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How Strong Are the Saudis?

The Kingdom

by Robert Lacey
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 630 pp., $19.95

The House of Saud: The Rise and Rule of the Most Powerful Dynasty in the Arab World

by David Holden, by Richard Johns
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 569 pp., $19.95

Saudi Arabia in the 1980s: Foreign Policy, Security, and Oil

by William B. Quandt
Brookings Institution, 190 pp., $22.95; $8.95 (paper)

1.

During the past three decades, American policy makers supported a number of third-world leaders whose essential incompetence or corruption have brought them, and their American benefactors, to disaster. Muhammad Reza Pahlavi was unable to make compromises that would have set Iran on a stable course. When that chance was gone, he was unable to apply force to put down the street revolt that drove him from power and opened the way for Khomeini and a bloody chaos that eclipses the Shah’s repression at its worst.

This experience has helped to create an almost reflexive suspicion among many Americans of their government’s choice of friends in the third world. It has reinforced an intellectual predisposition to see history as an inevitable and unfolding story, with Washington lined up on the side of a dying colonial order and able neither to recognize nor to halt the rising tide of nationalism, be it in Vietnam or in Angola. In far too many cases, the story has gone like that, with Washington’s clients unwilling to forgo self-defeating repression or to seek political answers to the threats of even greater upheaval and extremism on the horizon.

How then is one to view the archaic monarchy that rules over the world’s greatest known petroleum reserves and its second-largest accumulation of foreign exchange, but has created no recognizable modern political system; that seeks a closer strategic relationship with Washington while following a social and legal code consisting of thirteen-hundred-year-old religious teachings? The American policy makers who have to answer that question about the House of Saud perhaps deserve some sympathy, for it is highly doubtful that they know enough about what really goes on inside Saudi Arabia to make judgments about what should be done.

Largely through miscalculation both in Washington and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia has suddenly become central in some of America’s most bruising foreign policy debates. Reagan’s surprising friendship and regard for the Saudis are peeling away the support given him in 1980 by neoconservatives and American Jews who thought he would rely on American pressure rather than persuasion to consummate the on-again, off-again romance with this client-state-in-waiting.

The Saudi Arabia that Americans have come to know through the congressional debates over the sale of F-15 fighter bombers and AWACS radar planes seems unpromising on its face. The two thousand or so princes who sit on or near the top branch of the Saud family tree form the country’s only political system. They believe the country literally belongs to them and their claim to legitimacy rests on three traditional activities: managing the oil wealth now being funneled out in a colossal spending spree on economic development, arms, and payoffs; watching over Islam’s most holy places in Mecca and Medina and, to a lesser extent, Jerusalem; and safeguarding the Arabian Peninsula from the radicalism of the politics of the Arab Levant.

During the past five years the royal family has come to be dominated by a group of senior princes who try to compensate for their difficulties in carrying out these three traditional tasks by building and managing a strategic and financial relationship with the United States that will assure their survival and prosperity into the next century, even after the fabulous oil fields of their Eastern Province have been made obsolete. It is a prospect that presents extraordinary opportunities as well as dangers for both Riyadh and Washington. The Reagan administration thus far has given no sign of understanding either the opportunities or the dangers.

Despite the current importance of Saudi Arabia, most of the literature on the country falls into one of two categories—the apologetic and the ignorant.” So a pseudonymous Saudi student, “Hayyan Ibn Bayyan,” asserted in a mild attack on the royal family published last year in the United States (and not, we can be certain, in Saudi Arabia).1 He is generally accurate, but the big, handsomely produced, and generally admiring biographies of the House of Saud under review are something different. Both include too many apocryphal anecdotes and show a familiar British weakness for the romance of the desert; but they nonetheless help us to begin to understand this complex country.

They concentrate on the abilities of the current heads of the Saud dynasty to guide the system they have inherited through one of the most wrenching historical transformations ever to take place. Both books try to show that, in spite of their political backwardness, narrowness, and other faults, the Sauds are not seen by their own people as the Shah and Lon Nol were seen by theirs.

The Sauds established an early hold on Arabia’s primitive society by being able to answer the question that any monarch dreads from his subjects—what is the use of a royal family? From the eighteenth century on, the Saud clan appears as prosperous people from the oasis, good not only at fighting but at diplomacy after the fighting stopped. They could adroitly reconcile the rivalries between the peninsula’s bedouins and the hadhar, the town people who feared the nomads’ raiding. After defeating the bedouin tribes, the Sauds would pay them off with tribute, a method of survival that they continue to use today on a much larger scale. They do so nationally through the “hunting parties,” during which senior princes distribute oil revenues to the remaining bedouin tribes, and abroad through their regular payments to Syria, the Fatah Palestinian guerrillas, and other potential Arab raiders.

