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The Saudi Spring?

LONDON – In the early 1970’s, Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal reportedly confided to senior members of the royal family his fear that, just as in a single generation the country had moved from “riding camels to riding Cadillacs….the next generation could be riding camels again.” His warning seems more apt than ever.

Saudi Arabia, long one of the Arab world’s most rigid societies, now finds itself in a state of flux. Its relations with the West – and with the United States in particular – have frayed in the turmoil unleashed in the Middle East and North Africa by the Arab Spring. Meanwhile, a group of women provided the latest sign of domestic restiveness by defying the Kingdom’s prohibition against women drivers.

While Saudi Arabia remains the largest Arab economy, the world’s leading producer and exporter of oil, and the guardian of Sunni Islam, its political influence has diminished significantly in recent years. From the early 1980’s to the mid-2000’s, Saudi Arabia was the coordinator of pan-Arab politics, with the palaces of Riyadh and Jeddah drawing political leaders from throughout the Arab world.

But the reception rooms have since been noticeably empty. Qatar – with its seemingly inexhaustible wealth and a comprehensive foreign, investment, and media strategy – has replaced Saudi Arabia as the decisive arbiter in almost every Middle Eastern conflict.