After the Sauds

by John Quiggin on February 26, 2011

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[1]. 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.

{ 43 comments }

1

Randy McDonald 02.26.11 at 8:28 am

Saudi Arabia is even more opaque a society than Libya, in many ways, and a more complex conglomerate–I won’t say more “fragile”–than a Libya assembled out of a mere three regions back in the 1930s.

Will Saudi Arabian complexity–social, economic, geographical–necessarily mean that there will be no alternative to radical change? A general vested interest in a lack of radical upset seems universal.

2

shah8 02.26.11 at 9:04 am

The countries that have otherthrown dictators have not yet formed a government yet, so…

3

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.26.11 at 9:05 am

But what about the religious aspect of Saudi Arabia? The king there calls himself “the custodian of the two holy mosques”, and the place appears to be, in many respects, a Muslim equivalent of the Vatican.

4

bt 02.26.11 at 9:14 am

This entire post is brilliant. There is little to add: the facts have been laid out well, and the opinions are consistent with the facts.

Except one thing: that the House of Saud is an American invention. We did help them all along, but these sorts of folks are indigenous. We’ve been used by them as much as the other way around, perhaps more so. Like the Israeli’s have used the USA.

Odd how these weak little countries can have such a hold on thier ‘patrons’. Like in World War I. Ouch.

Bravo.

5

maidhc 02.26.11 at 9:47 am

Surely it’s not the monarch who determines policy all on his own. There must be a level of advisers, who I would guess have been educated at prestigious Western universities, who analyze the situation and lay 0ut a set of options for the monarch to choose from.

Should the monarch be deposed, a democratic government or a new rational dictator would be taking advice from those same experts. After all, the basic strategic situation has not changed.

The new government might take a new approach (“Let’s dump the Americans and go with the Chinese”). But such a decision could have been made by the old monarch too.

The exception would be if the new ruler is crazy or in the grips of some strange theory. Unfortunately this has happened before.

I think a lot of people would be satisfied to live under a non-democratic government if it provided a few basic things: rule of law, limited corruption, a decent standard of living, advancement based on merit (impartially assessed).

For example, it seems that a big complaint in Bahrain is the marginalisation of the Shiites. If they were offered a fair deal, along with some other liberalisations, the monarchy could survive, at least for the near term.

If you look at the Roman Empire, or other empires, life can be good under the rule of an intelligent, enlightened monarch. Unfortunately the succession mechanism does not guarantee the continuity of good government.

Hence many of us prefer democracy, where the government is often suboptimal, but at least relatively consistent, and is somewhat influenced by the opinions of the people.

Henri Vieuxtemps: But what about the religious aspect of Saudi Arabia? The king there calls himself “the custodian of the two holy mosques”

It was the Hashemites who were the guardians of the holy cities from the 10th century. The Saudis booted them out in the 1920s. The only remaining Hashemite monarch is the king of Jordan.

I would love to have a knowledgeable person discuss this issue. I suspect it is much more complicated than it appears.

6

Tim Worstall 02.26.11 at 10:24 am

“The element of truth is that the Arab monarchies have good prospects of survival if they can manage the transition to constitutional monarchy.”

I’ve always rather liked the analysis (cannot remember who originally put forward the idea, sorry) that the reason that a number of highly liberal and free societies are still constitutional monarchies (Sweden, Denmark, UK , Dominions etc, for certain values of free and liberal) is that only those monarchies which were sufficiently “free and liberal” to hand over power and become constitutional monarchies are the monarchies which have survived in the industrialised world.

7

Hidari 02.26.11 at 11:13 am

‘This entire post is brilliant. There is little to add.’

I think there is something to add and that is the Sunni-Shia thing (and, more specifically, the issue of ethnicity and differing views of Islam generally).

As John points out, Iran is in the long term bound to democratise (hey! Didn’t something say something about long term tendencies towards democracy once? Japanese name? No……?).

However, and that notwithstanding, why has Iran been such an inspiration to so many people in the region, its own internal shortcomings notwithstanding?

One major reason is that, while everyone has pointed out that the US has systematically promoted dictatorships over democracies in the region, it is less often pointed out that these tend to be Sunni dictatorships. Saddam Hussein was widely hated in Iraq, obviously, and his atrocities against the Kurds were much noted in the West. But more significant in the long term (and NOT noted in the West, generally) were his atrocities (and systematic discrimination against) the Shias. Hence the Sunni-Shia civil war which broke out after he was gone, which, essentially, the Shias ‘won’. And hence, therefore the reason that (as Juan Cole has tirelessly pointed out) any genuinely democratic Iraq is always going to lean more towards Iran than, say, the United States (let alone Britain, much loathed in the region since WW2, for reasons that are widely known in Iraq, but not much outside it).

And this is indicative of the Sunni-Shia problem throughout the region. Again, in Bahrain we have a struggle for democracy, and for jobs. But it’s not just about those two things. It’s also because the Bahraini ruling elite tend to be Sunni and most of the population are Shia. And while this is not precisely the case in Saudi, it is certainly true that there is a substantial Shia minority in the Kingdom of Horrors who bitterly resent the Sunni dominated monarchy.

To repeat: Iran will surely democratise at some point, but it is likely to remain a Shia dominated nation (indeed, demographically, it can hardly not be) and as long as that is the case there will be a tension between its neighbours who are Sunni dominated with Shia majorities/minorities.

So, FWIW I do agree with the ‘realist’ position here: I think there is an inherent and intrinsic tension between the Saudis and the Iranians. This is particularly the case since the Shia ‘parts’ of Saudi Arabia tend to be in the oil rich regions.

This of course does not necessarily need to lead to warfare. But it can imply tension, which might lead to war, and the ‘political form’ of the countries involved is irrelevant. After all, recently, we have seen the Basques revolt against stable democratic governments in an attempt to create their own nation state, and in Northern Ireland we saw a small war over which stable democracy Northern Ireland was to be governed by.

More recently we have seen the situation in Belgium, which may yet lead to the break up of the country.

So, we assume that nation states are inviolable, but this is hardly the case. It may well be the case that even if Saudi democratises fully, the Shia areas will want their independence, and Iran may well find this an enticing prospect. Given that this is the case it’s inconceivable that the US will not use ‘soft power’ to influence the result.

(Also I don’t agree that the US doesn’t have a South American policy. It certainly does, it’s just that it is not working at the moment, mainly cos the US is bogged down in the Middle East. If that was to change, the pressure would surely be ratcheted up again: after all the US still has a Central American policy, which is a ‘success’ (apart from Cuba)).

8

Jack Strocchi 02.26.11 at 11:24 am

Shorter Quiggin: Ain’t to many countries in the world still named after the ruling family.

9

otto 02.26.11 at 1:08 pm

There’s surely some sort of middle position, a bit like late 19th century constitutional monarchs, where there’s a lot of politics decided by parliaments but the monarch is still independently important for esp for decisions on vital issues of foreign policy. That might well have been true in ‘liberal’ Belgium even up to 1940.

10

Toast 02.26.11 at 1:09 pm

“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.”

I don’t know. Putin seems to be managing OK.

11

SamChevre 02.26.11 at 1:22 pm

In general, I agree, but I’ll note two things that may be important in the medium-to-long term.

Egypt and Iran/Persia, and the North African countries, have an identity that is well-accepted by both their majorities and their minorities, and relatively low numbers of non-citizens. This isn’t true of Jordan, Iraq, and most of the Gulf states.

It’s not easy to make democracy and liberty work together when you have more guest workers than citizens (IIRC, Kuwait has more Palestinians than Kuwaitis living there.) It’s also more difficult to transition to democracy if there are significant minorities who think they should have their own states, in whose geography there are significant resources. (Iraqi Kurds, Saudi Arabian Shia.)

12

Zamfir 02.26.11 at 1:23 pm

I have no idea about US efforts to influence Queen Beatrix. But her father prince Bernhard was notorious for being bribed by Lockheed (and probably other weapon manufacturers too), because of the status he had in the Dutch military, and because he needed cash to pay for his illegitimate children.

The Wikileaks documents contain a note on a conversation from 2009 between the queen and the new US ambassador, on the topic of sending US troops to Afghanistan. The note says that the queen was in favour, saw significant troubles, but wanted the mission to proceed.

I have no idea how accurate the note is, but its existence suggests that the US still sees some value in close personal ties the royalty of constitutional monarchies.

13

Ebenezer Scrooge 02.26.11 at 1:46 pm

And to amplify on Zamfir and Otto, Juan Carlos pretty much singlehandedly quashed a coup back in 1981. Elizabeth II remains instrumental in the UK’s Commonwealth policy. Most modern constitutional monarchies retain a notion of “reserved power.” They’re not quite figureheads.

14

Andrew 02.26.11 at 3:34 pm

That’s a very thought-provoking post. I agree with some of it, but let me touch on a few areas of possibly fruitful disagreement.

Generally, I think the Times article has buried some important caveats, e.g. “and the American calculation of who is likely to hang on to power has as much to do with the religious, demographic and economic makeups of the countries as with the nature of the governments,” after leading with its presidents/monarchs distinction. The distinction is interesting, and a factor, but probably is far less important than other variables.

As to the post itself, the analysis in the post is heavily dependent on the assumption that ruling monarchs cannot survive: that they must either transition to ornaments of state, or die. There are two quick points made in support of that assumption, and I don’t think those points are persuasive.

One is that monarchies will appear as “indefensible medievalisms” if they do not transition while other countries in the Middle East/North Africa do. However the monarchies will only so appear IF democratic experiments elsewhere in the region are actually successful and present an attractive alternative. For monarchies with money and the will to share, that is not a forgone conclusion; and the conclusion becomes shakier when one reflects on the difficulties facing any democratic experiments.

The second point in support of the assumption is that there are difficulties of transitions of power in monarchies. This is true, but it’s unclear as to whether the current monarchies could not manage the transition.

Now, as to the interests of the monarchs, as an alternative to John’s analysis, it’s plausible that they would be most secure by retaining executive power while ceding some ordinary legislative power. A simply ceremonial role could well render them more vulnerable to future occasions for disorder, rebellion, acts of revenge by old enemies, etc. And even if a ceremonial role did offer all the riches and none of the danger of a more substantive role, we should not neglect a preference for power in analyzing the interests of the monarchs. If this were simply about wealth and safety, after all, they could all leave their countries and live their lives in enormous wealth and security.

Finally, I’m also a bit dubious as to your optimistic view of the consequences of a collapse of the Saudi government. A supply interruption of that size – Saudi Arabia is a very important supplier – would spike oil and fuel prices globally, with all the attendant negative consequences. You seem to imply that over the long-term, this is a good thing because it will bring us to alternative sources of energy faster. But I’m inclined to think the negative consequences would outweigh any benefits from a faster transition.

15

jlw 02.26.11 at 4:38 pm

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.

Jerry John Rawlings in Ghana made the transition from military strongman to elected president to term-limited ex-president over the course of eight years. I don’t know what Western diplomacy can glean from that example, but surely there’s something.

16

shah8 02.26.11 at 5:50 pm

As a complement of Andrew, peeps, read up on the histories of the states that failed in the late 70s and early 80s after the 70s oil bust and emerging markets busts. Iran, obviously, but Liberia and Ethiopia are important antecedents for current events as well.

17

rd 02.26.11 at 7:25 pm

Two assumptions underly this analysis:

1. All the major Middle Eastern countries that have undergone democratic revolutions will transition to stable democratic or at least semi-democratic regimes.
2. Once they have done so a strong version of the “democratic peace” will take hold, and the possibility of war between them will fade away as it has in Europe and largely in South America.

I hope that’s correct, but it seems optimistic.

18

bianca steele 02.26.11 at 7:36 pm

My first thought was that it isn’t quite the case the the current Saudi regime is the doing of the United States (which seems to be based on the assumptions by the Times writers that everything that happens in the world is the doing of their own government), but I’ll give it to you.[1]

The question is, what can we do about it? What is it about the United States that makes it the prop of those regimes? How is the United States different from other countries whose citizens regularly protest their actions? Because maybe the best thing citizens can do, given the difficulties posed by immediate change (for good reason), is to eliminate the ways the US is different from those other, apparently more moral countries? I don’t think this is an especially good way of looking at the problem, but this seems to be where one ends up when one follows the logic of the Ferguson style of “American empire” argument (whether or not this is where the proponents of the argument would prefer it to go).

[1] That isn’t a wishy-washy phatic kind of concession, but one based on thinking about it a little longer.

19

VV 02.26.11 at 8:36 pm

“Why should Palestinians, alone in the region, be denied a democratic government and recognised international boundaries?”

Alone? What about the Kurds?

20

VV 02.26.11 at 8:46 pm

Yery interesting article, by the way. Not much to add, apart from the fact that it does sound very optimistic, in the way rd suggests.

21

novakant 02.26.11 at 8:50 pm

Hidari, that’s an interesting perspective, but I think you need to the fact into account that the people of Iran regard themselves first and foremost as Persians and that this identity is somewhat at odds both with Islam and the Arabs. Of course the government is trying to play down these conflicts, but it will be interesting to see where the chips fall once the Iranian people are able to freely speak their minds.

22

Doctor Memory 02.26.11 at 9:24 pm

“the regime will stand out as an indefensible medieval anachronism”

I’m sure that will trouble them greatly.

while effect [sic] support from the US can no longer be counted on.

An interesting assertion, supported by very little evidence: Saudi Arabia is not Egypt, to put it mildly. (And anyone who expects our current laissez faire approach to popular revolt in the middle east to outlast the Obama administration’s end in 2012 is substantially more optimistic than I.)

23

Timothy Scriven 02.26.11 at 10:12 pm

By the time this thing has finished, at least five autocrats, theocrats or monarchs will have been toppled, mark my words. This is not random variation that can be validly discounted, it shows that non state actors really matter. There’s something wonderful about the thought that realism’s focus on state actors recieves its ultimate rebuke from Facebook & Twitter of all things.

24

Zora 02.26.11 at 11:21 pm

Only 50% of the Iranian population identifies as Persian. Iran is the shorn remnant of a multi-ethnic empire (like Russia and China) and prone to the same instabilities.

Commenters here are talking about the Saudis without any mention of Wahhabism, which many Muslims regard as an intolerant perversion of Islam. The Saudis based their state on the ruthless massacre of other Muslims (assured by their Wahhabi sheykhs that all other Muslims are heretics and thus fair game) and have continued to oppress any non-Wahhabis under their control. You’re not going to get a tolerant constitutional monarchy unless you can defang the Saudi ulama.

Yes, yes, I have a viewpoint. I’m not even a Muslim, but the Saudi bulldozing of history (the destruction of all that is old and venerable in Mecca and Medina) infuriates me. Reading about the massacres in Mecca, Taif, and Karbala infuriates me.

25

Clay Shirky 02.27.11 at 1:54 am

John, I hope you are right about Saudi, but it’s worth noting that Phil Howard concludes, in Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy[1], that a) diffusion of ICTs in the region correlate positively with democratization and, b) the one Get-Out-Of-Democratization-Free card anyone has been able to find is oil. Which, mirabile dictu, the House of Saud seems to have a lot of.

So my bet is that just as revolutions are synchronizing events (as with Europe in the late 1840s or anti-colonialism after the 1950s[2]), so the end of the resulting period is de-synchronizing.

If I was Naif bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, I’d be shoveling riyals out the front door of the Ministry of Finance so fast my palms blistered, in hopes that the country could end up more like Belarus than either Poland or, worse, Romania. (I’d also keep a 747 fueled round the clock, just in case.)

[1] Howard has written the most important book on the subject of ICTs, democracy, and the Middle East EVAR, which has not gotten nearly the attention it deserves, because the post-mortem of the first phase of the Green Wave basically killed the conversation. This lack of attention to Howard’s work is a crime, and should be fixed. http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Politics/InternationalStudies/?view=usa&ci=9780199736416

[2] You know what gives me a rash? When people point to 1989 as a synchronizing event. In the classic ‘small protest, large protest, military betrayal’ model, the unusual feature of 1989 was that the military betrayal of the GDR was perforce a betrayal of every other Soviet client in the region — the revolutions were synchronized simply because the Soviet Union was.

By contrast, the revolts of 1848, or the longer wave of anti-colonialism from the 1950s on, were events where the initial events in one country did seem to excite the sense of possibility for citizens in other regimes, as is also happening today.

26

Hidari 02.27.11 at 3:01 am

#21
You’re absolutely right, and that’s one of the things I was touching on: that ethnic (as well as religious) issues are at play here. Certainly there are big differences between the Arabs, the Turks and the Persians (not to mention the Kurds). How this will play out in the long run is anyone’s guess.

#24: yes, again. It’s important to note that Saudi Arabia isn’t just Sunni (although it most definitely is) but that it is Wahabbi as well, on the whole, and that this situation is unlikely to change that much even if Saudi did become a democracy. Again, this might have consequences, although what they are is anyone’s guess.

27

Sebastian 02.27.11 at 3:17 am

This is one of those posts that I hope is right, but suspect isn’t. We’ve barely gotten the overthrow of the government in Egypt (which at least had some democratic traditions) and we don’t know where that is going yet. Libya isn’t done yet, and who knows how it will turn out. Don’t forget Zimbabwe as a possible outcome for pseudo-democracy back to tyranny. We will see though [fingers crossed]

28

Myles 02.27.11 at 4:23 am

Shorter Quiggin: Ain’t to many countries in the world still named after the ruling family.

Liechtenstein has managed that trick as a sovereign state since the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, and as a constituent state in 1719.

29

Myles 02.27.11 at 4:27 am

I think pretty much any regime in the Middle East can and possibly should go, but the House of Saud has to stay. I just can’t see any kind of a peaceful revolution in Saudi Arabia working out; the place may very well blow up like another Iran, and as bad as the Shah or the House of Saud were, another Khomeini, but Sunni, is just out of the question, full stop. That’s the stuff of nightmares.

I understand that the Iranian problem is basically blow-back from age-old Anglo-American fucking-around and interference and propping up the corrupt Reza Pahlavi (especially vs. Mossadeq), but still, fuck, the risk of Saudi Arabia blowing up is just scary. The best we can hope for is that the House of Saud takes gradual reformist steps while managing to remain in power, and push the inevitable revolution as far into the time horizon as possible, preferably after I am long dead. There is just no good outcome re: Saudi Arabia; every possible outcome is a bad outcome, whether with or without the Sauds.

30

Myles 02.27.11 at 4:31 am

If I was Naif bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, I’d be shoveling riyals out the front door of the Ministry of Finance so fast my palms blistered, in hopes that the country could end up more like Belarus than either Poland or, worse, Romania.

They are doing exactly that:

Saudi government announced that it would pour billions of dollars into a fund to help its citizens marry, buy homes and start their own businesses, the government announced. Reuters said the package was estimated at $37 billion.

(NYT, 23.2.2011)

31

Kaveh 02.27.11 at 7:23 am

@24 You say Iran is only 50% Persian speaking (as mother tongue) and the continuation of a polyglot empire–this is technically true, but misleading. The picture this paints is one in which Persian-speaking Muslims were a dominant imperialist group who held a number of ethnic minority populations in their grasp. In fact, the majority of that other 50% (maybe 30-40% of the whole population) are Turks (speakers of Turkic languages), who have always been an integral part of the polity that is now called Iran–they made up most of the ruling houses of the last 1,000 years, basically until Reza Shah in the 1920s. Iranian Azerbaijan was always an integral part of the larger Iranian cultural zone, and in fact one of the economically and culturally most powerful regions. The independent country of Azerbaijan is the remnant of the part of the region conquered by Russia, and while Iranian Azeris have their own distinct identity, they were socially and culturally much closer to Iran than to Russia. Add to that many decades of cultural integration through public schools, &c., and it’s practically inconceivable that Iranian Azerbaijan would try to break off now. Much of the Turkic-speaking population is scattered throughout the country.

The other two main groups are Balochs and Kurds. I’ve read that the US has tried to arm Baloch separatists who have committed terrorist attacks on targets in Iran, but afaik the scale of this is pretty small. Kurds, despite mostly being Sunnis, are closer culturally and linguistically to Iranians than to Arabs or Turks, and the Iranian state has not tried to suppress the Kurdish language to the extent that Turkey has, nor has it committed acts of genocide (like at Halabja in Iraq).

@29 & 24 I would guess that the Wahhabi Ulama are not actually as popular in S.A. as their state-sponsored influence makes it seem. A Saudi Khomeini does sound kind of awful, but the circumstances in Saudi Arabia are so completely different from those in Iran that produced Khomeini that the idea is kind of silly.

