Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
THE death of King 'Abdul-'Aziz ibn Sa'ud on November 9, 1953, just a fortnight before his seventy-third birthday, closed a great chapter in the history of the Arabian peninsula: certainly its greatest since the days when the Prophet Mohammed and his successors spread the fame of Arabia through the world with the book and sword of Islam, and created an empire of which the desert homeland of the Arabs soon became an insignificant province. Such it remained for a millennium until the Islamic renaissance of Shaikh Muhammad ibn 'Abdul-Wahhab in the middle of the eighteenth century laid the foundation of a new dispensation in Arabia, which has flowered in our own time in what may fairly be called a golden age of peace, piety and prosperity. The like of it will never be seen again. Already during the last years of the aging monarch, wearied by the great burden he had carried so long, the spiritual impetus which had carried him to the summit of his achievement was seen to be weakening under strange influences, hitherto rigidly excluded from his country. A process of securalization was setting in, on which there can now be no going back; and wealth has hastened a moral and material transformation, which none could have believed possible but 20 years ago. The new wine has been poured into the old bottles with consequences on which only the future can pass judgment.
The old King's great achievement was the establishment of peace and security in a country which had never known such blessings before. It was no easy task; and in years gone by few people believed that it would outlast his lifetime. Yet it was so solidly done that, despite the pessimistic prophets who preached the probability of serious trouble over the succession on his demise, the accession of the new King took place in an atmosphere of calm and goodwill. There could have been no greater tribute to the achievement of a very great man, but it was more than that. The many thousands of telegrams and letters received by the new King, to say nothing of the people and deputations which visited him in person, were a measure both of the respect and admiration inspired by the late monarch and of the hope that his son would maintain the high standard of service which he has inherited.
That the new King will achieve the greatness of his predecessor is scarcely to be expected. The circumstances of the world of today offer few chances of achievement on such an heroic scale. But there are problems enough, in all conscience, to be faced by the new régime, which will demand the highest degree of skill and wisdom on the part of the ruler, if the heritage for which he is now responsible is to be handed on intact and strengthened to the generations yet to come. And we need not doubt for a moment that this task will be approached with a full sense of responsibility and determination to serve his people by King Sa'ud, the fourth of his name to rule in Arabia as an absolute monarch since the dynasty was founded in the first quarter of the eighteenth century by Sa'ud I, his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.
Coming to the throne in his fifty-second year (for he was born on the day of his father's capture of Riyadh in January 1902), he has the great advantage of considerable experience in the arts of war and peace. His military career began with the campaign which added Hail to the realm of his father in 1921. It included the Sibila campaign against the rebellious Ikhwan of Faisal al Duwish in 1929-30; and in 1934 he commanded the desert army in the short and triumphant war against the Yemen. His administrative record dates effectively from 1933, when he was formally nominated as the heir to the throne, and since when he has been his father's right-hand man in the administration of the vast territories of Najd. He has also deputized on many occasions for his father in the conduct of the pilgrimage and in the general supervision of the affairs of the Hejaz, of which his brother Faisal was viceroy in addition to his duties as Minister of Foreign Affairs. And it is of happy augury that this same brother, already nominated as the new heir to the throne, will be able to serve the new King, as they both served their distinguished father. Both of them are widely travelled, and come to their tasks with considerable experience of the world and with a progressive outlook which needs only tempering to the economic and financial realities of their country to ensure a long period of prosperity.
The execution of the functions of a Crown Prince was by no means an easy matter under the régime of a monarch so dominant as the late King, who was always so conscious of his personal responsibility for the common weal that he could never bring himself to make any real delegation of authority, even to those whose loyalty he could trust absolutely. But little by little Sa'ud established himself in a commanding position in the direction of the country's affairs, particularly after his long visit to America soon after the war, which greatly developed his moral and intellectual stature. And when the King's own physical and mental powers began to fail, as they certainly did during the last few years of his life, Sa'ud assumed more and more effectively the active direction of the day-to-day administration on his father's behalf: this de facto situation being regularized during the last weeks of the King's life by the issue, with the latter's approval, of a royal decree establishing, for the first time in his long reign, a Council of Ministers responsible to him for the governance of the country. The Crown Prince, who had previously been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the realm, now became Prime Minister as well, with his brother, the Amir Faisal, as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs.
