The rulers of Saudi Arabia and their subjects firmly reject any comparisons between their regime and that of Iran prior to the recent revolution there. And indeed there are many important differences between the two countries. From its beginnings, the Saudi royal family has always reigned with Islam (of the Sunnite variety) rather than against it, as the Pahlavi father and son did. The Saudi royal house is also far more closely tied to the country’s people than the Pahlavi dynasty was. It grew directly out of the tribal traditions of the Nejd in eastern Arabia and has always deliberately cultivated its relations with the Bedouin tribes, through marriages and military alliances.
Today in addition to its regular army Saudi Arabia has a Bedouin army of tribal warriors which plays an important part in maintaining the country’s inner stability. The Saudi kings have also retained the Arab tradition of direct access to the throne. Any Bedouin can still go directly to the heads of the royal house, even to the monarch himself, and receive a hearing of his grievances or petitions. In such cases he nearly always receives a gift of money, small or large as suits the occasion, and sometimes also redress of an injustice committed against him. These old customs were not cultivated by Iran’s Peacock Throne.
Saudi Arabia’s demographic situation also differs greatly from that of Iran. It is a barren desert country with relatively few inhabitants. Despite official figures, there are probably not many more than five million Saudi citizens, plus about a million imported Yemenite workers and a few hundred thousand other foreigners. By contrast, there are at least 36 million Iranians. Saudi Arabia’s vast oil earnings, divided among merely one-seventh of Iran’s population, yield very different per capita figures—although in neither country, of course, is the oil wealth distributed evenly. At any rate it is far simpler in Saudi Arabia than in much more populous Iran to let even the simple and uneducated people partake of the flow of petrodollars. Oil revenues in Saudi Arabia come to a per capita figure of about $6,000, compared to only some $650 in Iran.
Of all the factors mentioned so far, the religious one may be the most important. Saudi Arabia has evolved to its present state as the “family enterprise” of two clans, which go back to a small Arab king, Ibn Saud, and a puritanical reformer of the Sunnite branch of Islam in the eighteenth century, Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahab, founder of the Wahabi movement. The al-Saud clan and the descendants of the religious reformer still rule jointly today, although conquest and oil have made the secular rulers rich and powerful and doubtless given them more weight than the heirs of Abd al-Wahab. But the Saudi ruling family has never cut its ties to the spiritual leaders of its religious persuasion, cultivating them as carefully and deliberately as it does its Bedouin roots.
Moreover, the Sunnis of Arabia differ markedly from the Shia Moslems of Iran. It is an integral part of Sunnite tradition to work closely with the ruling power (whoever it may be), while the Shiites have a tradition of rebellion and protest against the reigning authority. Arabia’s secular ruler generally makes use of, and remunerates, the leading Sunni dignitaries, the muftis, the heads of the major schools, and the leaders of the mosques. Shiite religious leaders, by contrast, live from the contributions of the people, and also pass those funds along to the poor, thus being highly dependent on popular confidence. The Shiite title Ayatollah, granted by popular acclaim, is an expression of that confidence.
These differences, taken together, mean that Saudi Arabia is unlikely to experience a revolution in which the clergy play a predominant role. But this does not mean that any revolution at all is improbable. Knowledgeable observers of the social changes being wrought in this desert kingdom under the influence and pressure of a huge influx of petrodollars are disturbed at the accelerating spread of uprootedness and alienation among the populace. The following picture emerges from talks with experts and travelers who have recently visited Saudi Arabia.
In the name of alleged progress, both the Bedouins and the traditional city and village populations in Saudi Arabia today are being torn from their accustomed ways of life and precipitated into new situations and manners so fundamentally alien to their traditional customs that in many cases they are unable to make the transition successfully. At present, for example, two new industrial cities are being planned which are to cost no less than $70 billion. They have been conceived as modern industrial settlements in which Bedouins and immigrant workers (at an estimated ratio of 30 percent Saudis to 70 percent immigrants) will work in huge state-owned petrochemical enterprises. Quite recently a commission of European, Arab, and American experts was convened to evaluate this gigantic government project. The commission included world-famous sociologists, architects, economists, and other specialists.
