Just-deceased King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was born in 1924, before Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, before the first jet aircraft flight and before television, much less the Internet. When he was born, Italy, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Yugoslavia and North Yemen were still all ruled by kings. He left behind an absolute monarchy allied with a puritanical Wahhabi clerical corps that is still attempting to rule unilaterally over some 20 million citizens and 8 million guest workers. King Abdullah initiated a handful of limited domestic reforms, but then in the last decade of his life backed off many of them, leaving his aged and ailing successor, King Salman, with little more than a policy of treading water.
Treading water is not an option. Saudi Arabia is one of the more dynamic societies in the world, beset with rapid population growth and severe class, sectarian and regional tensions. It pumps about 10 percent of all the petroleum produced in the world daily, and is by far the largest exporter. The recent downturn in oil prices will hurt, but the kingdom has substantial currency reserves, of some $750 billion. There is a cushion. Despite Saudi Arabia’s image in the outside world as a lost-in-time medieval landscape, it is in fact hyper-modern in much of its infrastructure (go to an image search engine and put in “Riyadh.”)
The wealth and progress, however, are very unequally spread around. King Abdullah had a net worth estimated at $18 billion. Yet a fifth of his subjects live in “crippling” poverty.. In the poor northern province of Hail, no new public health initiatives, such as building hospitals, have been undertaken for twenty-five years. Independent labor unions and strikes are strictly forbidden, though they do sometimes break out nevertheless. Women can only work with the permission of a male guardian and are paid a fraction of male counterparts. Guest workers often have their passports taken away by their Saudi employers, and have few rights. Saudi Arabia offers citizens free education through the doctorate for those who want it, and free healthcare, but the state does not offer the equivalent of food stamps or much in the way of direct welfare for the disadvantaged. It has recently tried to encourage skittish youth to risk entering the private sector employment market, where, unlike in the sure thing of government offices, they could be fired in a size-down, by instituting an unemployment insurance scheme.
Another divide is generational. Some estimates suggest that fully 60 percent of the population is under 21—i.e., born in the 1990s and the twenty-first century. Although official unemployment stands at about 10 percent, it is thought to be three times that among young people. A lively digital youth culture seethes beneath the platitudes of official discourse. Over half of Saudis are connected to the Internet, and a third of those visit Twitter monthly, the highest proportion of any country in the world. The state has begun allowing the population to blow off steam about narrow policy issues on Twitter, but bloggers who go too far and advocate liberalism or secularism are in severe peril. Raif al-Badawi has been sentenced to ten years in prison and a debilitating 1,000 lashes for blogging liberal ideas, though an international outcry has prompted the monarchy to review his sentence. More worrying, thousands of Saudi youth are thought to have gone off to fight in Syria, and some of them have been recruited by radical extremist foes of the Saudi monarch, such as Daesh and the Support Front (an Al Qaeda affiliate).