Argument

The Kingdom of No Surprises

The more things change in Saudi Arabia, the more they remain the same.

DOHA, Qatar — After two years of trying to steer the course of the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia is turning inward. The past year has seen the octogenarian King Abdullah usher in a new generation of younger princes to replace rapidly aging and less competent members of the ruling house. Indeed, it's not the ripple effects from the uprisings across the Middle East that occupy the minds of Saudi watchers these days, but the management of the transition from the sons to the grandsons of Ibn Saud, the kingdom's founder.

Change is coming to Saudi Arabia -- but however it plays out, expect some basic truths about the kingdom to remain the same. Saudi Arabia will remain a strong Western ally, it will keep the oil flowing, and -- perhaps most importantly -- it will remain immune from the uprisings that have spread across the Arab world. While former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel made the case that "revolution in Saudi Arabia is no longer unthinkable," the truth of the matter is that for the vast majority of Saudis, a revolt is still an almost unfathomable event. And the House of Saud's approach to succession is designed to keep it that way.

Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, the former head of Saudi Arabia's foreign intelligence service -- and at 67, youthful compared to his brothers -- will most likely assume power in the coming years, after his brothers Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman have passed away. Muqrin was appointed second deputy prime minister this month, the traditional post for those third in line for the throne. Whether he becomes king in five months or five years depends on the health of the two men ahead of him.

But that's not all. Perhaps more important than Muqrin's appointment is Abdullah's elevation of competent younger princes to prominent roles within the kingdom. Their promotion is meant to improve governance, while also bolstering the foreign support that will allow Saudi Arabia to continue its domestic reform at its own pace.

Washington, London, and Saudi Arabia's other traditional allies should not be particularly perturbed by this transition. U.S. and British defense guarantees still underpin the kingdom's deterrence posture, particularly given the perceived threat of Iran and its nuclear program. No matter how the succession battle plays out among the younger generation, there is simply no constituency within the House of Saud for undermining the pillars of its foreign policy.

Saudi Arabia may not be the most palatable ally for some in the West. Its treatment of women and minorities leave much to be desired. But those who know the kingdom know that, in all walks of life, the Saudis move slowly but steadily forward -- be it in tendering construction contracts, political reform, or social change.

Reform is coming to Saudi Arabia -- albeit slowly. The appointment in January of 30 women into the Majlis al-Shura, a 150-member consultative council with the power to draft laws, was long overdue -- but nevertheless a huge step forward for the kingdom, particularly coming less than six months after female Saudi athletes were allowed for the first time to compete in the Olympics. Both moves mark a positive step forward for the country, and ones that will have fundamental and permanent effects on Saudi Arabia's social fabric.

They are also not steps that Abdullah undertook lightly. Through sheer force of personality, the aging monarch removed many obstacles in his way: The number of jobless conservative advisors and sheikhs who raised objections to these social reforms are a testament to the king's determination.

But whether or not Saudi Arabia improves its domestic record, it will remain an indispensible regional ally for the United States and its allies. Its fate is tied to the interests of many Western nations -- most prominently, perhaps, through the kingdom's continued ability to produce 9.25 million barrels of oil a day. It also claims to be able to add an extra 1 million barrels to the global market at short notice, and an extra 3 million given more time -- making it the world's only genuine swing state producer, capable of keeping the oil flowing in the event of a disruption elsewhere.

Furthermore, Western countries and Saudi Arabia have found a common enemy in al Qaeda, and cooperate closely on intelligence and counterterrorism matters. This month, evidence of a U.S. drone base in the kingdom, which has been used for U.S. strikes against al Qaeda targets in Yemen, came to light. Information sharing has likewise been useful in identifying a number of threats to Western nations, most notably the October 2010 "printer bomb" plot originating in Yemen. The importance of Saudi Arabia to counterterrorism efforts is evidenced by the access of Saudi Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef to the highest circles on his visits to Western capitals -- a level of access rarely afforded his colleagues from other countries.