During the eighteenth century, the Sauds allied themselves with Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, whom David Holden describes as “a Muslim revivalist of the sternest hue—a John Calvin, so to speak, of Arabia, come as if in fulfillment” of the pattern of decadence and reform that had been predicted by the philosopher Ibn Khaldun four hundred years earlier. The unbending form of Islam propagated by the sword of the Sauds stressed the oneness of God and of all worldly things, a unity to be enforced by a central spiritual and temporal authority vested in the king/imam who heads the House of Saud.

Contemporary Saudi Arabia, for all its money and the new corruption and idolatry that wealth has encouraged, remains in theory and to a surprising extent in practice a Wahhabist state,” Holden writes. The Koran is the only recognized and enforceable code of law, “so that the country is held in a 1,300-year-old corset of town and desert morality …,” and political codes.

As if following Ibn Khaldun’s script, the original dynastic rulers gradually dissipated their strength and lost control even of their home region of Nejd in the center of the Arabian Peninsula. It is only eighty years now since the young desert chieftain Abdul Aziz and his Saud clan stormed the Musmak, the small mud fortress of the Nejd village of Riyadh, and began the conquest of the towns and tribes of the desert heartland of the Arabian Peninsula. By 1932, Abdul Aziz had been sufficiently victorious on the battlefield and prodigious in the marital bed—eventually producing forty-five acknowledged sons by at least twenty-two wives from various clans or tribes—to proclaim himself King Abdul Aziz ibn Abdul Rahman ibn Faisal al Saud, absolute monarch of a nation whose identity he made synonymous with that of his kin.

Since then, the story of Saudi Arabia has been the story of this man’s family and its retainers. Both biographies of the Sauds have much to say about the five men who have ruled the family and the nation, Abdul Aziz (mis-known in the West as Ibn Saud) and his four sons, Saud, Faisal, and Khalid, the present king, who rules in partnership with Crown Prince Fahd.

Robert Lacey lived in Saudi Arabia for about eighteen months and got to know some of the princes and ranking members of the nonroyal technocratic elite. But the stories he tells often sound as if they have been revised by Arab storytellers for a Western journalist’s ears.2

The book by Holden and Johns is much more solid. The first ten chapters, which take us from the founding of the House of Saud up to 1945, are written in the lucid prose and with the perceptiveness that characterized Holden’s work for the London Sunday Times before his still unsolved murder in Cairo in 1977. Richard Johns, an oil and Middle East specialist for The Financial Times, finished the book, describing how the royal family rose from its poverty-stricken lend-lease days to its current dominance of OPEC. Johns’s account of OPEC meetings and pricing is not much better than the journalism of the day, but he is more acute than other Western writers in his knowledge of the competing factions within the royal family and the technocratic elite that helps to shape oil marketing and production policies today.

Throughout each book runs the quandary I felt on each of my own half-dozen trips to Saudi Arabia during the past decade. I would start my visit to Riyadh feeling that it was impossible for the anachronistic family system to function and to meet the demands for change that must be rising from the returning students who have been educated at the best universities abroad and the young women who must by now be aware of the bondage imposed on them by the old Wahhabi code. But each time the family’s almost invisible system of religious authority and clan loyalties seemed to be working for the Saudis in their dealings with a population whose lives were being transformed in ways that would drive the rest of us insane.

Perhaps the most intense pressure comes from the erosion of the barriers that the royal family had put up against foreign, and particularly Western, influences. During the past decade—when the number of Westerners living in Riyadh rose from several hundred to 40,000—their relations with the US became the central question for the Saudi leaders. Richard Johns ends his book with an ambiguous suggestion that those pressures, and the resurgent waves of Islamic, Jewish, and Christian fundamentalisms that have already torn apart Lebanon and Iran, will sweep the Sauds from power in five years. And yet, with an ambivalence characteristic of those condemned to study the Saudis, he also suggests that he is probably wrong.

2.

Toward the end of World War II, King Abdul Aziz traveled by motorcade to the docks of Jeddah to board an American destroyer. His retainers sought to drive a hundred live sheep aboard the USS Murphy to provide the king, his forty-eight companions, and the ship’s crew daily with meat that was freshly slaughtered, as Islam demands. (The Murphy’s astonished captain allowed only seven sheep aboard, but he diplomatically yielded to Abdul Aziz’s request to pitch a tent on the foredeck.)

