Tribal traditions and the modern technocratic world clash in the country where Islam was born. Saudi Arabia has seen more change in the past six decades than in the previous 13 centuries. For some, it has been too much, for others too little.
Riyadh, the bustling and ultramodern capital of Saudi Arabia, was little more than a quiet outpost until the mid-20th century. Like most developments in this wealthiest of Arab nations, the city’s dramatic transformation was financed by the oil industry. Saudi Arabia’s vast natural oil reserves, one quarter of the world’s total, have enabled it to develop exemplary health and welfare systems, free education, a modern well-equipped military force, and an infrastructure that includes an excellent road system.
|Khurais oil field, Saudi Arabia|
“I think one problem with Saudi Arabia is, that like many countries, there isn't one Saudi Arabia,” said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East analyst at the Center for Strategic and International studies and author of the book Saudi Arabia Enters the 21st Century.
“If you go to the area along the Gulf Coast where the oil industry is concentrated, it’s very modern. And people there have more exposure to other states in the west. It is perhaps more liberal. The area around Riyadh and most of the internal areas in Saudi Arabia are less exposed to the West and more conservative,” said Cordesman.
Saudi Arabia’s role as the keeper of the Muslim holy cities Mecca and Medina has compelled many Saudis to adhere strictly to social and religious mores and serve as model to 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide.
“It is an intensely conservative, puritanical Islamic country. It is a country of tribes and extended families. It is still a nation of people who do not have, in broad terms, good contact with either the West or indeed, to the extent that other Arab countries do, the Middle East as a whole,” said Cordesman.
|King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia|
The discovery of oil in the early 1930’s led to the 1970’s oil boom. High oil revenues enable many Arabs to live in luxury that rivals or surpasses the west. This in turn has lured some six million foreign workers to perform highly skilled jobs as well as menial labor.
Walter Cutler, former U-S ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said this western influence outrages traditionalists.
“I think one of the sources of unhappiness among these people is that: look, when you have this vast oil income and you develop your country, what has happened is you have a lot of western technology and a lot of westerners coming in to help develop the country. In other words, you have a very large foreign presence there,” said Cutler.
So during the 1970-s when the country enjoyed bountiful oil revenues, King Faisal was killed and armed opponents of the royal family temporarily seized the holy city of Mecca. Corruption, oppression and foreign influence were among the chief complaints against the ruling elite.
The royal family tended to attribute acts of discontent to foreign groups. But the 2003 bombings of two residential complexes in Riyadh, where many Muslims lived, shocked the royal family into realizing there was home-grown terrorism.
Many analysts have said the chief cause of Arab discontent is economic as well as political. There is growing unemployment as oil revenues decline. Like most Arab countries, Saudi Arabia has a population boom. An average Saudi woman bears more than six children. The population has quadrupled in the past three decades with more than half under age 20.
Joseph Kechichian, author of several books on the Middle East, including Succession in Saudi Arabia, said a growing number of young men are educated in Islamic theology, culture and history but not in the skills needed for today’s technological industry.
“So therefore, you have a pool of unemployed young men, religiously educated and well motivated, some of whom have military training because they’ve served at one point or another in the armed forces, who are venting their frustrations against the establishment," said Kechichian. "And the establishment are not only the ruling family, but the large business holders, the established religious scholars, who have accepted the Sauds as their rulers and so on and so forth.”
According to Kechichian, the idle and increasingly destitute youths are targeted by recruiters for terrorist organizations. But many of these young men who grew up with MTV and Internet, also want a more open and democratic society.
Under pressure to change, the royal family has begun planning political and economic reforms. Cutler, who is still a frequent visitor to Saudi Arabia, said changes are coming.
“What I’ve noticed in my last couple of times there during the last two years is a greater openness in dialogue. Here I am talking about the media in particular. A discussion of social issues that one would not have expected to find in the media when I was there in the 1980-s.”
In 2000, the kingdom revived the national consultative council, Majlis as-Shura. Although all of them are appointed by the King, some observers regard the council as a forerunner of an elected legislature that may one day share power with the monarchy. But no one can tell if that day will come.
“It is anything but clear that if the Saudi monarchy should fall, the technocrats and the business class would not fall with them or that you would get anything other than an Islamic conservative country, which would be far less able to deal with the economic and demographic problems that Saudi Arabia faces,” said Cutler.
Most of the 150 council members are highly educated and considered to be experts in their field, making it one of the most educated assemblies in the world. More than half hold doctorate degrees and close to three-quarter are graduates of major Western universities. Only a dozen hold degrees in religious studies, which is typical in the rest of the society. But the group does not represent the nation’s diverse society, including young people, rural elements and the one third of the population that is still illiterate.
|Al-Haram Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia|
“Part of the reason it is so slow is this is not a country where a conservative monarchy, sort of, sits on a progressive people, " he said. "Since the time of Ibn Saud, it has usually been a country where the monarchy, the technocrats and the business class move a very conservative people forward as fast as those people wish to move.”
Bombings, protests and other expressions of discontent in recent years indicate that some Saudis are eager for change. But what kind of change? A lack of polls, focus groups and political research makes it hard to gauge whether the majority want to revert to a more conservative and closed Islamic society, or a democratic one open to the rest of the world. Will young disgruntled Saudis answer the ever louder call to jihad by Islamic State militants in neighboring Iraq?
Some observers say that in such circumstances, gradual reforms are more prudent than a rapid change that could lead to violence. Others contend that a more democratic kingdom has a better chance of survival than a hardline "Islamic" one.