December Issue 2003

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 15 years ago

saudi-arabia-dec03Everyone knows that the House of Saudi is built on sand. As such, it has always been susceptible to the winds of change. However, over the years three pillars have provided it with a degree of protection from the vagaries of the weather: custodianship of Islam, wealth from crude oil, and an uncommonly close alliance with the United States of America.

Now the sands are shifting, and the pillars have turned out to be less sturdy than they once seemed. Saudi Arabia has been in ferment for the past two years, and the upsurge in terrorist activity in recent months suggests that something will have to give sooner rather than later — and it may do so in unexpected ways.

In October, Crown Prince Abdullah announced that plans for local council elections — the kingdom’s first concession, at least in theory, to any form of democracy — would be drawn up within a year. In fact, it may by then be much too late for such half-measures. The day after the announcement, hundreds of people demonstrated in support of economic and political reforms.

Protests of this nature are uncommon in Saudi Arabia, but not entirely unknown. Last year there was an even more potent explosion after the morality police effectively murdered up to 15 schoolgirls. When a girl’ school in Mecca caught fire, teenagers rushing outside were forced back in by the dreaded muttawa’in, who decided the children were inappropriately dressed. Apart from those who perished in the blaze as a consequence of this barbarism, scores of others suffered serious burns.

Reports says that large numbers of women took to the streets in protest, and some of them signalled their defiance by casting off their veils. They were apparently joined by thousands of reformists, Shias and pro-Palestinian activists. The government responded with a fierce crackdown, arresting the suspected ringleaders. A Saudi civil servant reportedly recounted: “They attacked us with sticks and fired rubber bullets. They even beat women and the six-year-old child of my neighbour. They concentrated their attack on women.”

Should these sporadic expressions of frustration with a stultifying political system that thrives on human rights abuses burgeon into a movement, history will note that it originated from a girls’ school. It’s worth recalling, meanwhile, that when, in the wake of the first Gulf crisis, a bunch of Saudi women sought to make a point by defying the law that forbade them from driving, the powers-that-be derided them as “communist whores.”

Although the disgusting degree of discrimination Saudi women face is unparalleled anywhere in the world, they are not the only denizens of the kingdom who find themselves on society’s periphery. Declining oil revenues have meant that the welfare state established in the 1970s can no longer be sustained (unless the excesses of the royal family’s 6000 members can be curbed), and wealth differentials as well as unemployment have steadily risen during the past decade. Not surprisingly, unemployed youth are fodder for the jihadis, who for the past dozen years have not seen eye to eye with their potentate.

The modern Saudi state, founded in 1932, was broadly based on an agreement dating back to 1744 between local strongman Muhammad ibn Saud and Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, the founder of the ultra-orthodox Wahhabi sect. In the 20th century, the compromise essentially meant that the House of Saud would manage the nation politically and economically, leaving socio-religious affairs to the fundamentalists. Crucially, this involved a strong orthodox influence over education.

The first serious sign of a breach came in November 1979, when members of an extremist Wahhabi sect occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca. By force of arms they held it for 22 days, surrendering only after more than 3000 deaths on both sides. Their quarrel was with the corruption of the ruling family and the presence of Christian foreigners on Saudi soil — the very concerns echoed by Osama bin Laden two decades later.

Back then, the government had trouble obtaining fatwas against the transgressors from many ulema. A comparable situation exists today. The picture mosque preachers paint for their congregations differs substantially from the official sketches. Partly as a consequence, there is a deep and widening gulf between the perceptions of the rulers and those of the ruled. A Saudi intelligence survey conducted in October 2001, just after the US had launched its assault against Afghanistan, found that Osama bin Laden enjoyed the sympathies of a phenomenal 95 per cent of educated Saudis aged between 25 and 41.

Crucially, there is also plenty of evidence that the House of Saud is by no means united. Defence Minister Prince Sultan ibn Abdulaziz and the powerful Interior Minister Prince Naif ibn Abdul Aziz are perceived as considerably more hardline, pro-jihadi and anti-US than their brother, Crown Prince Abdullah — who, with King Fahd apparently on his deathbed, has for years been the country’s de facto monarch. So profound are the differences between them that at one point Abdullah found it necessary to send his own representative to Washington, because he was unwilling to trust ambassador Prince Bandar, who happens to be Sultan’s son.

Bandar evidently enjoys excellent relations with his host nation’s ruling family. George and Barbara Bush, the incumbent president’s parents, apparently treat him as a son; and two days after the events of September 11, 2001, Bandar is reported to have been enjoying a cigar at the White House in the company of George W. As Michael Moore points out in his latest bestseller, the US government allowed a Saudi aeroplane to defy national no-fly regulations in the immediate aftermath of that disaster, and to fly around the country picking up members of the bin Laden clan, who sojourned in Texas before being spirited out of the country without having faced any serious interrogation.

