Saudi Arabia is, if anything, less democratic than Iran. Its citizens have limited rights, and, like the Islamic Republic, its religiously conservative government imposes many restraints on its populace. So why, asks Elliott Abrams, are Iranians demonstrating against their rulers en masse while Saudis seem unperturbed by the status quo?
Part of the answer is found in the expectations game: while [the Saudi crown prince] Mohammed bin Salman (known as MbS) surprised Saudis by pushing unexpectedly for social and economic modernization, [the Iranian president Hassan] Rouhani promised both political and economic improvement and has not delivered on either. Popular patience with Rouhani has clearly run out. . . .
By contrast, it seems to many Saudis that the crown prince has figured out that change is the only thing that will save the House of Saud. The old model of elderly brothers ruling in succession, of an unproductive economy saved by revenues from $120-per-barrel oil, of the clerics preventing anything new that smacked of the 21st (or even the 20th) century, was becoming a formula for disaster. Time will run out some day for MbS if he cannot deliver on his promises. But young Saudis will give him the chance to try.
Beyond the issue of expectations there lies the critical question of legitimacy. The great sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset wrote in 1959, “Legitimacy involves the capacity of a political system to engender and maintain the belief that existing political institutions are the most appropriate or proper ones for the society.”. . . . In our Western view, democratic legitimacy is the best and strongest form, but monarchic legitimacy exists in several Arab nations, especially in the Gulf. . . . Iran today, [however], is a fake republic kept in place only by brutal repression. . . .
For now, Iranians are disgusted with the refusal of their rulers to allow change and reform despite their repeated promises, while Saudis are surprised and apparently pleased by their rulers’ insistence on change. Saudis will give MbS time, but their heightened expectations mean that if he fails and the kingdom starts returning to the past, there will be trouble in the streets.