The downfall of the Gaddafi dictatorship now seems certain, despite brutal and bloody attempts at repression. The failure of these attempts kills off what was briefly the conventional wisdom, that dictatorships in the region can hold on if they “don’t blink“. At this point, Gaddafi and his remaining supporters will be lucky if they can make it to The Hague for their trials, rather than sharing the fate of the Ceaucescus.
Now a new conventional wisdom seems to be emerging, at least according to this article in the NY Times. The central idea is that while dictatorships (more accurately perhaps, tyrannies, in the classical sense of monarchs who have seized their thrones with no prior hereditary claim) are doomed, but that monarchies can survive with cosmetic concessions. In particular, on this analysis, the US relationship with the House of Saud can go on more or less as before.
There’s an element of truth here, but the central claim is wishful thinking
The element of truth is that the Arab monarchies have good prospects of survival if they can manage the transition to constitutional monarchy. And it makes sense for them to do so. After all, a constitutional monarch gets to live, literally, like a king, without having to worry about boring stuff like budgets and foreign affairs. And, in the modern context, the risk that such a setup will be overthrown by a military coup, as happened to quite a few of the postcolonial constitutional monarchs, is much diminished. By contrast, there’s no such thing as a constitutional dictatorship or tyranny and no way to make the transition from President-for-Life to constitutional monarch. That’s not to say all the monarchs in the region will survive, or for that matter, that all the remaining dictatorships will fall. But the general point is valid enough. But it doesn’t yield the kind of conclusion implied by the conventional wisdom.
The first big difficulty is with the assumption that the monarchs can retain sufficient power to be useful allies of the kind US foreign policy has traditionally sought, particularly in the global South, – in control for the long term, and not too worried about popular opinion. That seems unlikely to me. Monarchs who want to survive should be looking to transform themselves into ornamental figureheads/elder statesmen, not just sacking their existing governments but holding free elections to pick new ones and handing over effective power. That shouldn’t be too hard in, say, Morocco or Jordan, but it will imply that existing relationships with the kings of those countries will be about as valuable as close personal ties with Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.
The other big problem is that this can’t easily be done in Saudi Arabia. There are not even the forms of a constitutional government to begin with. Worse, the state is not so much a monarchy as an aristocracy/oligarchy saddled with 7000 members of the House of Saud, and many more of the hangers-on that typify such states. These people have a lot to lose, and nothing to gain, from any move in the direction of democracy.
The absence of any kind of organised opposition may allow the Sauds to hang on through the current crisis, but assuming that democratisation is successful elsewhere, the regime will stand out as an indefensible medieval anachronism. And in the new international environment, any forceful measures to suppress dissent will carry huge risks, while effect support from the US can no longer be counted on. I’d put the life expectancy of the regime in months or maybe years, but not in decades. In particular, it’s hard to imagine the monarchy outlasting the current King, Abdullah, aged 88 (according to Wikipedia, his brother and heir aged 82, enjoys the flattering title “Prince of Thieves“).
What would the Middle East be like, if Arabia were no longer ruled by the Sauds? No doubt experts have written on this, but a cursory Google didn’t find any, so it’s open for blog speculation.
First up, among Western concerns, is oil. Saudi Arabia has already ceased to play the central role it once held in oil markets. It seems pretty clear that they can’t raise output much beyond current levels. If the downfall of the Sauds were chaotic, output might fall, and world prices rise. But as far as oil consumers are concerned, what you lose on the short-term roundabouts you gain on the long-term swings. Arabian oil is very easy to extract, so sooner or later, all of it will be. In the hoped-for event of an effective global price/constraint on carbon emissions, the oil left in the ground will be in more marginal (eg deepwater) locations or from sources like tar sands.
Second, there’s the geopolitics. The conventional ‘realist’ view is that Saudi Arabia counterbalances Iran, which will therefore gain from the end of the Sauds, as well as from the fall of Mubarak and others. I think this is silly. Anyone can see that the Iranian Basij are the same as the goons used by dictatorships elsewhere in the region. They managed to beat pro-democracy protestors last time, but it will be more difficult to pull that off again. The range of sanctions applied to Gaddafi, notably including the seizure of assets in previously secure boltholes like Switzerland, suspension from UN committees, and even the threat of war crimes trials, will be triggered much faster in future cases, as the group of potential targets shrinks.
Similarly, while Saudi Arabia has not exactly been friendly to Israel, it has been more subject to US influence than any likely successor regime will be. But again, the big effect for Israel will be the demonstration effect as more and more dictatorships and absolute monarchies fall. Why should Palestinians, alone in the region, be denied a democratic government and recognised international boundaries?
Finally, there’s the US. Despite past support of many of the dictatorships that are now disappearing, and particularly of the Sauds, there are plenty of examples (Indonesia, Phillipines) suggesting that the successor regimes won’t necessarily be hostile. But the rationale for decades of US policy has collapsed. Uncounted billions (counting Iraq, trillions) of dollars have been spent on the premise that the US has a vital interest in determining political outcomes in the Middle East. Yet in the current upsurge the US Administration has been reduced to the role of a bystander at a sporting event of which they don’t know the rules – cheering on whoever seemed to be winning at any given moment (the rightwing opposition has been even more obviously bemused). [The NYT analysis has the headline “Trying to Pick Winners“, clearly in the trackside sense of betting rather than in the industrial policy sense of selection]
In an important sense Saudi Arabia is the centrepiece of US Middle Eastern policy. More than any other state in the region, and perhaps in the world, Saudi Arabia is a creation of US policy. A democratic Arabia, if it emerges, will be just another moderately problematic trading partner. After the Sauds, there will be no real reason for the US to have a Middle East policy, just as it no longer has, in any effective sense, a Latin America or Europe policy.
fn1. Obviously, Israel is central but in the opposite way – Israeli governments and parties and Israel-oriented political actors exert a lot of influence on US policy, but not vice versa. And despite the expenditure of trillions of dollars and the loss of thousands of lives, US power to influence outcomes in Iraq is modest and rapidly declining.