In business dealings, the Bush family has engaged with the bin Ladens, but has enjoyed a much closer relation with the ruling clan as investors and clients. Key members of the present and previous Bush administrations — including Dick Cheney, James Baker and Condoleezza Rice — are in the same boat. But all that’s no more than the tip of the proverbial iceberg: US-Saudi ties go far deeper. Although American oil interests had a foothold in the kingdom well before that, the political alliance was formalised at a meeting in 1945 between King Abdulaziz and President Franklin Roosevelt. The House of Saud subsequently counted upon the US to provide a bulwark against Hashemite ambitions, Nasserite nationalism and Khomeinite Islamism. All the while, the kingdom keenly exported its own brand of fundamentalism all across the Muslim world. Far from raising any objections, the US encouraged the process; it perceived orthodox Islam as a crucial Cold War ally.

The trend climaxed in the decade following the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan — a catastrophe for which Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski proudly takes credit. The US went full throttle in providing weapons and funds to the mainly fundamentalist mujahideen. It wasn’t alone, though. Pakistan’s crucial involvement is well documented. The Saudis chipped in most generously, and Israel wasn’t far behind.

This wasn’t by any means the first time that the Saudis found themselves sharing the burden of the ‘free world’ with the Zionists. Both countries, alongside apartheid-stricken South Africa, had contributed to bolstering Jonas Savimbi’s murderous Unita movement in Angola. And when the Reagan administration found itself hamstrung by Congressional strictures in pursuing its crusade against the popular Sandinista government in Nicaragua, it turned to Saudi Arabia and Israel, neither of which had any qualms about lending sustenance to the US-created bunch of bandits known as the Contras.

When, in the 1980s, the CIA suggested that there would be a great deal of propaganda value in getting a minor Saudi prince to join the jihad in Afghanistan, the House of Saud could not come up with any volunteers. The best it could do was to dispatch, with its blessings, the scion of a leading industrialist family. His name? Osama bin Laden.

Saudi Arabia’s present tribulations — including the suicide bombings that have claimed scores of (mostly expatriate) lives this year — are a form of blowback. Riyadh was officially ambivalent about the war against Iraq, but in fact allowed US bases to be used as command centres. Now most of the American troops stationed in the kingdom since 1990 have staged an exit — but, given the US presence in the region, can be redeployed at short notice. At this stage the gesture is unlikely to placate the jihadis: if anything, they are likely to view it as a victory that can be built upon.

Any serious outbreak of unrest across the kingdom would probably lead to some form of American occupation. The US presumably knows that it cannot take over custodianship of Islam’s holy shrines without inviting universal Muslim wrath. It is also on the defensive about the disaster it has (predictably) provoked in neighbouring Iraq. One of the aims of that invasion was to reduce American dependence on Saudi oil — but for the time being, oil is being imported into Iraq. Thus, the prospect of Saudi oilfields — with 25 per cent of the world’s crude reserves — falling into hostile hands is not something the US will be prepared to countenance. The trouble with the least offensive alternative — reforms leading to some sort of democratic governing structures — is that in the short term it is likely to result in a majority for the fundamentalists. That will prove no more palatable to the US than any other form of jihadi ascendancy.

Should Saudi society implode, the Americans won’t be there to pick up the pieces; their chief interest will lie in ensuring that oil keeps flowing through the pipelines. Persuasion is unlikely to work, so they will resort to military force. Full-scale occupation is not inconceivable, but it’ll be difficult to sustain. The situation in Iraq means the Saudi ruling class is already unnerved at being flanked by an Arab Afghanistan. But their nation could find itself in a comparable predicament.

In the event, hatred for the US will reach unprecedented heights. But the Americans are by no means the only ones to blame for the current state — or the potential fate — of Saudi Arabia. Primary responsibility must be ascribed to the House of Saud. Among the many unsavoury aspects of its rule, what jars is the monumental hypocrisy on display. It is summed up in the experience of The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. On a visit to the kingdom, she was determined to investigate whether designer shops really stocked revealing lingerie. So one day, modestly dressed and accompanied by a (male) government-minder, she stepped into a shopping mall adjoining her hotel.

Her suspicions confirmed, on her way out she was confronted by a band of muttawa’in, who found her attire too revealing and insisted that she don an abaya. After a long and convoluted argument, they let her go on the assurance that she would be leaving the kingdom soon. “This kingdom,” Dowd concluded, “is a thicket of unfathomable extremes. Frederick’s of Hollywood-style lingerie shops abound, even though female sexuality is considered so threatening that the mere sight of a woman’s ankle will cause civilisation to crumble… I was left to ponder a country at a turning point, a society engaged in a momentous struggle for its future, torn between secret police and secret undergarments.” May the secret undergarments triumph.

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.