Allah, I Prayed for a Driver's License and Instead I got this Alter Kaker* Arab Sheik on Viagra: Next Time I'll call Santa
*see Yiddish dictionary
King Abdullah and his Cowboy Buddy: Returning to Brokeback Mountain ("But I won't leave Laura!")
You'll probably call me a wonk (like in "policy wonk," but I have to reveal to you that I'm one of those guys who gets off reading The Economist magazine's "surveys" the ones it issues from time to time, like 24 pages about "The Future of the Albanian Car Industry" or 32 pages about "Ghana's High-Tech Revolution." So I was very excited when I got in the mail my new issue of The Economist with a special survey about "Saudi Arabia: A Long Walk" (12 pages). The survey is quite interesting, very contrarian and running very much against the post-9/11 Conventional Wisdom (CW), you know, that the Saudi Kingdom is about to become history, that the the Al Sauds have lost the support of the population, that Osama and al Qaeda are very popular among ordinary citizens, that women are really pissed off because they cannot drive, that the economy cannot support the growing population, that this Gas Station with a Flag will probably come under the control of radical Islamic types sooner or later. Not so, according to Max Rodenbeck, a serious Middle East analyst who prepared the survey. In fact, the Saudi Oil Rigs Are Alive with Music.
...the latest economic reports picture a country in the prime of health where fast-unfolding reforms promise a sustained rise in living standards and an increasingly equitable spread of wealth. In the year just ended, Saudi Arabia chalked up a 7% rise in GDP, a 50% surge in oil exports and a 100% leap in prices on a stockmarket that is now worth $600 billion. Moreover, 2005 was the third successive year of similar growth. Although high oil prices clearly helped, the biggest rise was in such oil-free pursuits as finance, manufacturing and tourism, with the holy places attracting a record 6m visitors. Last year the country won admission to the World Trade Organisation. More surprisingly, it was also judged by the World Bank to have the best overall environment in the region for doing business, outperforming even such high-flyers as Dubai.
And Saudi Arabia can no longer be regarded as a simple place where an obscenely oil-rich king holds absolute sway over Bedouin subjects controlled by cash and a bleakly puritan Islam. It is now a complex, diverse and highly urbanised society, not insulated from the world but rudely exposed to it, where citizens increasingly long to be able to influence the direction of change and expect their leaders to earn legitimacy. For example, the Majlis al Shura, the kingdom's loyal, all-appointed proto-parliament, has let it be known that it will approve new taxes only if it is granted full oversight of how the money will be spent.
And the survey argues
that far from being a dinosaur nation, lumbering to extinction, Saudi Arabia is capable of rapid evolution. On some important issues, such as the rules governing business, it is already far down the right track. On others, such as the ways it educates its youth and excludes women, the kingdom is only just beginning to shift course. What has been sorely lacking is a firm hand at the wheel.
Such leadership could come from the Al Sauds themselves. The assumption of the throne last year by King Abdullah, who has embraced greater openness than his predecessor, has raised hopes. The new king is personally far more popular than the previous one. Yet reforms would undoubtedly be more effective if they were backed by a clear popular mandate. Most Saudis reckon it is premature to speak of democracy in their country; but there are myriad ways to emancipate citizens, from upholding the rule of law to making budgets more transparent and loosening the grip of security agencies over universities and the press. Instead of their old tactics of prevarication, slow consensus-building and co-optation, the Al Sauds should try a new one: putting trust in their people.
What can I say? Good news from the Middle East, for a change. And remember this is not one of those "advertising supplements." Enjoy the survey, like I did, here