Saudi Arabia: The Long Day Closes
“PRAISE be to Allah,” mumbled King Abdullah as subject after subject stooped to kiss the seated monarch’s hand. The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques was bestowing blessings on a noble deed—13 families had waived their right, under Islamic law, to demand that the murderers of their relatives be beheaded—amid a sombre host of robed princes and retainers. The ceremony’s reassuring timelessness was broadcast on state television.
Yet as on most evenings these days, Saudis were more likely to be glued to their computers than to official broadcasts. Perhaps they were catching the latest upload of “La Yekthar”, one of a growing array of home-brewed comedy shows on YouTube. That evening’s ten-minute episode poked fun at, among other things, the stodginess of state news broadcasts and the $15m cost of fixing the toilets in a public park. Perhaps they were watching less frivolous fare. In May an outraged young Saudi woman in the capital, Riyadh, used her phone to film the religious police as they tried to eject her from a mall for wearing nail polish. She then uploaded the video for all to see. So far it has accumulated nearly 2m hits.
Life in the kingdom has always had its striking contrasts, but there is more reason than ever for doubting that today’s can long be sustained. That may sound surprising: the pace of reform in the kingdom, it has often been said, is inversely correlated with the price of oil. With prices coming off record highs and enough cash in the central bank—$560 billion—to cover a full three years of government spending things might be taken as looking stable. When a wave of revolutions washed across north Africa last year, King Abdullah felt no need to offer pre-emptive political concessions, as King Mohammed VI of Morocco did. Instead, he opened the tap, pouring $130 billion into such things as housing, education, unemployment benefits and the like, not forgetting a little something for the pampered religious establishment. That reversed what had been a mounting tide of complaint over poor schools, shoddy infrastructure, capricious courts and a lack of affordable housing. There was no Saudi spring.