingdom on Feb. 23 after a three-month absence, which included two back operations in New York City and a month's recuperation at his palace in Morocco.

It wasn't quite a triumphant return. Upon his arrival in Morocco, the king was brought down to earth in a wheelchair, carried from his aircraft in a scissor-lift disabled-passenger vehicle modeled on the design of a catering truck. A similar contraption was employed on his return home to Riyadh. The gerontocratic monarch is, obviously, on his last legs.

The real story of the king's return, however, was the gifts that he lavished upon his population. The king took the opportunity of his arrival to announce financial handouts to the Saudi population worth an astonishing $36 billion, including, according to the Financial Times, a 15 percent salary raise for public employees, reprieves for imprisoned debtors, and financial aid for students and the unemployed. And all this on top of Saudi Arabia's planned budgeted expenditure of $400 billion through the end of 2014 on improving education, infrastructure, and health care.

King Abdullah's largesse looks a lot like preventive medicine to ensure that Saudi Arabia does not catch the revolutionary disease spreading from Tunisia and Egypt across the Arab world. But few serious analysts of Saudi Arabia think that politics in the kingdom could play out as dramatically as the events in North Africa.

A tweet or two by a young, foreign-educated, Saudi woman resentful of her lack of rights does not make a Riyadh Spring. And it is unlikely that much will come of a Facebook campaign calling for a day of protests on March 11, or that an online petition signed by more than 100 Saudi academics and activists demanding a constitutional monarchy gains momentum. The kingdom is, in the judgment of many, an extraordinarily conservative place, where people know their place and do what their parents tell them. To the extent there is a national sport, it is either driving dangerously or lethargy.

But it appears that not even Saudi Arabia can escape the currents of unrest sweeping through the Arab world. And the royal family, through its mismanagement of the kingdom's public infrastructure, might have brought some of it on itself. This has been one of Saudi Arabia's wettest winters, bringing calamitous floods to the coastal city of Jeddah. During one stormy night, three months' worth of rain arrived in a few hours. At least 10 have died, and more are missing. It was during one of January's storms that the fleeing ex-President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia arrived with his entourage.

The sewage system of Jeddah is basically nonexistent; at best, it is inadequate. In many houses, the waste from the bathrooms flows into underground tanks that are emptied every few days by fleets of tanker trucks. The trucks used to drive into the hills to the east of the city and dump their cargo into the deceptively named Musk Lake. That was until 2009, when heavy rains raised concerns that the dam at the western edge of the lake would break -- evoking fears that a proverbial wave of fecal matter would sweep downhill several miles to the city below. Since 2009, Musk Lake has been partially drained and treatment plants set up at what is hoped is a safe distance further into the desert.

However, fears arose this winter that even the remodeled Musk Lake would once again pose an excremental threat to the city, and Jeddah's citizens protested vociferously. Prince Khalid al-Faisal, the regional governor who is rated as being a good candidate for the throne sometime in the future, visited the flooded areas and commiserated with those affected. Interior Minister Prince Nayef took a helicopter trip over the flooded areas, peering through the windows, Bush-after-Katrina-like, at the devastation below.

As the world's largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia has huge earnings but, by virtue of its relatively large population, has a GDP per capita much lower than those of neighboring Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Even this wealth is badly distributed, and, in Jeddah, many still face real hardship.

King Abdullah's generosity to the people of Saudi Arabia was probably motivated by a desire to both ease the difficulties of the kingdom's own poor and reinforce the House of Saud's reputation during what promises to be a difficult transition period. The princes are going to need the support over the next few months.

In televised and well-photographed action in the Council of Ministers building over the last few months, a bizarre charade is being played out. Crown Prince Sultan, King Abdullah's designated successor, is chairing meetings of the Council of Ministers, as well as greeting visiting foreigners and Saudi dignitaries. Sultan, however, is reportedly suffering from Alzheimer's disease and, anecdotally, does not even recognize government ministers who he has known for years. A WikiLeaks cable described Sultan as "for all intents and purposes incapacitated."

Keeping Sultan in the public eye appears to be an elaborate deception carried out by his younger full brothers or his sons, as part of a palace plot to ensure Sultan becomes king when Abdullah dies. This would allow him to choose the next crown prince -- either one of his own full brothers or one of his sons. Having been undermined by Sultan and his close relatives for decades, King Abdullah has tried to blunt such a maneuver by setting up a so-called Allegiance Council, made up of his 30-plus half brothers or their senior sons, to choose a future crown prince.  This wouldn't stop Sultan from becoming king, but it would widen the choice for crown prince beyond Sultan's closest kin.

However, the Allegiance Council could simply be voided by Sultan once he becomes king or by those pulling his puppet strings. So Abdullah's other blocking tactic is simply not to die anytime soon. If Sultan meets his maker before Abdullah, the main problem disappears -- though a new one would be created, as Abdullah and the wider Allegiance Council would still have to outmaneuver Sultan's surviving full brothers, who would continue to form the largest single voting bloc in the institution.