The Saudis simply have too much clout throughout the Middle East to dismiss them as counter to Western interests. Take Bahrain, for instance, which is currently undergoing the beginnings of another national dialogue, meant to heal the sectarian wounds opened by the February 2011 uprising. Saudi assistance -- both financial and military -- is a vital tool for the ruling al Khalifa monarchy in its bid to secure their island kingdom. Even the Shiite opposition party al Wefaq acknowledges the central role that Saudi Arabia will have to play in convincing pro-government hardliners to come to a sensible agreement. Love it or hate it, no political agreement can be made in Bahrain without some approval from Saudi Arabia.

In Yemen, Saudi Arabia's traditional backyard, it would be inconceivable to imagine President Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi gaining control over the country's territory without Saudi assistance and financing -- or without the United States conducting its drone strikes on extremists from Saudi soil.

Saudi money will also play a significant role in determining the balance of power in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, each of which are going through tremendous internal upheaval. Saudi Arabia ultimately views all three countries as targets for Iranian expansion, which it vehemently resists. In the case of Syria and Iraq, that means it also is opposed to the possibility of further Shiite empowerment. Deep tribal connections held by members of the ruling al Saud family to areas of eastern Syria and Iraq's Anbar Province also allows the Saudis to expand their influence and patronage in those areas. As such, their influence on the course of events must be understood and respected.

Those who believe in a coming Saudi apocalypse usually list a number of factors they believe point to imminent calamity -- a youth bulge, mass unemployment for Saudis under 35, security issues in the predominantly Shiite Eastern Province, domestic oil consumption overtaking capacity, female social and economic empowerment, liberal-conservative tensions, and potential instability in the ruling family as power is handed down to a younger generation of princes.

This tiresome analysis assumes Saudis would seek the wholesale downfall of their monarchy, if only they were not so oppressed by the governance structures and conservative religious establishment. But it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what Saudi Arabia is, and how Saudis perceive their government.

In some ways, the kingdom is far more politically accountable than Arab countries that underwent revolutions in 2011: Traditional governance structures in many parts of the kingdom still prevail, and the role of the provincial governor in attending the daily majlis to address the problems and needs of his constituents is still highly important in maintaining ties between the people and the ruling elite.

It would have been unthinkable, for instance, for a normal citizen to be given the right to petition directly to former President Hosni Mubarak, or even current President Mohamed Morsy -- such is the enforced bureaucratic distance between the citizens and the ruling class in Egypt. Not so in Saudi Arabia, where one can observe tribal elders lambasting rather forlorn-looking princes for not addressing the country's problems.

Granted, for those citizens in the urban sprawls of Dammam, Jeddah, and Riyadh the connection appears more distant -- but even there, Saudis are not about to erupt in mass revolt. By and large, Saudi citizens are not inculcated with a culture of protest and mass civil disobedience.

Young, urbanized Saudis -- who are increasingly making their voices heard on Twitter and Facebook -- have largely directed their ire at individuals like Hamza Kashgari for his "atheist" tendencies, or conversely at conservative sheikhs. Much has been made of the infamous @mujtahidd Twitter account, which has certainly set tongues wagging with accounts of scurrilous royal gossip -- but even then incitement to mass unrest is largely absent from any of the tweets he or she posts.

The unrest in the Eastern Province is serious and in need of urgent redress -- but this longstanding issue is almost totally confined to that area, and has not served as a progenitor for the flames of protest in other regions.

Furthermore, those who predict the fall of the House of Saud often forget one important fact. For nearly 15 years, the ruling family has been battling a serious threat to its legitimacy from the forces of Islamic extremism. One can go back as far as 1979, which saw hundreds of radicals seize the Grand Mosque in Mecca, to see the roots of the issues that plague the kingdom's internal security.

In a country where religion is a hugely important part of everyday life, there is almost nothing as threatening to the royal house as those who seek to prove that the kingdom has strayed from the Islamic path.

