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How long can repressive regimes last?

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
  • David Frum: Egypt is not the only place in region with dire social, political problems
  • He says Saudi Arabia suffers from unemployment, inequality
  • The kingdom tightly controls media and political activity, Frum says
  • Saudi Arabia's huge oil reserves make it strategically vital, he says
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Terrorism
  • Egypt
  • Economic Issues

Editor's note: David Frum writes a weekly column for A special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002, he is the author of six books, including "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again," and is the editor of FrumForum.

Washington (CNN) -- Ten percent unemployment that has persisted for years. Pervasive under-employment for the highly educated. Women largely excluded from the labor force. One out of seven adults who cannot read.

Personal incomes are stagnating; the population is growing fast. Relative to the Western world, the typical person is worse off today than in 1985.

Society is tightly controlled. Everything from the internet to Vogue is subject to censorship. The police have absolute and arbitrary power.

The authorities are unelected, unaccountable, and corruption is alleged on an epic scale.

The gap between rich and poor is enormous and widening.

The head of state is reputed to have gained a personal fortune approaching $20 billion.

The population is restive: In November, the Interior Ministry announced the arrest of 149 suspected al Qaeda terrorists, following a previous roundup of 113 in March. Now guess: Which Middle Eastern country am I describing? Answer: Saudi Arabia.

As you watch the revolutionary scenes in Egypt, consider this possibility: Every factor driving Egypt to revolution is at work in Saudi Arabia, and possibly even more so.

Saudi Arabia of course is wealthier than Egypt.

Half the population of Egypt lives on $2 a day. Saudi Arabia is a land of Pizza Huts and big box stores.

But middle-income countries have revolutions, too. Observers and visitors to the region express concern about Saudi stability.

Imagine yourself a young Saudi man, born about 1985.

Your parents tell you of a golden age of opportunity and improvement that ended just about the time you were born. Now your family lives in a 1970s-vintage apartment building, vastly more comfortable than your grandparents' home. But it's getting crowded for a family with four teenage and young adult sons.

You'd like to marry and get a home of your own. But how? Jobs are scarce, and foreigners are preferred: Employers say they work harder. Such jobs as you could get are beneath your dignity. Saudi universities graduate 6,000 students a year with degrees in education, even as Saudi schools require only 650 new teachers. The Saudi Interior Ministry complained in September that native-born Saudis shun the private sector: More than 6 million foreigners hold private-sector jobs even as 500,000 Saudi job seekers lack work.

So what do you do all day? You can hang out at the mall, try to flirt with the shrouded girls by text message. You can pray at the mosque; that's always allowed. You can read militant Islamist websites on your computer or try to find ways around the anti-pornography firewalls.

You see no prospect that life will get better soon. In time, somebody may retire and open a civil service vacancy for you. In the meanwhile, you hear rumors of the fabulous lifestyles of the ruling family. They live in palaces, travel to Beirut or Dubai or London, drink whisky, gamble, keep company with beautiful women.

In recent years the price of oil has surged, and the rulers have become more opulent than ever. But they are less inclined to share the wealth now that the population has reached 25 million than they were in 1980, when there were only 10 million pairs of palms to cross.

More and more, the rulers seem intent on extracting and accumulating as much personal wealth as possible before the system comes crashing down. Your nation's immense wealth is compounding in offshore bank accounts, even as you and everyone you know are struggling.

But if the rulers are not concerned for you -- who is? Where is it written that the king may own jumbo jets while you have never made it so far as an evening of sinful fun in Bahrain? When do you get your piece of the wealth Allah put beneath Arabia's sands?

If that's not an explosive situation, what is?

A collapse of the Mubarak regime in Egypt would constitute a major event in the history of the region. A collapse of the government that squats atop the planet's largest oil reserve would shake the world. Till now, the Saudi monarchy has held power by adeptly balancing repression and social welfare. But the welfare net is fraying, and the events in Cairo raise the question: How long can repressive Arab regimes continue to repress?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

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