This, at least, is the chess game currently being played within the House of Saud on the question of succession. Whether the Saudi people will accept this quietly, given the winds of change running through the rest of the Arab world, is quite another question.



The Whack-a-Mole Strategy

Caught between dictators and democrats, and with problems popping up everywhere, the Obama administration is going to have to be content with playing catch up.

As the great Arab Spring breaks apart a frozen and sclerotic Arab world, America is having a tough time finding its way. Get used to it. It's the new normal. Navigating in a world of rising democrats and falling dictators will be painful and messy. And the new Middle East will only widen the contradictions between America's interests, values, and policies.

As the Arabs see it, Washington has long disappointed in matters of war and peace. And now is no exception. America's Arab autocratic friends worry it's too tough on them and no longer a reliable ally; Arab democrats lament that America is not tough enough, nor more supportive of them. You eased a good friend (Hosni Mubarak) out of power, say the Saudis (and Israelis); you're not hard enough on the Bahrainis, Yemenis, or Libyans, say others. At best, America is seen as marginal to recent events; at worst a weak friend and weaker foe.

The knock against American policy is both unfair and misplaced. It assumes a degree of control over these events and a coherence in U.S. policy that never really existed.

On the contrary, Barack Obama's administration has played a pretty bad hand pretty well. Sure the president has been playing catch-up -- probably talking too much on Egypt and not enough about Libya. But imagine the challenge: how to identify with reformist democratic movements trying to change regimes where America still has friends and interests.

That's really mission impossible, and different from previous challenges. In the past, America did literally help turn the world at critical moments: in postwar Europe with the Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, and NATO; in the 1970s with détente with Russia and opening to China; in the late 1980s with a smart response to a collapsing Soviet Union. American policy was active and dynamic with a sense of direction and strategy.

But this isn't your grandfather's crisis. And here's why.

It's not America's story: Even the foreign-policy Energizer bunnies in the Obama administration know that the change sweeping the region is driven by internal indigenous forces. And America should rejoice in that fact, even while its capacity to shape the outcomes is drastically limited. That the reference points for these reformist movements have little to do with Washington or Jerusalem offers the best hope that the arc of change will endure and reflect the legitimacy of a popular broad-based quest for freedom, economic prosperity, and individual rights. It shouldn't surprise us in the least if these new reformers are open to U.S. economic aid but are wary of having Washington involved in funding civil society and good governance. America has for too long been seen as meddling and favoring democratic change -- so long as Washington's democrats prevail. It will be fascinating to see what the Obama administration's approach will be on engaging the Muslim Brotherhood.

Still caught in the devil's bargain: In the months ahead, it will be hard for the United States to make clear-cut choices because its interests and partners won't allow it. Coming down hard as the administration is now doing on Libya was easy. In Bahrain, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia, where autocratic regimes hold sway and where Washington has equities from counterterrorism to containment of Iran, America will be doing a fair measure of dancing that is likely to alienate democrats and autocrats alike. Even in Egypt, which has the best chance for a real democratic transition, the United States will have to tread carefully between a military and security establishment with which it has close ties and interests (the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, counterterrorism) and a rising reformist movement that will demand greater political and economic space and civilian oversight. America may well get caught in the middle.

Interests versus policies: In a new and more democratic Middle East, the gap between U.S. policies and interests will also grow larger. As politics open up and public and elite sentiments (whether Islamist or secular nationalist) shape government policy, America's own policies will come under greater scrutiny and criticism. From containment of Iran to Gaza, from counterterrorism to the Mideast peace process, America will be that much more on the defensive. The gaps between those policies and America's interests and values will be harder to bridge in an Arab world in which the autocrats are gone or are slipping away. America's policies, particularly toward Israel and Iran, will not change quickly, or likely change at all. But the space available to pursue them will contract.

The new Middle East will be as difficult as the old, with more uncertainty, not less. America's interests will pull in one direction; America's policies in another. And like a giant game of whack-a-mole, change will keep popping up faster than Washington can possibly keep up with. At some point, the transformational phase of this revolution will give way to a transactional one hopefully bringing with it a greater degree of stability as the hard bargaining over power sharing begins.

For now, keeping our head, while old autocrats (and friends) may be literally trying to keep theirs won't be easy. Memo to the president: Don't look for a grand strategy toward Arab reform and revolution. There isn't any. Ad hoc will have to do. But if done smartly (remaining true to a set of general principles supporting peaceful change, tailoring those to specific countries where the United States may be able to have some influence on ruling elites, acting more boldly if necessary in crisis situations like Libya, and maintaining a consistent public line), it may see you through. And if and when the dust settles, you can begin to sort through the more herculean challenge of bringing America's interests and values into line with its policies.