Two days later, Abdul Aziz met with President Roosevelt aboard an American cruiser moored in the Great Bitter Lake of the Suez Canal, to speak of lend-lease aid for his chronically broke treasury, of Palestine, and of Jews. Of the European Jews whom Roosevelt proposed he help resettle in the Middle East, Abdul Aziz said: “Give them and their descendants the choicest lands and homes of the Germans who oppressed them…. Make the enemy and the oppressor pay.”

Today, Abdul Aziz’s heirs use the world’s most expensive custom-designed 747 jetliners, outfitted as flying pleasure palaces or hospitals, to fly to meetings with Roosevelt’s successors. In addition to the price of oil, they are still preoccupied with Palestine and the Jews. In its decoded form, the Saudi message now reads: we reluctantly accept that the Jews remain, if you will police them. Make the Jews accept a weak Palestinian state, and we will help finance and police the Palestinians. You must hurry.

America has meanwhile become both shepherd and wolf to Saudi Arabia and, in the eyes of the Saudi rulers, the simultaneous source of great stability and instability for their regime. Abdul Aziz’s thirty-one surviving sons are caught between the austere religious discipline and tribal hatreds of their father’s desert and the affluence and worldliness the OPEC era has brought their American-educated children.

Their nation now has six million Saudi citizens and perhaps two million foreign workers. Americans have provided the technology that has made it possible for national oil revenues to reach $90 billion this year; and the US continues to be the chief supplier of military and civilian goods as well. But with the American connection comes the political liability of being seen as entangled with the primary supporter of the Jews who established themselves in Palestine after Abdul Aziz failed to persuade Roosevelt to adopt his solution. The principal goal of Saudi foreign policy under Crown Prince Fahd today is to get the benefits of the US relationship while reducing the burden that the American alliance obliges the Saudis to carry in Arab politics. But the Saudi leaders have only very basic ideas how to do this. Their experience in dealing with modern world politics is small indeed.

Despite their wealth, the Saudis are not very powerful,” William B. Quandt argues persuasively in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, a Brookings Institution book that is as slender and discreet as the two British volumes are gossipy and fat. “Aware of their own limitations and vulnerability, the Saudis behave cautiously in foreign policy. They are not leaders. At best, they are consensus builders.”

This is especially true inside the royal family, where Fahd, rather than ruling by fiat, must constantly seek consensus among several dozen princes and the family factions associated with them—including the younger group represented by Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, which tends to have less confidence in the American connection. And because he has become so publicly identified in Saudi Arabia as America’s man in the sense described above, Fahd and those allied with him must occasionally produce proof of the value of their American connection to balance off the condemnations that rain down on them from Tripoli, Aden, Damascus, and other places where the more radical, professionally angry Arabs hold power. Fahd has sought that proof in getting two administrations to supply F-15s and AWACS.

Behind the rhetoric used by Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to argue that their sales of sophisticated arms would move Saudi Arabia to “moderation” and to be “forthcoming” about a peace settlement—an argument that the Saudis themselves did not endorse—is a somewhat different reality. The deals, as Quandt convincingly shows, were in fact made to show the family and the Arab world that Fahd’s policies of being responsive to America’s needs for oil and for recycling hundreds of billions of petrodollars were paying off. “The test will be repeated over and over,” Quandt warns in his book. He warns of the danger of the US making sales pitches for arms to the Saudis that whet “their appetite with technical briefings on sophisticated new systems, then denying them access [to new weapons] on political grounds…. It is in the US interest that the Saudis not waste their limited manpower on weapon systems that serve little real purpose and are poorly adapted to the region.”

Quandt, who worked as an adviser on Middle East policy during the Nixon and Carter administrations, sees a reciprocal danger for Washington in becoming dependent on Saudi Arabia for active help in carrying out Middle East policies. For all their billions of dollars in arms purchases, the Saudis, he points out, have been unable to deal effectively even with the weak states of North and South Yemen on their southern border. The Saudis have been unable either to buy off or dislodge the Marxists who came to power in South Yemen after the withdrawal of the British in 1967, and in North Yemen they have chosen to support tribal federations rather than help to build a strong central government. The result is a dangerous zone of instability on the Saudi frontier. “The net effect of the Saudi style of making decisions,” Quandt writes, “is to rob the leadership of the capacity for decisive, sustained leadership in foreign policy. The Saudis are more likely to react to events, to launch trial balloons, to temporize when controversial issues arise, and to panic in crises.” In foreign policy the ruling family’s ability to live up to the expectations projected onto them following the Shah’s collapse seems virtually nil.