This rather vaguely-constituted body had scarcely had time to come into effective operation when the death of the King and the proclamation of his successor in the traditional manner invested Sa'ud with supreme responsibility for the government of the kingdom. And since then, while the Council of Ministers appears to have continued in being, there has been no public record of its activities; such decrees as have been issued during the new reign have been in the King's own name, while in one or two cases the execution of his will has been specifically delegated to the Deputy Prime Minister: mainly in connection with the installation of the King's nominees in the various Cabinet posts for which they have been designated. In effect, the post of Prime Minister is in abeyance; or, in the alternative, the King is his own Prime Minister. As all decisions of the Cabinet must be in the form of recommendations for the King's consideration and orders, it is obvious that all proposals presented by the Prime Minister on behalf of the Cabinet will receive the royal approval. In actual fact, however, the old system of absolute personal rule would seem to have been restored unobtrusively, and it is open to the King at his own absolute discretion to seek or accept advice, or to dispense with such a preliminary to action. He has thus taken upon himself a heavy burden, which had proved too much for his great father; and it remains to be seen whether in due course he will find it necessary or advisable to delegate some part of it to other shoulders, and, if so, what arrangements he will make to ensure the smooth functioning of the administrative machine on which the welfare of the state depends.
It is only in that field that King Sa'ud can make a substantial personal contribution to the consolidation and development of his father's great achievement. With internal peace and security fully established throughout the realm, and reasonably assured against all the vicissitudes of fate, the financial resources of the state are, and are likely to remain indefinitely, sufficient to ensure all the needs of good government and the steady development of public services essential to the progress and prosperity of the people as a whole.
The King starts with an advantage which his father, preoccupied with other matters and perhaps too trustful of his subordinates, never enjoyed: personal knowledge and experience of the grave defects which have developed in the administrative machinery of the country owing to the lack of skilled workers and, let it be said frankly, a regrettably low standard of responsibility and altruism in an official hierarchy recruited without system from the flotsam and jetsam of such intelligentsia as the Arab world has been able to provide for Sa'udi Arabia in the time of its greatest need. The very fact that so many officials of the government, starting from nothing, have now become very wealthy men speaks for itself. And it is not without significance that the two Arab countries which have provided the bulk of the recruits to the Sa'udi administration have themselves in recent years been seeking by revolution, happily in both cases peaceful and virtually bloodless, to root out the weeds of corruption, dishonesty and inefficiency which had so long disgraced them in the eyes of the world--conditions which could no longer be ignored when they led to the defeat of the Arab armies in the struggle over Palestine.
It is idle to expect good results from bad principles. And it is not difficult to diagnose the basic error of the Sa'udi system from the moment when the simple methods of the old Wahhabi régime had to be adjusted to the more complicated administrative needs of an increasingly cosmopolitan state. It is an accepted principle of modern "civilized" countries that no man shall simultaneously hold public office and concern himself with the commercial interests of any other body. But this principle has never been valid in Sa'udi Arabia, with the result that not only have the local merchants of the country been allowed to take an active part in the direction of its affairs as officials, but individuals recruited specifically for the public service have found no let nor hindrance in the development of personal commercial interests for the improvement of their own economic status. Efficiency, let alone honesty and altruism, cannot be expected from such a system, under which every contract or purchase made on behalf of the government is inevitably scrutinized not on the merits of the tenders under consideration but from the private point of view of officials interested as potential recipients of commissions from the successful tenderers. King Sa'ud knows very well the defects and shortcomings of such a system, which he can change to his own and his country's advantage if he should wish to do so. But he can be under no illusion as regards the opposition, vigorous though perhaps surreptitious, with which any scheme of reform will meet at the hands of vested interests which have entrenched themselves so strongly in the administration during the decade of prosperity which coincided with the progressive weakening of the late King's capacity to direct the affairs of the nation. General Naguib and President Shishakli have shown in Egypt and Lebanon how such opposition can be dealt with. The absolute monarchy of Sa'udi Arabia should not find the task of countering the activities of evildoers beyond its power, if the record of its dealings with the lawless and turbulent Badawin during the early decades of this century is any criterion of its capacity to rule. The new challenge to authority is essentially the same as that which was met so successfully by the old King in the old days, though the tactics employed are more "civilized." The wolf has taken to sheep's clothing. He has not grown less rapacious.
