By Andrew Brown
23 January 2015
We can always look on the bright side of the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and the accession of Prince Salman. It shows that, if reports of his ill-health are true, dementia can’t stop you reaching the very top – at least if you have the right parents. It is a danger for many political systems that they end up being run by men whose faculties are no longer up to it: think of Pope John Paul II in his long decline, Churchill after his strokes, Ronald Reagan or the Soviet gerontocracy. But Saudi is unique in the modern world in choosing as leader a man believed to be in decline even before he comes to power.
It is a final touch of absurdity in a kingdom that is wicked in itself, and a source of wickedness and corruption elsewhere in the world. Saudi Arabia practices torture and arbitrary judicial murder. Women are beheaded in the street, liberal thought is punishable by flogging, which can be a death sentence even more horrific, and because it is more prolonged than having your head hacked off with a sword. It is a raft of fear and hatred lashed together, floating on unimaginable amounts of MONEY, at least for the lucky few. Among the poor, not all of whom are slaves or foreigners, there is tufshan, a special word defined by an anthropologist as “subtle and incapacitating torpor”.
Saudi’s influence on the outside world is almost wholly malign. The young men it sent to fight in Afghanistan turned into al-Qaida. The Sunni jihadis whom Saudis have FUNDED in Iraq and Syria turned into Isis. It has spread a poisonous form of Islam throughout Europe with its subsidies, and corrupted western politicians and businessmen with its culture of bribery. The Saudis have always appealed to the worst forms of western imperialism: their contempt for other Muslims is as great as any American nationalist’s.
But it is very hard to see what reforms might make it better. The example of the Soviet Union shows how chaotic and dreadful the collapse of a totalitarian autocracy can be. Although the Saudis will still have Islam if their state collapses – the Soviets lost their ideology as well their empire – their narrow and puritanical interpretation of Islam can hardly lead to peace. Besides, they face Shia enemies in an arc from Syria in the north, through Iraq and Iran, all the way round to Yemen in the south, where an insurgency is steadily gaining strength; and there is a Shia minority, ruthlessly suppressed, in the kingdom itself.
All these threats must strengthen the apparatus of repression and the belief of the rulers that if they lose their grip they will fall and be trampled in their turn. They may very well be right. It will require a truly wise and skilled leader to navigate what lies ahead. The grovelling tributes paid to the late king by western politicians describe the imaginary Saudi king we need, not those we have had or are likely to get.