It is still far from clear that the flying weapons systems we have sold to the Saudis—and the new items that account for $20 billion in the Saudis’ military budget for 1982, in contrast to the $2 billion they spent eight years ago—will help the kingdom become more stable. The family tries to exercise control over its armed forces by putting princes in key posts. But the Saudi rulers still harbor a suspicion of the army and air force which has caused them to station the primary units of both services far away from Riyadh and to create the national guard as a counterweight to the army. If that caution continues under Fahd’s administration, the last thing the Saudi royals may want is an effective training program for the use of the highly powerful American weapons. There is no way to be sure, but the possibility seems strong that many of these sophisticated arms may wind up rusting in the desert while the Saudi leaders turn their attention to the next set of largely symbolic goodies to be obtained from the United States. At least 70 percent of the Saudi military budget is devoted to such infrastructures as transport and communications and to construction, while, as Hayyan Ibn Bayyan observes, “only a small portion goes to improving fighting capability.”

Fahd must also balance the Saudis’ tests of Washington’s love and attention against his need to be perceived at home as an independent leader who cooperates with the Americans but is not in thrall to them. Suggestions by American neoconservatives that Reagan go back to his original campaign rhetoric and force the Saudis to accept American military bases for their own good would bring quick disaster to Fahd’s regime.3 The only evident advantage would be to avoid the tedium of waiting for the longer-term disaster that may well come anyway.

3.

Do the current leaders of Saudi Arabia want peace with Israel? The answer is certainly not. If Faisal’s heirs no longer tell visiting officials and journalists, as the late king did, that the “Jews and communists” are twin heads on the same monster prowling the Middle East, they still see Israel as an alien intrusion into the Arab body and the vehicle for the introduction of radical and ultimately communist subversion in their region. What they want is to reduce the threat that Arab radicalism, and Palestinian nationalism in particular, poses to their regime and to their ability to exploit the American connection. They see this, and not Russian invasion, as the most direct threat to the House of Saud. Their view is that American bases cannot help, and would only exacerbate such a threat. But to get what they want, the Saudis now seem prepared to take part in a broader Arab acceptance of Israel as it existed before the June 1967 war. They are not willing to recognize the Israel that rules the West Bank but would engage in a bargaining process if it were clear to them that it would end with the separation of the West Bank from Israeli control as well as the recognition of the Israeli state.

This at least is the way I decipher the statements on “peace” that Saudi leaders have periodically made since Faisal’s assassination in March 1975. These begin with a statement King Khalid gave me two months later, saying that the kingdom was prepared to coexist peacefully with a pre-1967 Israel. In return, he and his brothers have made it clear that they want a Palestinian state on the West Bank. My interpretation, after talking with many Saudis, is that what they have in mind is a weak Palestinian state formally under the control of the Palestine Liberation Organization but actually dependent on the Saudis and other pro-Western Arab states.

The air of aloofness from the Palestinian problem that Abdul Aziz seemed to display in his comments to Roosevelt, and that Faisal sought to maintain, came to an end in October 1973 when Faisal did what the Nixon administration had said he never could do: he linked oil and politics by putting an oil embargo at the service of the Arabs fighting Israel. Market conditions made this linking not only workable but highly profitable.

Several of the officials who worked in the White House Situation Room during the 1973 war and tried to deal with the embargo and with the most dangerous moment of Soviet-American confrontation since the 1962 missile crisis were also prominent in making Middle East policy in the Carter administration. They at least implicitly accepted the idea that efforts to get a “comprehensive” peace would reduce the threat of another embargo and contribute to stability on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf. Thanks to Anwar Sadat they helped to achieve peace between Egypt and Israel, but they ended with little more than weak rhetoric when it came to resolving the Palestinian question.