True, the insurrection of a limited number of al Qaeda dissidents -- numbering at most in the low thousands -- may seem like a small matter in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians that flocked to Tahrir Square, or the more than 60,000 deaths that have followed the uprisings against Bashar al-Assad in Syria. But the jihadist movement nevertheless represented an existential threat for the kingdom because it struck at the heart of the foundation for the regime's legitimacy. By overcoming it, the House of Saud has proved its resiliency.

Put aside notions of Saudi Arabia's imminent collapse -- it isn't going to happen. The kingdom will play an integral role in reshaping the post-revolutionary Middle East, whether people like it or not. The oil will keep pumping, the arms sales will keep flowing, and for now, the kingdom's huge economic surpluses will be enough to stave off the societal hounds from barking at the door. Last but not least, the House of Saud will hand the reins of power to the next generation without an internal civil war. In the end, it's not any one royal who rules the kingdom -- it is stability that is ultimately king in Saudi Arabia.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Curse of Stability in Central Asia

The autocrats of Central Asia like to tout the virtues of stability. But they're really making excuses for decay.

Central Asia has a reputation for volatility. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the region has been referred to as a "hotbed" of destabilization, instability, violence, Islamic extremism, and other nefarious qualities that once led Zbigniew Brzezinski to dub it "the Eurasian Balkans." International observers cite Central Asia's crumbling infrastructure, brutal dictatorships, and remittance economies as evidence of the region's imminent demise. They watch as it hits new lows on indexes for corruption and repression. No regime with such problems can survive, they argue reasonably.

Yet year after year, the dictatorships of Central Asia do.

The slow, tortuous decline of Central Asia is something we should all pay attention to -- not because it will inevitably lead to state collapse, but because it might not. Central Asia shows how a country (Tajikistan) can spend decades sliding toward a failed state, yet never quite arrive. It shows how mass violence can claim the lives of hundreds, as in Uzbekistan in 2005, yet fail to alter the political structure that predicated it. Above all, Central Asia shows how quiet repression can be as damaging as violent conflict -- and more difficult to quell or contest. Central Asia's biggest problem is not conflict, but stagnation: the consistency of corruption, the chimera of change.

Some experts argue that 2013 could be a year of transformation. According to the International Crisis Group, which included the region on its list of conflicts to watch, 2013 could see Tajikistan succumb to separatism (national security forces have engaged in violent conflicts with armed militants), Kyrgyzstan suffer ethnic warfare (the government has never taken responsibility for the Uzbeks murdered in the southern city of Osh in 2010), Uzbekistan spur regional upheaval (the police state is run by an aging tyrant whose successor is unknown), and Kazakhstan come undone by socioeconomic grievances (oil wealth has been little applied to remedy crippling poverty in rural regions).

The problem is that this not only describes Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan in 2012. It also describes them in 2007, 2002, or 1997, making the region a perennial player in conflict forecasts. What experts tend to underestimate is how long a nation can remain on the brink.

The endurance of Central Asia's dictatorships serves as a reminder that the collapse of an authoritarian state is not inherently imminent, no matter how bankrupt it is fiscally or morally. Corruption, brutality, and censorship are not necessarily signs of vulnerability, but indicators of the lengths a government will go to preserve its power at the expense of its people. Central Asia's dictatorships are not surviving on luck, as some experts have claimed, but on fear.

Stability is a value cherished by most Central Asians, and those who lived through the Soviet collapse and the economic turmoil and lawlessness that accompanied it tend to be wary of political change. "Peace," or "calm" (tinch in Turkic languages, tinji in Tajik), is deeply valued, particularly in places like Tajikistan that have endured bloody civil strife, as social scientist John Heathershaw notes. Moreover a key part of tinji, he says, is "a strong aversion to the political sphere." All political actions -- joining a party, promoting a cause -- can be seen as an affront to peace; in Central Asian dictatorships, all actions can be politicized and all politics can be punished. Thus the social pressure to maintain tinji -- and the fear of government reprisals that may harm the whole community -- is strong enough that citizens deeply unhappy with their plight are reluctant to express it.

