Will Saudi Arabia Ever Change?

Hugh Eakin in the New York Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_110 Jan. 13 20.17Indeed there are few signs that the Saudi monarchy is even contemplating serious reforms. During a recent visit to several parts of the country, I spoke to academics, journalists, members of the Shia minority, and young bloggers, as well as clerics and government officials, and many were outspoken in criticizing the government; one journalist who had worked for official media told me, within minutes of our acquaintance, “I can’t wait for this regime to collapse!” But almost without exception, no one seemed to think that would happen anytime soon. I asked one prominent women’s rights activist why more Saudis weren’t agitating for a full written constitution—a moderate reform that could provide a more rigorous legal frame for continued Al Saud rule and that was discussed publicly during a brief opening after the September 11 attacks. She replied: “No one’s talking about it anymore. All the constitutional monarchists have been jailed.”

Among the many enigmas about the increasingly elderly group of brothers who have ruled Saudi Arabia since 1953—the year in which their father, Abdul Aziz, the country’s modern founder, died—is how they have continually evaded the forces of change. Despite Saudi control of the largest petroleum reserves in the world, decades of rapid population growth have reduced per capita income to a fraction of that of smaller Persian Gulf neighbors. Even the people of Bahrain, a country with little oil that has roiled with unrest since early 2011, are wealthier. Having nearly doubled in twenty years to 28 million, the Saudi population includes over eight million registered foreign residents, many of them manual laborers or domestic workers. Illegal migrants, who enter on Hajj (pilgrimage) visas, or across the porous Yemeni border, may account for two million more.

With three quarters of its own citizens now under the age of thirty, Saudi Arabia faces many of the same social problems as Egypt and Yemen. By some estimates, nearly 40 percent of Saudis between the ages of twenty and twenty-four are unemployed, and quite apart from al-Qaeda, there is a long and troubled history of directionless young men drawn to radicalism. The country suffers from a housing crisis and chronic inflation, there have been recurring bouts of domestic terrorism, and the outskirts of Riyadh and Jeddah are plagued by poverty, drugs, and street violence—problems that are not acknowledged to exist in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques.

More here.