According to reports which had leaked out at the time of this writing, all the experts involved gave a totally negative opinion of the project. A prominent sociologist predicted the worst kinds of confusion and unrest if the planned attempt were actually carried out to settle Bedouin-descended workers in one-family houses, far from the men’s places of work. According to this expert the Bedouins, accustomed to a society based on an extensive clan system, will simply not be able to adjust to a community based on the nuclear family, in which the man leaves his wife alone with the children all day. An economist, an American of world renown, declared that the project was condemned to operate at a permanent deficit because its machinery and production methods would inevitably be outmoded and obsolete by the time it begins operation a few years hence. And that is fatal in the highly competitive, international petrochemical business, especially since there is absolutely no domestic market for the planned products in Saudi Arabia itself.
Despite the fact that the expert’s warnings and negative opinions were virtually unanimous, it appears that the project will be carried out anyway. The specialists, who were listened to, handsomely paid, but ultimately ignored, have the impression that the final decision to proceed with the project had been made long before their commission was convened.
There are many varying pressures and compulsions which result in the execution of such major projects despite the fact that they are predestined for failure. Perhaps the most important is the determination of powerful and highly placed Saudi middlemen and industrialists to earn their fees and commissions, which run into the millions. Their prime concern is to see to it that business transactions go through. In this respect their interests run parallel to those of foreign businessmen and industrialists, who are out to sell as much as they can, as well as those of the Western governments, who are eager to see the petrodollars put back into the recycling process.
One informant who has made the Moslem pilgrimage twice at an interval of ten years reports that Saudi Arabia’s holy sites have been so modernized and tailored to mass tourism that they have entirely lost their sacred character. The only thing that has remained the same, he states, is the holy Black Stone of the kaaba, which according to Moslem tradition once fell from heaven.
From Medina, the city in which the Prophet is buried, there are reports that the government has literally leveled the Old Quarter to create parking space for automobiles. The former residents, these sources continue, have been resettled in the oasis which for centuries has provided this holy city with its foodstuffs. Thus the ancient urban balance of this oasis city, which for thirteen centuries has been a place where educated Moslems have come to spend the last years of their lives in tranquil and sanctified retreat, has been totally destroyed.
Other visitors to the desert kingdom maintain that the business mentality is so predominant there that it is impossible to hold a conversation with the Saudis without its turning to speculation, buying and selling within just a few minutes. The monetary greed of the country’s leading businessmen and middlemen—names like Kashoggi and Pharoan are among the most prominent—has become almost pathologically insatiable, according to these reports. Some of them have already accumulated more wealth than they and their descendants could spend in five generations. Yet they continue to earn more. The commissions paid to them create difficulties for the bankers, because they run into the hundreds of millions of dollars at a time, sums which cannot be paid out all at once without creating disruptions on international money markets.
Wealth as pathology is something also familiar to the many foreign physicians who come to Saudi Arabia to earn higher incomes than they might elsewhere. Nowhere, they report, are psychosomatic ailments as common as in Saudi Arabia—ailments which cause genuine suffering but are not caused by any demonstrable failing in the physical organism. There are, they say, young people who give every sign of being elderly, and old people who behave like juveniles. The common factor in all these syndromes is that the individuals concerned have not been able to stand the tempo of change to which their lives are being subjected.
The question of whether this tempo could not be slowed, if necessary by reducing oil production, is answered in the negative by most knowledgeable observers of present-day conditions. They suggest that the situation has already gone too far and developed too much momentum, the vested interests of the big earners at home and the oil consumers abroad are too enormous, for any serious thought of altering the picture. In the top echelons of the Saudi royal house there are reportedly even some fears that the Americans might take steps to intervene and topple their throne if they do not spend enough money in the US. They call to mind Sheikh Shakhbut of Abu Dhabi, who allegedly was deposed by the British because he hoarded his gold under his bed. His successor Sheikh Zaid, the present ruler, spends money like the proverbial “drunken sailor,” the Saudis point out, to such an extent in fact that his oil-rich state is constantly in debt despite its tiny population and enormous oil revenues.
Still another observer remarks that the members of the Saudi upper crust who are today earning vast sums are not even in a position to form a unified group to help exert a stabilizing influence on their country. They regard the kingdom primarily as a kind of money factory. The “homeland” to which they intend to retire sooner or later is more likely to be Texas or California—places where they are already investing their fortunes, have already built luxurious homes and settled the members of their families. It is there that they look toward future stability, not in Saudi Arabia. Many of these people have studied in Texas or California, their youthful memories are there, and it is there that they plan to flee sooner or later from their desert capitals, which their vast but inappropriate projects have turned into places where money is made and spent but where they consider no genuine style of life is possible any longer.
Copyright © 1979 Neue Zürcher Zeitung.