Tuesday, Feb. 01, 2011

House of Saud

With 25% of the world's oil reserves, accumulating wealth and powerful friends — principally the U.S. — has not been hard for King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. But while he and his estimated 7,000 royal family members thrive, enjoying his around $20 billion in wealth, 1 in 7 adults in his country cannot read. Unemployment has topped 10% for years. Censorship is pervasive. Criticizing the government, royal family and the police, who enjoy absolute power, is not allowed. Women have precious few rights and are largely excluded from the workforce. The ruling family has enjoyed absolute power for the better part of 100 years, despite never having been elected. Opposing political parties are simply not allowed. While Abdullah is aligned with the region's other autocrats — he welcomed Tunisia's exiled leader Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and has thrown his support behind Egypt's Hosni Mubarak — a popular uprising in this restrictive but relatively affluent state seems less likely than elsewhere in the Middle East. Still, the House of Saud's grip has two weaknesses: the family's refusal to create a democratic system, even while Saudi society itches to be more liberalized, and the continued presence of networks of Islamist fundamentalists that threaten to destroy Abdullah's credibility as a figure of stability abroad.