Saudi Reforms: A House Built on Sand

The recent reforms in Saudi Arabia are like a house built on sand; they are fated not to last.

That’s because of all reformist measures enacted by governments, the recent ones in Saudi Arabia are some of the closest to pure reformism and the furthest from revolutionary change, and ultimately only revolution is capable of effecting lasting change. Absent enough popular passion to inspire at least some faint thoughts of revolt, a reform is nothing but a dictate from above that can be easily undone by an opposing and contrary dictate from above.

Lasting reforms in open societies are indeed a real thing, but they are almost never pure reformism. They are driven by popular demand and backed by an implicit, though often unstated, threat of at least widespread disruption and at worst (in the eyes of the ruling elite) outright revolution if not granted. The reforms are granted by the elite under popular pressure not to erode elite rule, but to preserve it, and the implicit threat from below serves to keep the reforms in place.

In contrast, what’s happening in Saudi Arabia seems to be coming almost entirely as a result of the dictates of a reform-minded king. They could be easily undone the next time a more conservative king ascends to the throne, and in all likelihood will be.

Now, if when that hypothetical king undoes the reforms there is unrest, and then the reforms are reinstated, then they will cease to be a house built upon sand. But only then.

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