In some ways the problem confronting King Sa'ud is far more complicated and difficult than the crushing of Badawin intransigence, though the latter task could never have been accomplished by his father but for the extraordinary blend of political acumen and moral force by which he acquired a legendary reputation in his lifetime. With the weapon of faith alone (for he never enjoyed the advantage of any material resources during the great years of his career) he cured the Badawin of their congenital wickedness before bringing them into the fold of an ordered society. The same problem, mutatis mutandis, confronts his son, who has all the wealth of Araby at his command but no longer the magic sword of him who led "Wahab's rebel horde . . . on its path of blood along the west." The victories of peace, as other people have found before him and still find, are more elusive than those of war; but it is on them, and them alone in the absence of enemies to conquer, that the new reign in Arabia will be judged by her contemporaries and by history. And all depends on the will of an absolute monarch, and his capacity to impose it on his servants and his people.
It is not difficult to suggest various quite simple measures of reform which would have the effect of restoring a measure of stability to the administration of Sa'udi Arabia, whose reputation in the world has suffered seriously from the extravagance and corruption of recent years. No one will challenge the general principle that corruption, where it is found to exist, must be stamped out with a firm and ruthless hand. But the administrative system of the country often makes it difficult to determine the line which separates criminal dishonesty from enlightened self-interest in the public service. It is, for instance, by no means impossible that an official responsible for the awarding of a contract or the sanctioning of a purchase on behalf of the government might honestly decide the matter in favor of a company or firm in which he is interested as a proprietor or shareholder or office-holder: and so secure a contingent benefit for himself while acting in the best interests of the state. And in point of fact there are few officials in the country who have not an interest, by way of commission or otherwise, in one or another of the numerous companies, of many nationalities, which nowadays compete for the contracts or orders offered by the Sa'udi Arabian Government.
Dishonest officials obviously profit by such a situation; but honest officials should never be placed in such a quandary, where their self-interest is in direct competition with their loyalty. The practice in most "civilized" countries is to preclude all government officials from engaging in any form of commercial activity; and the establishment of such a practice in Sa'udi Arabia would be all to the good. Its natural corollary would be the denial of administrative office to any person whose normal profession and means of livelihood derive from commerce or industry in any form. And another grave defect of the present system arises out of the very natural tendency of high-ranking officials to recruit the departmental personnel connected with their work from their own families and their friends: thus creating a sort of "masonic" group inspired by an internal loyalty overriding the greater loyalty due to the monarch or the state.
The very fact that the adoption of the reforms envisaged as necessary to cure these three major weaknesses of the Sa'udi administration would, at least temporarily, throw the whole administration out of gear is the true measure of the urgent need for the introduction of such changes without delay, if only to prevent the crystallization of glaring defects. And another point of similar type and perhaps greater importance arises out of a tendency, already observable in the last few years of the late reign, to appoint members of the royal family to administrative posts for which they have no particular aptitude or training and in which, while themselves immune to criticism by reason of their high rank in a country which is nothing if not royalist to the core, their errors of judgment or inexperience may bring discredit on the régime. It was indeed widely believed at the inception of the present reign that King Sa'ud intended to abolish this system in favor of the creation of a Council of Princes to advise him at headquarters, and to place the various departments in the hands of officials or Ministers with appropriate experience. But no such development has in fact materialized; and of the five high-ranking appointments publicly announced by His Majesty so far, two Ministries (of Education and Agriculture) have gone to princes, while two distinguished individuals, whose primary interests are commercial, have been nominated Ministers of State (with important financial and economic functions to discharge). The fifth, an ecclesiastical appointment, confirming the de facto control of all religious matters, including religious education, by the distinguished Chief Mufti of Riyadh, is quite unexceptionable. Whether princes should engage in commerce or not is perhaps a moot point, and there can be no valid "democratic" objection to their doing so. But when they are also Ministers in charge of Departments of State, their engagement in such activities is obviously open to the same criticism that may justly be raised in the case of their Commoner colleagues.
So much for the more or less personal aspect of the whole problem of corruption in its various forms. But there are some principles of sound financial administration which have so far been observed more in the breach than the observance. During the past decade, for instance, the year's budget has only thrice been published for general information; and in none of the three cases have the published figures (rising from a total estimated revenue of £25,000,000 in 1947 to £100,000,000 last year) given the public any real idea of how the income of the country has been laid out for its benefit. They were perhaps not meant to do so; and in any case it would have been of more interest to the people and to the world at large if the actual accounts of any year were subjected to a really independent audit and published with an auditor's certificate of their correctness. This would be a very easy reform to introduce at once; and, as the budget for each year is presumably submitted for the approval of the King, an auditor's report on the manner of its translation into action would be of the utmost importance to His Majesty himself, who has otherwise no check on the acts and omissions of his Ministers. Technically at least, the whole income of the state is the personal property of the King of Sa'udi Arabia, who may well regard it as being in trust with him for the benefit of his subjects. But he at least can have no possible interest in the malversation or misappropriation of the public funds for the benefit of dishonest people, whose activities give the country a bad name, dissipate the country's resources, and may fairly be regarded as treasonable in that the people concerned surreptitiously arrogate to themselves executive powers to which they are not entitled. This aspect of the matter could be illustrated with scores of instances (e.g. the withholding of the salaries of minor personnel of the government, the issuing of driving licenses to quite incompetent applicants, the issuing of rations of inferior quality or in short measure to those entitled to receive them, and so forth). But perhaps enough has been said on the general subject of corruption, which constitutes the principal administrative problem facing the new régime of King Sa'ud with an urgency of which many in high places seem to be unaware.
Since these officials are in large measure representative of populations beyond the limits of Sa'udi Arabia, and are themselves more than satisfied with their extremely lucrative employment and prospects, their attention tends to be focussed on the political and international problems now agitating the Arab world as a whole, and only rather incidentally on Sa'udi Arabia--an increasingly important unit of that world owing to its rapidly mounting economic resources. In the main the problems demanding the attention of King Sa'ud and his régime are relatively simple, and only indirectly impinge on the interests of the country. There is therefore not likely to be any striking departure from the general lines of policy laid down by the late King. That policy involved the loyal acceptance of the Arab League as the authorized interpreter of Arab wishes and interests vis-à-vis the outer world; the recognition of the United Nations as a suitable arena for the presentation and argument of the Arab cause wherever that impinged on the vested or other interests of non-Arab or non-Moslem states, especially the colonial, or imperialistic, Powers; and generally the maintenance of friendly relations, as far as possible, with all countries of the world, although the Sa'udi Government itself is not, and apparently does not seek or wish to be, in diplomatic relations with countries of the Iron Curtain bloc.
