The Arab Spring has brought the watching global public some surreal moments, from the dictator-in-denial speeches of the former President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak to the remarkable improvised theatre of the increasingly isolated Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi. But arguably even these events were cast into a pale shadow by the written statement promulgated on 8th August 2011 by King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud.
In the statement, the current King of Saudi Arabia made his displeasure concerning the current crackdown on the uprising in Syria known: ‘What is happening in Syria is not acceptable for Saudi Arabia…Syria should think wisely before it’s too late and enact reforms that are not merely promises but actual reforms…Either it chooses wisdom on its own or it will be pulled down into the depths of turmoil and loss.’
There is a clear paradox evident here: the titular head of a country which is recognised worldwide as a highly repressive state is communicating a dire warning to the president of another highly repressive state to implement swift and concrete political reforms. But why would a leader of Saudi Arabia – a country whose response to the Arab Spring cannot even be described as lukewarm, and which craves a continuation of the status quo like few other polities on earth – issue such a statement, one that has the potential to awkwardly rebound?
After some contemplation, it seems cogent to posit that Saudi Arabia is experiencing what we at Mediolana term ‘the paradox of indispensability’, which goes at least some way towards explaining King Abdullah’s enigmatic words; these might in fact be seen as foreshadowing events in his own domain. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia has possibly never been more indispensable to the global economy, particularly its American component: it is increasingly apparent that we live in an era of fonduenomics, where economies are dipping in and out of recession with increasing frequency, an occurrence that is largely contingent on the price of oil; consequently, petroleum-rich entities such as Saudi Arabia are theoretically in a position of great political and economy strength.
On the other hand, the Saudi Arabian model – a curious mixture of Wahhabism, authoritarian rule and a domestic economy massively subsidised by energy revenues – seems to be under significant stress, which is evident in a number of ways:
1. A world of increasingly borderless information has helped engender a disconnect between the average Saudi subject and the official state ideology: the Arab Attitudes Towards Iran, 2011 report published by the Arab American Institute Foundation reveals that a stunning 98% of Saudis have a ‘favourable’ opinion of Turkey – an officially secular country synonymous with social liberalism in the Arab world – compared with only 26% and 6% possessing favourable views of China and Iran respectively.
2. In an era increasingly shaped by Peak Oil, Saudi Arabia is likely to find itself weakly placed once demand and/or supply for its lifeblood export declines precipitously. It is therefore trying to diversify its economic base both through megaprojects such as the construction of King Abdullah Economic City – a brand new metropolis with a projected population of nearly four million people – and gargantuan real estate ventures along Dubai lines; ultimately, these are expressions of underlying fragility.