A Change in Mood
Saudi Arabia is a country increasingly ill at ease with itself. This is a new condition, which, without making its society any more friendly to the outside world, is gradually eroding the arrogance and complacency which foreigners used to find such notable characteristics of the Kingdom.
In the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s Saudis were fairly content with the way their society operated. Its individual and exclusive character came mainly from the role of Islam in its life. The towns of Mecca and Medina, in the west of the Kingdom, were the places where God gave the Prophet Mohammad his final message for mankind in the seventh century. Having these towns on their territory gave the Saudis a sense of being special.
The centre of the Arabian peninsula, the Nejd, the Saudi heartland, was the scene of two fundamentalist religious revivals in the early eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. These revivals involved the propagation of a very austere form of Islam, known popularly in the West as Wahabism, and both were associated with the Saud family, which helped spread the reformers' crede and by so doing gave itself legitimacy as the leader of the Wahabis. The Sauds and their allies made the creation of a pure Islamic state the purpose of their rule, though since the beginning of oil exports in 1946 it has become necessary for them to reconcile this with the physical development of their state and with giving their people the material benefits of the modern world.
For many years the Sauds performed this balancing act rather well. They and society around them evolved their own approach to government and business, in a way which other developing countries, having had Western colonial methods imposed upon them, were not able to do. The evolution involved many awkward compromises and inconsistancies, which foreigners, frustrated by the Saudis' refusal to debate sensitive issues openly and lay down definite rules, often described as "hypocrisy". The Saudis themselves, however, felt at ease with the system.
Government was absolute monarchy, tempered by the demands of the Koran, the gradually weakening influence of the senior religious teachers and judges, and a large amount of contact between rulers and ruled. All members of the Saud family made themselves available, to different degrees, to their people. The most important princes, with senior positions in government, received hundreds of people in their majles (council chambers or reception rooms) every day. They would arbitrate in quarrels, help citizens deal with the bureaucracy and make gifts of land or money. In talking to their subjects, and often inviting them to dine afterwards, they kept themselves in touch with popular opinion.
In the last decade, however, the old Saudi ways have been failing. The balance between the religious and the secular in society and the traditional relationship between rulers and ruled have been breaking down. The humiliation of the Kingdom in having to invite foreign troops to defend it against Iraq in 1990 brought into the open the discontent of religious conservatives. There had been tensions between these people and more secular modernisers since King Abdel-Aziz incorporated the Hijaz, the formerly Ottoman western part of the peninsula, into his realm in 1926, but it seemed to foreigners, and to many Saudis, that the Saud family had done an effective job in balancing the two parties and protecting the conservatives against the more offensive aspects of modern Western culture. In reality it is now clear that the government's education policies had allowed the conservatives to grow enormously in numbers in the 1970s and 1980s, with the result that these people came to feel themselves more powerful and demand that they be consulted more in the running of government - by means of saying that government should be based more literally on the Koran. Some of the militants have begun to call for the overthrow of the Sauds. The pressure from the religious elements and the concessions that the government has been obliged to make since the early 1980s have greatly alarmed the liberal, Western-educated modernisers who exerted the main pressure on the government in the 1960s and 1970s.
Over a period of twenty years - since the mid-1970s at least - the links between the princes and their people have been weakening. The reason has been the growth of a large, in part Western educated middle class. Members of this class - whether liberal or conservative - do not want to petition princes for favours, or join in the conversation at the princes' tables over meals of rice and mutton. (And those who still dine in this way have noticed that the conversation has become much more polite and formal - and therefore less useful.) They want to be involved in government in more modern ways, through the royal family allowing more open debate and a freer press in the Kingdom, and giving more authority to the appointed Consultative Council, the Majlis as Shura. The Sauds have made some concessions to the way society has been changing - the Majlis as Shura is itself a new institution, established in 1993 - but in general their government has been evolving more slowly than the attitudes of their people.
This is not to say that Saudis are demanding "democracy". Western democracy and the societies it has produced are not greatly admired in the Kingdom, and there is a consensus that at this stage in the country's development the institution of a parliament and voting would lead to the fragmentation of society. People would vote for the leaders of their tribes or communities, the delegates would see it as their job to promote the interests of their relations or members of their tribes, and the peace and stability which the Sauds have created (and for which they are still thanked) would be destroyed. Most Saudis still say they find it difficult to imagine their country prospering under any form of rule other than that of the Saud family. But they say that rule is gradually becoming less competent and less attractive, and they want it reformed.
Much of the change in the internal politics and mood of Saudi Arabia has an economic source. Since the peak year of 1981, when the Kingdom earned $113 billion, its oil revenues have fallen enormously, driven down first by the collapse of production in 1983-5 and then by the collapse of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries' price structure in 1986. The Government reacted by running down its financial reserves, which in the early 1980s totalled some $160 bn, and then, when the reserves were virtually wiped out by the cost of the Gulf war in 1991, by borrowing on its domestic market. By the middle of this year, it had accumulated a debt equivalent to $96 bn - 76 per cent of gross domestic product. All the time it has struggled to reduce, or in some years keep static, its spending. It has been quite successful in this, though until the last twelve months it has not managed to match spending to its revenues.
While it has been cutting its spending its population has been increasing by some 3.5 - 4 per cent a year, to a current level of some 15 million, including 3 million expatriates. This extraordinary rate of increase has brought with it an even bigger growth in demand for services - water, electricity, telephone lines, medical care, transport infrastructure - which the government has hardly been able to meet.