The Reagan administration came to office believing that it could achieve little progress toward peace and that there were other more urgent tasks, especially since Reagan had no inclination to push Israel on the question of Palestinian autonomy. Different groups within the Pentagon disagreed with one another as well as with the State Department on whether the security of the Gulf should be linked to the Palestinian issue. The administration slid easily into a position of emphasizing, of all things, the creation of Carter’s Rapid Deployment Force as the answer to the security question, while using AWACS as a political concession to the Saudis in the place of progress in dealing with the Palestinians.4

Alexander Haig has remained faithful to Reagan’s campaign doctrine that anything that weakens Israel also weakens America’s only strategic asset in the Middle East. He appears to be largely responsible for the silent de-linking of the Palestinian question from security guarantees to America’s conservative Gulf allies that is now taking place. He is also largely responsible for the current drift toward the strategic view of Israel that was in effect when he worked for Kissinger.

Haig’s views on Saudi Arabia are still murky, but they appear to be close to the conventional wisdom of the past three administrations when they were faced with threatening possibilities: the oil embargo, the Saudi boycott of the Camp David process, the Saudi failure to build up spare capacity of petroleum production to twenty million barrels a day. None of these things would happen, the American political leaders said, because “The Saudis have no place else to go.”

The American strategists could well be wrong again, failing to understand that the policies of the Saudi rulers that have seemed bold or intransigent in fact reflect weakness, a felt lack of room in which to maneuver, and a tense concern to protect their flanks in the Arab world. Their experience of international politics and their knowledge of other nations are shallow, and their abilities to lead others are not evident. They keep their own small population quiet with money and with development but they are aware that much of the modernization may be disruptive of the traditional social patterns from which their legitimacy derives. They feel themselves under religious pressure arising from their impotence thus far to do anything about the Jewish capture of the holy city of Jerusalem. They know they are vulnerable to outside military attack. The Saudi rulers will feel they have to continue much as before if they are to maintain the delicate balances of their regime.

But, as they showed in 1973 and 1979, while their space to maneuver is limited, their need and will to keep maneuvering are constant. The end of the Iraq-Iran war may now be in sight; the Iraqi regime is beginning to crumble. The prospect of a non-Baathist Iraq and Iran forming a hostile condominium of Shi’a forces threatening the other Persian Gulf nations must be taken seriously, although it is by no means certain. So must the possibility of insurrectionary activity boiling up in other parts of the Middle East, as recent events in Syria show. In this situation the Saudis will characteristically be more cautious.

In the short term, a much more likely result of the end of the Iraq-Iran war will be a return to higher levels of oil production by those two nations and new market pressures on the Saudis. Long criticized by the other OPEC and Arab nations for helping to cause the world oil glut by their high production, the Saudis are now allowing their oil production to fall; oil revenues will therefore start to drop, and economic development will slow by the end of the year. With no apparent hope of movement on the Palestinian question, a lessening of oil production for economic reasons will once again seem to make political sense.

Slowing down the pace at which they are making and spending money may not be wholly unwelcome developments for Saudi leaders. They recall that they were concentrating on the threat of leftist radicals and Palestinian nationalism when they were surprised in November 1979 by the taking of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by a group of Wahhabist zealots who denounced modernization and corruption. No Western observer has been able to say how deep or widespread such movements may be and one wonders how much the royal family itself knows about them. But perhaps Ibn Khaldun would have recognized in them signs that the Arab cyclic pattern of decadence and revival had life in it still.

  1. 1

    Hayyan Ibn Bayyan, “Open Letter to Saudi Arabia,” The Nation, April 4, 1981.

  2. 2

    Lacey’s account of how King Saud was deposed in 1964 by a group of elders known as the Council of Those Who Bind and Loose was told to him by one of King Faisal’s sons and is a distinct improvement over all the versions I have heard from equally well-placed Saudis. Lacy recounts that seventy senior princes met in a desert palace to engineer a transfer of power to Faisal while leaving Saud as the reigning monarch. This so infuriated the dissolute king that he angrily charged he had been turned into a Saudi version of Queen Elizabeth II.

  3. 3

    In “The Middle East: Carterism Without Carter,” Commentary, September 1981, Robert W. Tucker gives a clear account of the problems involved in assuring access to Persian Gulf oil and of Reagan’s silent withdrawal of his advocacy of “assertiveness” toward the Arabs. But Tucker then recommends a plague as a cure for the flu, insisting that the US impose American bases on the Saudis without any consideration of the internal damage this could cause. Such analysis underscores the importance of Quandt’s book.

  4. 4

    The Saudis also increasingly fear that Israel will launch a surgical strike against them. Their acquisition of AWACS that will be manned by Americans into the 1990s may reflect a desire for a symbolic, or tripwire, force of American military technicians whose presence might deter Israel from pre-emptive action.

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