It’s been a while since I discussed Saudi Arabia in this space and
in reading a piece by Eric Rouleau in the July / August issue of
Foreign Affairs, the former French ambassador to Tunisia and
Turkey brings up some interesting talking points. I present his
main findings without personal comment and let you draw your
Rouleau is convinced the Saudi Kingdom is on the verge of
collapse. Crown Prince Abdullah, de facto leader, certainly
understands this, which is why he has been out front with his
own Arab-Israeli peace initiative. No other issue is of more
importance, today, than the anger Saudi people have for the
suffering of the Palestinians, which Rouleau says is “blamed less
on Israel than on its American protector.”
Abdullah had proposed a result promising full normalization of
relations between Israel and the Arab world in exchange for
implementation of prior UN resolutions on Palestine. But at the
same time, liberal Saudi intellectuals are calling for the break-off
of relations with the U.S. and an oil embargo. So this is what
Abdullah is up against.
Aside from the majority being angered by the American-backed
colonial oppressor, the other chief grievance is the presence of
American bases on Saudi soil. The monarchy is so sensitive to
this that it is never raised in the media or in public, as many view
it as a form of occupation and humiliation, the latter because
Saudi Arabia has to rely on the U.S. for protection.
A Saudi prince told Rouleau, on the condition of anonymity:
“The arrogance of the United States is unacceptable. President
Bush says that anyone who does not fully support the U.S. war
plans is with the terrorists. In other words, we are being asked to
board a train without being told where it is going, what route it
will follow, or how long the journey will take. And we’re told
not to ask questions, which are considered inappropriate.”
On the issue of al Qaeda, the Saudi interior minister, Prince
Nayef, argues that they are more dangerous to the Saudis than to
the U.S. While America would suffer only physical damage, as
devastating as it may be, it wouldn’t undermine the state itself.
“For us, on the other hand,” Nayef concludes, “the threat
is ideological and political, since bin Laden accuses the royal
family of betraying Islam and of being an accomplice of the
The rise of someone like bin Laden goes back to the days of
“Arab Nationalism” and leaders like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel
Nasser. It was in the 1950s and 60s when Saudi Arabia made
perhaps its biggest mistake, granting thousands of members of
the Muslim Brotherhood political asylum as they fled repression
in Egypt and elsewhere. The Brotherhood were soon exerting
influence in the mosques, schools and universities, while
officials were being selected for positions in the education
ministry, where they, in turn, designed the textbooks.
Heretofore, the longtime Wahhabi influence in the Kingdom had
been limited to concerning itself with the Islamic code, such as
monitoring dress and religious practices. The Muslim
Brotherhood, though, politicized and radicalized the Wahhabis.
We then move to the 1970s and the first oil boom. At this point,
Saudi leaders encouraged the development and spread of
Wahhabi-influenced Islam by supporting the building of schools
and cultural centers throughout the Arab world. The monarchy
never received any real pressure from the U.S. because America
was more concerned with the fight against Communism, and the
spread of Islam posed no real threat, certainly when compared to
that of the Soviet Union.
Then, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the U.S. came to
the aid of the mujahideen, including Osama bin Laden himself.
Following this conflict, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Bin Laden went to
the Saudi royal family and asked for support to drive the Iraqis
out of Kuwait himself. But when Saudi Arabia turned to the U.S.,
instead, bin Laden had his new goal, to destroy the Saudi
monarchy and drive the U.S. off of its new bases on “sacred”
Arabian soil. Unfortunately, it took a while for the U.S. to
Today’s Saudi Arabia is a total mess, of course. Women are
banned from all public spaces unless they cloak themselves in
black from head to toe, while at the same time they cannot open
up a bank account, buy property, work or travel without the
express permission of a male guardian. Women also can’t drive
or mingle with the other sex in schools. In fact a male university
professor teaching women must give his lecture through a
closed-circuit one-way television system, to prevent him from
seeing his students.
65% of the Saudi population is now under the age of 25, while
the overall unemployment rate is 30% for men, 95%(!) for
women, and both are rising.
On the fiscal front, while you would expect the Saudi Kingdom
to be basking in its oil riches, it now has the largest debt in the
Gulf region, $171 billion, which, coupled with an additional $35
billion in foreign credits, equates to 107% of GDP.
Per capita income in Saudi Arabia has plummeted from $28,600
in 1981 to just $6,800! By comparison, in today’s UAE the
figure is $36,000, while in Qatar it is $26,000.
Crown Prince Abdullah recognizes he must liberalize the
economy, but he’s moving far too slow for fear the reformists
will topple the gerontocracy, by encouraging the more extremist
But to sum it all up, Eric Rouleau reaches the following
“The fundamental truth remains that radical change would spell
the end of the al Saud family’s absolute power and the privileges
enjoyed by some 3,000 princes and the hundreds of families
linked to them. This is the real source of the government’s
conservatism, and helps explain why Prince Abdullah, like
(Iranian) President Khatami – both of whom have a stake in the
survival of the system – has proceeded so cautiously. There is no
doubt that the crown prince fully intends to carry on with his
efforts to modernize the state and to promote economic
development. But the extent and the pace of his reforms will
depend less on his intentions than on the internal tensions of a
society riddled with contradictions, and on the external pressures
engendered by the irresistible push toward globalization."
Hott Spotts will return July 25. Barring any surprise
developments, we will begin the story of Nasser.