Central Asian state elites have both nurtured and exploited this predilection for "peace." In Kazakhstan, the most prosperous of the Central Asian states, government control is passed off as benevolence. "The state paternalism and authoritarianism in this vision is not seen [by Kazakhs] as a mechanism of repression of individual rights and autonomy," writes Kazakhstani anthropologist Alima Bissenova, "but as a mechanism of enabling these rights and entitlements." But in the rare case that Kazakh citizens revolt, as in Zhanaozen in 2011, the state responds with violence. Underlying the trade-off of rights for "peace" is the fear that force will be unleashed on those who dare to disturb it.

It is hard to say then whether the promotion of "peace" is a way that citizens cope with decades of repression, or a practice that has helped regimes sustain stagnation. Some Central Asian activists have argued the latter, portraying the population as overly passive and party to its own misfortune. The Uzbek poet Dadaxon Hasanov, still a popular singer in Uzbekistan despite his works being banned, regularly chastises his fan base for their cowardice. "Uzbeks continue to sleep/ drowning in fear/ as their dictators continue to shoot," he wrote in his bootlegged hit "There Was a Massacre in Andijon," about the shooting of protesters in 2005. Uzbeks inspired by his lyrics need only look at Hasanov's lifetime of arrests and assaults to witness the consequences of speaking out.

Analysts looking for signs of liberalization in the region often cite Kyrgyzstan, the only Central Asian country to have had more than two presidents over the past twenty years. (Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are still ruled by their Soviet leaders; Tajikistan's president has held power since 1994; and Turkmenistan's Soviet-era dictator was replaced by a similarly autocratic successor following his death in 2006.) Kyrgyzstan's uprisings in 2010 and 2005 have won it praise from the West, but in important ways it is mired in the same stagnation. One satirical Kyrgyz news website mocks Kyrgyzstan's revolving roster of ruling elites, most of whom rose to power in the 1990s. Analyst Noah Tucker notes that without reforms that increase the number of new actors in government, the revolution folds back on itself, preserving power only for those who already have it.

Central Asia has long been framed as radical and dangerous, a mischaracterization dictators play up to justify their draconian policies. But while it is true that a discourse of danger shapes Central Asian politics, it is fear of the state, not of terrorists, that shapes the behavior of ordinary citizens. There is far less radicalization than there is acclimatization to autocratic rule. One can call it resilience, one can call it resignation. When people's primary concern is survival, there is not much difference between the two.

So what is to be done? Every year experts ask this question, and every year, there are no clear answers. Perhaps this is why so many are inclined to frame the region as on the brink of collapse. When a nation endures violence or revolution, it seems imperative to respond. Collapse calls out for engagement, for intervention, for concern.

The problem with anticipating collapse in Central Asia is that crises that seem transformative often lead to no substantial change. In 2012, violence in the Tajikistani city of Khorog prompted fear of wider instability, and in 2011, the riots in Zhanaozen had many predicting a "Kazakh Spring" -- but little unrest has occurred since. In 2010, the mass slaughter of Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan led some to predict reprisals; instead, most Uzbeks chose to keep their suffering quiet and move on with their lives to avoid further harm.

This does not mean that the problems were resolved. Quite the opposite -- they linger under the surface as people keep the "peace." But the peace that currently prevails is not based on equality or justice. Central Asian peace is structured on fear. This kind of peace can last a long time. The question is whether it should.

The time to pay attention to Central Asia is not when collapse creates a perceived "crisis," but now. Violence that goes on behind closed doors, as has been practiced for decades by Central Asia's brutal police, is still violence. Suffering that is endured silently, by people too scared to speak out or too insulated from the outside world to reach it, is still suffering. For Central Asia, consistency is the crisis.    

AFP PHOTO / VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO