Saudi Arabia’s Culture Wars Strain the Kingdom

A stagnating economy and war in Yemen exacerbate the tension between conservative and reform-minded Saudis.

Saudi king Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, then defense minister, is seen in his office in Riyadh, December 9, 2013
Saudi king Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, then defense minister, is seen in his office in Riyadh, December 9, 2013 (DoD/Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

The Saudi stereotype is bleak. Environmental desolation is mirrored by a cultural desert. Religious police meander between buildings, looking for victims. Women hurry between shadows behind their male guardians. The strict interpretation of Najdi Islam dominates nearly every aspect of life. It is a quiet, bleak place, with the only civic engagement at the mosque, whose loudspeakers are the only music the kingdom ever hears.

It’s stark and it sticks in the mind. It is, of course, not totally true.

Saudi Arabia’s approximately twenty million citizens may be dominated by those who wish the kingdom to look like that; they’ve done a bang-up job controlling the kingdom’s image. Yet beneath the surface, discontent stirs.

Ungodly music

Reuters reports:

When senior Saudi cleric Abdulaziz al-Tarifi told his almost one million Twitter followers that musical instruments were ungodly, it helped spark a hashtag among likeminded Saudis that “the people reject music academies”.

The hashtag, echoing the language of Arab Spring revolts elsewhere, captured the hostility to reforms that introduced entertainment events from rock concerts and comedy shows to kickboxing into the conservative kingdom.

Even having the controversy feeds the monolithic Saudi stereotype: yet more bearded clerics lambasting modernity and innocuous pursuits.

But simply having the debate is proof of strains within the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has embarked on an ambitious program of modernization on as many levels as it can handle. It has set the artificial deadline of 2030 to get most of them done. For the sluggish Saudi state and the stubborn cadre of clerical conservatives that dominate much of it, this is a huge ask.

The widening cracks of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is a nineteenth-century state with twentieth-century institutions lording over a divided and dividing society.

When Saudi Arabia was first founded during the post-Ottoman 1920s, its founder, Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman, fought a very nineteenth-century tribal war, as sheikhs had for centuries throughout Arabia. He was the state; institutions were fellow sheikhs who commanded different portions of his conquered kingdom.

This lasted until the 1950s, when, after World War II, oil money began to flow in. This coincided with Western, especially American, technology.

To support all this, the Saudis built a twentieth-century state with influences from the postwar West. Ministries sprung up, tribal levies were organized into battalions, passports were issued. The trappings of a twentieth-century state took hold.

Yet the powers that be remained distinctly nineteenth century: sheikhs and princes elevated by blood dominated the top echelons of power, stuffing the ministries full of family and friends. Many of them were, predictably, not very competent or motivated.

When development was merely a matter of writing checks to get foreigners to build things, this did not produce overt complications. Building a highway, or an office tower, is a relatively straightforward affair.

But to get people in that office tower to run profitable businesses? That is a much harder job.

Getting Saudis to work — and work meaningfully — is already a massive challenge in the most classical rentier state in history. But there are also generational, regional, sectarian and political conflicts.

Young, unemployed and restless

There is a massive youth bulge. Normally that’s an opportunity for a country. But Saudi Arabia is scarce in every resource but oil and oil, right now, is cheap. Providing jobs is tough.

What’s worse, the nineteenth-century patronage-heavy character of the state means most Saudis expect their government to invent jobs for them, not for citizens to create jobs for themselves.

It doesn’t help that the conservatives would call just about any job but prayer, construction, military service and food service sinful.

Unemployed youth tend to channel their restless energy into crime, terrorism, protests and anti-state activities. They drove the Arab Spring, they marched into Syria’s and Libya’s civil wars. Direct cash transfers from Saudi Arabia’s still-considerable sovereign wealth reserves can buy many off for now, but that fund will dry up should oil prices remain low much longer.

Regional differences

Then there’s the issue of regionalism. Saudi Arabia’s cultural heartland is its Najd province, the conservative core that conquered the rest. Yet western Hijazis, Eastern Province citizens and its southern provinces along the Yemeni border all do not wholly buy into their overlords’ worldview. People from Jeddah, near the holy city of Mecca, are quick to point out their modernity; people from Qatif, in the Eastern Province, openly call for the overthrow of the king. Meanwhile, the southern provinces have been forced to duck and cover from Houthi bombardment, something sure to cause resentment.

That Eastern Province, by the way? Full of Shia, remnants of the days when the Persian Gulf was very much Persian. Like their counterparts in Bahrain, they choke under Sunni rule.

Yet to focus on the Shia-Sunni divide leaves out the diversity of Saudi Arabia’s Sunnis, who may profess they are all one religion but have a vast diversity of religious opinion. Some mumble favorably about the dying Islamic State, others scheme for veil-free weekends in Dubai. In between are a gamut of opinions on religion and life.

This diversity is strictly controlled by powerful kings. Saudis are used to being told what to do, even if they don’t agree with the decision. The danger is that soon they will have no strong leader to command them.

Stress test

Meanwhile, Saud Arabia’s shaky political contract is being stress-tested by a quagmire in Yemen, stagnating economic growth and glaringly obvious corruption.

Corruption Saudis could endure so long as their cradle-to-grave welfare state provided them with easy cash. But Saudi is suffering a housing crisis, cutting bonuses to state employees and is suffering a stagnating GDP. If the state cannot bribe, it cannot endure.

Saudi Arabia and its allies are not winning the war in Yemen and the bodies are piling up. Dead soldiers coming home from a less-than-essential war is always a recipe for blowback.

In democracies or republics, anger would be channeled into electoral politics; new elites would swap out with old ones peacefully. But Saudi Arabia’s nineteenth-century state has no such mechanism. Old King Salman has neither check nor balance to his power. His brutish security forces are reliable for now. How they feel about all of Saudi Arabia’s multiplying problems remains a matter of speculation.

The culture wars are just the most overt sign of the Saudi geopolitical bomb ready to go off. Bet on crisis in the next decade.

This article originally appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, April 21, 2017.