In such matters as Palestine, the Canal Zone dispute, the Sudan, the French North African dependencies, etc., it would seem likely that the hitherto somewhat platonic attitude of the Sa'udi régime will change in the direction of more positive support of the policy of the Arab League. In some cases this has already taken place, in that Sa'udi Arabia is making important financial contributions to the strengthening of Jordan as a bulwark against Israeli aggression, while its representatives have pledged support in Egypt's quarrel with Britain over the Canal base, and the Yemen's complaint of British aggression on her borders.
By implication it seems likely that there will be no great enthusiasm in Sa'udi Arabia for the arrangements envisaged by the Western Powers for the defense of the Middle East, though this is probably due to the existence of its own long-standing arrangements with the United States for the military reorganization of the country, involving mutually satisfactory commitments in respect of the development and administration of certain air bases. This situation, coupled with the obvious interest of America in the exploitation and safeguarding of the oil resources of the country may well be regarded as sufficient, and indeed the best possible, insurance of the realm against such trouble as may arise. On the other hand the recently revived project of the Iraq Government for the federation of the Arab states is not likely to be regarded with much favor in Sa'udi Arabia, or indeed in other quarters of the Arab League, which would seem already to have consigned the proposal to the oblivion of a pigeonhole with its courteous resolution to circulate the papers for the consideration of the governments concerned. In Sa'udi circles the scheme may well be regarded as reflecting the well-known ambition of Iraq to absorb Jordan and so to dominate the landbridge between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf: incidentally isolating Sa'udi Arabia and the whole of peninsular Arabia from the rest of the world. The Egyptian alternative of a military alliance of the Arab states under Egyptian leadership for the defense of the Arab world by the Arabs themselves would seem to be much less objectionable, though it does involve the consideration of an important point on which there is likely to be some difference of opinion among the Arab states.
That point is the question of Arab neutrality toward the actual or likely conflicts of the world at large. In its present form it has arisen directly from the continuing deadlock in Anglo-Egyptian relations; and General Naguib's advocacy of a declaration of neutrality as a riposte to British intransigence does not yet seem to have aroused much enthusiasm among his neighbors. But the question is nonetheless one which should perhaps have been considered seriously on its merits in a more general context, as India has done long since with decidedly satisfactory results in the great extension of her influence in world politics. It is not likely that Iraq and Jordan, with their still strongly-British associations, will give the idea any support. But elsewhere in the Arab world the existence of numerous points of conflict with the Western Powers cannot but give force to the argument that the withholding of coöperation with those Powers in their quarrel with the Communist bloc is the only way of forcing them to respect, or concede, the complete independence claimed by all elements of the Arab world. If Egypt is now in the forefront of the movement in her efforts to eject the British troops from her soil, the North African dependencies of France have no earthly hope of gaining their independence except by complete non-coöperation with the suzerain Power. And both Sa'udi Arabia and the Yemen are in actual conflict with Britain at points where her forward policy is creating suspicion of the approach of a new wave of imperialism. Syria and the Lebanon are fortunate in having no points of contact, or therefore conflict, with any Western Power, though it scarcely seems likely that they would welcome Western military bases in their territories.
The Arabs may be supersensitive; but it can scarcely be denied that, by and large, they have a very strong case against the Western Powers, and for the adoption of a neutral attitude in world politics. And so far as Sa'udi Arabia is concerned, her attitude cannot but be influenced by the course of the present controversy with Britain over the oasis of Buraimi. The studied silence of the British Government over this matter of a cold war with Sa'udi Arabia, now nearly two years old in its active form, seems to provide the measure of her sensitiveness to criticism of her activities, neither edifying nor justifiable, in an area into which she has never had the slightest right to intrude. Much less has she had the right to intrude with all the paraphernalia of modern militarism and an army of formidable though not exactly known strength to besiege a tiny desert village, held by a tiny garrison, which has been the headquarters of the Sa'udi administration of its Oman province for 200 years. That the King, like his late father, and his government, feel very bitterly about this quite uncalled for aggression by an old friend admits of no doubt. And, in such circumstances, it is not unnatural that such bitterness should be translated into general support of other countries with similar grievances against British imperialism. Curiously enough this matter of Buraimi has not been taken to the Arab League for consideration, much less to the Security Council or the United Nations Assembly; but the only reason for such restraint on the part of the Sa'udi Government is that it hopes, with infinite patience, to induce a change of heart in Whitehall.