Saudis have had to lower their expectations. In the 1970s young men coming out of school or university could get jobs, almost as a right, in the civil service or state companies. The more enterprising had no difficulty in setting themselves up in business - typically contracting, importing or property development. Now employment in government has been frozen and, except for those who already have experience, the establishment of new businesses is difficult, mainly because the opportunities are in industry and relatively sophisticated services. There has begun to be significant unemployment among young Saudis - an idea which in the mid-1980s seemed inconceivable. The most serious unemployment, predictably, is among the excessive numbers of religious graduates.
People who find themselves with smaller incomes and more modest expectations are bound to become more aware of inequalities, greed and corruption in their societies. This is exactly what has happened in Saudi Arabia. In the 1970s there were already a few princes who exploited their positions to win major contracts for foreign companies and earned themselves huge commissions in the process. Their activities were resented mainly by a handful of Saudi competitors and idealistic Western journalists. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, many more princes have entered the influence broking business - and much of the public has started to see "the family" as a burden on the state. Part of the reason for the princes' increased involvement has been the growth in the family's size; its male members now number several thousands. Those concerned with the biggest deals are quite few - they are probably no more than a dozen individuals, each with several important hangers on - but their activities are well-known and greatly resented. It is accepted that much of the recent corruption has been associated with a few major projects, particularly the Al-Yamama contract for the supply of Tornado bombers, the totally unnecessary strategic oil reserve and the reconstruction of the Mecca and Medina mosques.
It is not only the relatively poor or unemployed who are angered by corruption. Businessmen tell stories of friends who have been forced to sell land at below market prices, because a prince has wanted to develop it or sell it on to the government. Some company owners, including less rich members of the royal family pursueing perfectly legitimate business, have found themselves approached by representatives of the greedier royals and told that their masters require a share of the profits of a particular contract. Even those who have had no direct dealings with the princes are angered by what they see as the diversion of state money away from their own companies. There are many companies in Saudi Arabia which have huge arrears oweing by the government. It is not unusual to find businessmen who say that on supply or construction contracts the government is two or three years behind in paying them. Most of these men are multi-millionaires, and hardly revolutionary, but they are very bitter.
Surrounded by sychophants and commission takers the greedier princes seem oblivious of the resentment they cause. Some of the young are amazingly extravagant. One member of the Al-Fahd branch of the family, composed of the king, his brothers and their children, is said to be spending $60 million a month. Another has recently embarked on construction of a palace compound of 100,000 square metres. The older generation arouses slightly less resentment because its members give away a large proportion of the money they earn.
There is no question that corruption is by far the most important issue in Saudi Arabia at present - but there are other sources of disquiet. People are aware that the Kingdom's infrastructure has not been maintained or expanded properly - there are occasional blackouts and water shortages - and this is put down to "poor planning and financial mismanagement", which is related to corruption. There is perennial complaining about the bland, boring, uninformative quality of the official media - though admittedly this is now being partly superceded by satellite television. Satellite dishes are technically illegal and three years ago, to please the religious hardliners, the government repeted the ban - but nothing is being done to remove dishes from people's houses or prevent people putting up new ones. Another topic of regular complaint concerns the immobility of personnel at the top of the government. This was partly addressed in August 1995 when the King reshuffled his cabinet for the first time in more than a decade, and replaced some tens of senior civil servants. It is now the government's policy to review the performance of ministers and senior officials every four years. An official statement to this effect was made in 1992, when the king announced the creation of the Majlis as-Shura, the reform of provincial government and the introduction of "regulations for government" as a form of secular constitution for the state.
An issue which has attracted much publicity in the West is the presence of American troops in the Kingdom. These have stayed there since the Gulf war to train Saudi forces and look after US equipment. Virtually all Saudis would prefer they were not there, but it is only the Islamist militants who are greatly upset by their presence.
What is not often recognised outside the Kingdom is that members of the royal family can be as concerned as other Saudis by any of these issues. Indeed, there is an additional special source of malaise within the family. This stems from its enormous size and the consequent difficulty the King has in consulting members and providing them with jobs in and around government. It is said that during the crisis of 1958-64, which led to King Saud being replaced by King Faisal, there were 300 princes who were consulted and who voted for or against Saud's deposition; now on a similar issue the leaders of the family would have to consult some 2,000 or 3,000 members. It is therefore suggested that the king or his successor needs to establish a formal mechanism for consultation within the family. Alternatively the family might be redefined to exclude many of its members, though this would obviously be a much less popular course.
In practice the policy being adopted is one of exclusion. This is being done informally. Except when the King announced in 1992 that the succession in the future would be confined to the heirs of King Abdel-Aziz (1902-53) - a fact which was already obvious - nothing has been said officially. Gradually members of the outer branches of the family - the Bin Jiluwis, Thunayyans and the family of Musaad bin Abdel-Rahman - have been pushed out of government. Many princes closer to the centre are ignored and have been finding it increasingly difficult to get access to the King. The people who have been given posts have been members of the Al-Fahd, which appears to be seen by the King and by Prince Sultan, the Minister of Defence, as a royal family within the Al-Saud. The promotion of the Al-Fahd has caused much resentment and damaged the cohesion of the family. If this problem is not addressed soon it could become a serious source of political weakness. Most scenarios for the downfall of the House of Saud involve a split in the royal family as a decisive factor, and, conversely, the main reason why up to now the consensus in Western foreign ministries has been that the Kingdom will remain stable is that it has been assumed that the princes will remember how close their family came to being destroyed in 1958-64 and in a future crisis will stick together.
© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | April 1999