@19 Unlike most Palestinians (that is, all but Palestinian Israelis–those who live in Israel and are citizens there), Kurds are all citizens of the countries where they live and at least on paper (and mostly in fact) have the rights of citizens. Not to say that they were always first-class citizens, or that there weren’t shameful attempts to suppress their use of their native language in Turkey, and worse in Iraq, but Kurds have at least the essential rights of freedom of movement (both within their countries and the right to a normal passport to leave their countries), employment, &c. that Palestinians don’t have. Nobody is trying to put the Kurds on a “diet”, and most Kurds can freely leave the town where they live and enter other towns without being searched at military checkpoints. No comparison to Palestinians.

@21 I think the importance of the Persian vs Muslim vs Arab part of Iranian identity was always a little overblown, and after the recent chain of popular revolts, each one responding in a way to the others, it just lost a good bit of what relevance it did have. Arab opinion was ambivalent towards the Green movement in 2009, I think mostly just due to ignorance, whereas now they’re all participating in a shared protest movement, it’s hard to see them still being so suspicious of each other’s motives.

32

novakant 02.27.11 at 11:55 am

Only 50% of the Iranian population identifies as Persian.

This claim is flawed:

these statistics are largely discredited and viewed as flawed by Iranians themselves[4][5][6] ,because the Western data ignores considerable intermarriage rates over centuries between these groups, and the fact that almost all of these groups speak Persian as well as their ethnic language,[7] and identify with their sub-identity only secondarily

33

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.27.11 at 1:21 pm

Certainly there are big differences between the Arabs, the Turks and the Persians (not to mention the Kurds). How this will play out in the long run is anyone’s guess.

With all due respect, Hidari, this sounds too much like a bad case of western orientalism. You (I presume) don’t care about the differences between the French, the Germans, and the Anglos; so why should superficial differences play such a big role there? It seems that the only answer can be: ‘because they are all savages’.

34

3ueb 02.27.11 at 6:51 pm

Maybe a cursory google didn’t find anything, but CIA has been obsessively gaming this for decades. It was their number one contingency long before before Palestine or Lebanon showed symptoms of democracy. You have to worry that a big stack of contingency plans on the shelf might favor precipitous, hamhanded action in the same way that Afghanistan plans greased the skids for Operation Enduring Freedom. I suspect we’re going to find out more soon.

35

Hidari 02.27.11 at 6:57 pm

Excuse me? What does it mean to say that I ‘don’t care’ about the differences between the French, German and British? Do you think that I think that France is part of Britain or vice versa? I live in the UK and I can tell you right now that there are important cultural differences between the Scots, the Welsh and of course you may be aware that there was a situation in Northern Ireland a while back. And these differences are not superficial I can assure you. In Europe Belgium may yet be split apart by ‘superficial differences’ and of course Yugoslavia was split apart by ‘superficial differences’.

Incidentally the ‘superficial differences’ between the French, Germans, and the British weren’t so superficial between, oooh, about the 15th century* until 1945.

*or earlier.

There is nothing ‘Orientalist’ about pointing out that countries and continents have ethnic and linguistic ‘faultlines’ and that under pressure these issues can become significant.

36

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.27.11 at 7:15 pm

It’s true that demagogues foment ethnic/religious hostility, as a means to their political ends; and they often succeed. So what. I don’t think ethnic/religious homogeneity is either sufficient or necessary condition for a harmonious society, in the Middle East, or Europe, or anywhere else.

37

Zora 02.27.11 at 7:17 pm

@32: “… these statistics are largely discredited and viewed as flawed by Iranians themselves[4][5][6] ,because the Western data ignores considerable intermarriage rates over centuries between these groups, and the fact that almost all of these groups speak Persian as well as their ethnic language,[7] and identify with their sub-identity only secondarily …”

That’s a #$%#$ Wikipedia article and I know dang well that the Wiki articles re Iranian minorities are policed by militant Iranian nationalists (speaking as a former high-edit-count editor here). You can’t trust the article when it says that everyone has intermarried and makes nice-nice. There is discontent. There have been protests (bloodily suppressed).

