"I am the state; the state is moi," so, apparently, said Louis 14th. The state in Saudi Arabia is orientated toward the royal family, the al-Saud, but it has a life beyond the ruling family, or so says a well placed observer of the Saudi scene. The state has taken on the patronage role of the tribal sheikhs who once used their loyalty purchasing power to mark out their territorial domain. If the Saudi state can send security forces into every home and to operate on its extremely long and sometimes insecure borders, then it is a state and not just a family business, goes the rationale of those close to official sentiment. Yet take away a budget surplus, that according to genuinely modest official projections will be $1bn in 2013, then the Saudi state would seem a lot weaker. In neighbouring Jordan an IMF aid package requiring the slashing of domestic fuel subsidies resulted in riots and calls for the king’s head. While the government in Amman managed to retain much of its intended cut, aided by the restoration of cheap gas from Egypt, its tight fiscal situation makes it dependent on Saudi and other Gulf largesse.
The Jordanian state, a frail entity born of a British strategic adjustment 90 years ago, and vulnerable to successive refugee influxes since the creation of Israel 65 years ago, is more than the sum of its Hashemite masters and their patronage games. However the key reason it looks vulnerable in the face of the Arab Spring and the latest refugee crisis, this time from Syria, is its lack of cash. As Abdulrahman al-Rashed, the head of Saudi satellite news channel Al-Arabiya, put it in his latest column in Al-Sharq al-Awsat, the Saudi state receives in a week from its oil what Jordan earns from its meager mineral industry in a year. This breeds complacency, or the so-called curse of the black gold.
Corruption is the virtual talk of the town in Saudi Arabia; the exact details do not have to be understood for most people to believe that it has a disproportionate hold on the top. The political impetus for change is not there among the business elite however, whose interests are intertwined with the royal family. However corruption could corrode a state legitimacy that, while about more than the Al-Saud, is bound up with their historic role as providers and territorial unifiers.
Unemployment is a real problem, yet the perceptibly progressive labour minister says 80% of the jobs in the country aren’t “suitable” for Saudis. The current succession crisis shows signs of being resolved by a switch to the next generation of competing relatives; this time it will shared between cousins not brothers, which could be a more fragile arrangement. The need for an institutional and rule-bound basis for determining the royal leadership – beyond personalities – is increasingly discussed among the non-royal elite, but such “solutions” look very far off indeed.