Meanwhile Sa'udi Arabia must be counted among the Arab countries with specific grievances against Western imperialism, whose votes may well be cast in despair against any further coöperation with the Western Powers in their struggle for world hegemony with the Soviet Empire. The ideology of the Soviet Union is fundamentally distasteful to the Arabs, though it has made some ground already, and is likely to make more, with the progressive industrialization and secularization of their lands. But they have no earthly cause of quarrel with Russia or her satellites, as indeed they had none with Germany or Japan; and experience of two world wars has taught them to expect vicarious benefits from the quarrels of the great. A third world war might well complete the process of emancipation, which is the main political objective of all Arab communities without any exception.
Britain and France would do well to understand this simple fact, as there can be little doubt that both of them have already lost much of their influence and popularity in the Middle East. In the main, America has replaced them with her immense economic prestige and financial solidarity, which have so far on the whole been used with a studious avoidance of anything in the nature of old-fashioned imperialism. But in some respects, which are perhaps less obvious in Sa'udi Arabia than in other parts of the Middle East (Egypt and Persia for instance), the trimming of American policy to the sensibilities of some of her Western allies has disappointed the Arabs. And in Sa'udi Arabia the recent marked infiltration of German economic and industrial interests must be regarded as something of a makeweight against American dominance, which is still very great in the land. A general tendency is already making itself visible in Arab counsels to work towards a greater self-reliance and self-sufficiency in the Arab world, to the exclusion of foreigners. This is obviously a long-range policy, intended to reinterpret the old xenophobia of the desert in terms of economics. It seems to be in general line with the modern tendency, much more common than might be supposed, to emphasize the elements of separatism in a world drawn ever closer together by mechanical developments, which man has been able to devise, against the theoretical advantages of unity or interdependence.
The goodwill and coöperation of the Arabs can be had only on the basis of the recognition of their complete independence. Sa'udi Arabia herself has no complaint on that score, except in the matter of minor encroachments on her preserves, as at Buraimi; but it would seem more than likely that the late King's policy of friendship with Britain as the cornerstone of his foreign policy will gradually be adjusted to the strains of a new dispensation, under which the economic importance of America (and possibly Germany in due course) and the political aspirations of the Arab world will tend to dominate the counsels of the new régime in Sa'udi Arabia. Such a development, in itself, is not open to criticism; and it would certainly relieve the administration of any direct responsibility for major decisions in the foreign field in respect of matters which can scarcely be regarded as concerning Sa'udi Arabia otherwise than vicariously. There is indeed much to be said for that part of the Iraqi proposal for federation which postulates a coördinated foreign policy for the Arab world as a whole and its representation in the various foreign capitals by a single diplomatic representative with joint credentials. The political advantages and the financial savings deriving from such an arrangement would be very considerable.
But, from the point of view of Sa'udi Arabia, the absence of serious international preoccupations should enable the administration to concentrate the whole of its attention on urgently needed domestic reforms. It has all the resources needed for the creation of an ideal state, of which indeed the foundations were well and truly laid by 'Abdul-'Aziz ibn Sa'ud some 20 years ago, though they have been severely tested in recent years by two totally unexpected factors. The sudden flood of fabulous wealth, and the complete reorientation of the outlook of a once excessively exclusive society, have brought much good in their train; but, like the great torrents which from time to time sweep down the valleys of the desert, they have wrought much damage which must be repaired, if the work of the late King is to be preserved for the benefit of his people. And in that task the good wishes of the world go out to King Sa'ud ibn Sa'ud in the confident hope that he will prove a worthy successor of his great father.