Ditto @31, who says, ” You say Iran is only 50% Persian speaking (as mother tongue) and the continuation of a polyglot empire—this is technically true, but misleading. The picture this paints is one in which Persian-speaking Muslims were a dominant imperialist group who held a number of ethnic minority populations in their grasp. In fact, the majority of that other 50% (maybe 30-40% of the whole population) are Turks (speakers of Turkic languages), who have always been an integral part of the polity that is now called Iran—they made up most of the ruling houses of the last 1,000 years, basically until Reza Shah in the 1920s. Iranian Azerbaijan was always an integral part of the larger Iranian cultural zone, and in fact one of the economically and culturally most powerful regions.”

Azeris — well, that’s a little different, as they were the former ruling class. Plus, at something like 16% of the population, they’re not a small group. It’s different for the Kurds, Lur, Baktiari, Baloch, etc. … and particularly for the Arabs of Khuzestan. Who are despised as lowly lizard-eaters and benefit little from all the oil that’s pumped out of their province. (Angry Iranian nationalists have sent me photos of bloody lizards.) Yes, many of those who are culturally Persian DO despise and oppress minorities.

I suspect that some Iranians will start painting me as a chauvinistic American trying to break up Iran, so, just for the record, I’m opposed to nationalism of any variety. Including American.

38

salazar 02.27.11 at 7:37 pm

Egyptian security forces using batons and tear gas clear demonstrators from Tahrir Square just as Sens. McCain and Lieberman are in town to meet with Marshal Tantawi and his Supreme Military Council.

I’d find that coincidence — especially the latter Senator’s arrival — a HUGE red flag if I were hoping for a democratic, genuinely independent Middle East.

39

gkatner 02.28.11 at 5:58 pm

@Salazar – actually, and especially given the comments both made on CNN’s “State of the Union” this weekend, I think their trip has less to do with possible US meddling than it does with the potential for McCain-Lieberman in 2012!

40

ThaomasH 03.01.11 at 12:07 am

Both the amount and the effectiveness of US “support” for autocratic Mideast regimes has been overstated. By exposing just how little difference the supposed US support means will be to the US advantage.

41

Kaveh 03.01.11 at 5:11 am

@37 You didn’t address the substance of my point, even as it was right under your nose–30-40% of Iranians speak (or their parents spoke) Turkic languages. These Turkic-speakers are not just in Azerbaijan, they’re scattered all over the country. There is some prejudice–there are a lot of ethnic jokes in Iran about Turks, very much like Polish jokes in the US, and the seriousness of the prejudice is not much different.

The wikipedia article is right here, whatever your experience with militant Iranian nationalists (and I’m not at all surprised you’ve had encounters with them on wikipedia). I’m not saying that there are no oppressed ethnic minorities in Iran, but those who are genuinely oppressed and/or have any prospect of separatist ambitions don’t even come close to 50% of the population–Kurds, Arabs, and Balochs together are only 12%. Azeri- and Turkmen-speakers according to the wikipedia article are 26% of the country. Gilaki and Mazanderani-speakers, 8%, do speak a very different dialect, but afaik they identify as Iranians, like Lors and Bakhtiyaris, maybe just because their entire populations are in Iran, unlike Kurds and Balochs.

Anyway, where is your data from? Do you have something other than numbers from the CIA factbook that report existence of sub-national affiliation? Are you basically going off that same wikipedia article?

42

Laleh 03.01.11 at 10:54 pm

For an excellent article on Saudi, see one of the best scholars of Saudi:

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/02/28/yes_it_could_happen_here

Kaveh @31, just a quick point on how much the Arabs feel the Green movement is part of them. They wish it were, but everytime some people in Iran scream “No Gaza, No Lebanon,” no matter what the nuances of that is supposed to be for them contextually, they simply turn off their Arab (and other) audiences.

43

leper 03.03.11 at 3:53 pm

I’d like to point something out here.

You seem to be confusing democracy with republicanism.

Constitutional Monarchy is actually the best form of government in the world. Out of the top ten democracies in the world today 7 out of 10 are constitutional monarchies.

If America was serious about it’s wish to promote democracy and help the Arab people they would be doing everything in their power to promote constitutional monarchies.

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