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Will Saudi Arabia Ever Change?

Where does all this leave the Al Saud monarchy? Is continued rule by what House calls “more old men in their eighties” a symptom of imminent collapse or of exceptional longevity? Certainly, in Jeddah and Riyadh, it is not difficult to find young people who are acutely aware of the freedoms they are denied, and House is probably correct to see multiplying troubles ahead:

High birthrates, poor education, a male aversion to manual labor or service roles, social strictures against women working, low wages accepted by foreign labor, and deep structural rigidities in the economy, compounded by pervasive corruption, all have led to a decline in living standards…. Many of [the] young feel their future is being stolen from them.

And yet apart from the Shia in the Eastern Province, young Saudis have shown remarkably little interest in taking to the streets.2 Confronted with this paradox, House reverts to an unpersuasive account of the national character. Saudis, she insists, are “overwhelmingly passive” and “largely somnolent”; “pervasive social conformity” has made them “sullen”—a word she uses throughout her book—but unable to turn grievances to action.

But there is hardly anything passive about the country’s burgeoning political blogosphere, its growing population of young professionals with American degrees who are bridled by Saudi traditions, or even its leading clerics, some of whom not only issue opinions at odds with the regime but have themselves become powerful voices for reform. After spending years in jail, for example, former radical preacher Salman al-Awdah decries the inability of the leadership to connect with youth and tweets to nearly two million followers about the need for change.

In Jeddah, I met young artists and underground filmmakers who gather in private homes to discuss politics and screen movies in defiance of a general ban on cinemas. Even Buraydah—a deeply religious town in the center of the country that, according to House, is “so conservative that parents there protested the introduction of girls’ schools”—now has a local women’s organization that has taken on women’s rights issues, microcredit schemes, and legal advocacy.3 More important, then, is the matter of how the Saudi government has been able to prevent such social activism from turning against the regime itself.


To a remarkable degree, Western assumptions about Saudi Arabia still begin and end with the Rub al-Khali, or the Empty Quarter, the vast barren expanse engulfing the lower third of the Arabian Peninsula that ranks as the largest sand desert in the world. It was on the fringes of the Empty Quarter that oil was discovered in the 1930s, and it was through experiences among the nomadic Bedu (Bedouins) here that twentieth-century explorers like Wilfred Thesiger introduced Arabia to Western audiences.

From this basis emerged the story that has been taken for granted until today: spurred by the Standard Oil Company of California, a former subsidiary of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, the US government entered into an unshakable alliance with the House of Saud, a powerful tribal dynasty from the Najd (Central Arabia) heartland whose hegemony could be traced back to the eighteenth century. They started by building the US-owned Arabian-American Oil Company (Aramco) in Dhahran, near Dammam on the Persian Gulf, which provided for the orderly exploitation of the world’s greatest fuel supply. (The Saudi government acquired part-ownership of Aramco in the 1970s and took full control in 1980.) And then they used Aramco itself to transform what House describes as an “impoverished and backward” land into an advanced nation with almost miraculous speed: Americans provided the skills and bureaucratic expertise; Saudi oil provided the cash; and the Al Saud—backed by the zealous followers of the Islamic reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792)—gave cultural and religious legitimacy to the whole enterprise.

However, very little of this story turns out to be true. The Al Saud did not consolidate power until the third decade of the twentieth century; and important parts of Saudi society were highly developed (and not necessarily under Wahhabi control) at the time oil was discovered. In the Hijaz region on the western coast, there was a tradition of civil association going back for centuries. Before the Saudi conquest, the cosmopolitan Red Sea port of Jeddah had sizable populations of Indians and Europeans who together with powerful local merchants traded in spices and other goods; and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina had large corporations that drew revenues from Hajj services. In the 1920s and 1930s, these and other cities in the Hijaz had political parties, elected councils, and a flourishing press.

For its part, Aramco was far from a benign instrument of enlightened development, as the political scientist and historian Robert Vitalis has shown in devastating detail.4 Brutally exploiting the local population, it produced a workers’ movement in the 1940s and 1950s that at moments threatened to destabilize the country. Indeed, in the early years of oil, the structure of the monarchy itself was open to debate: at the beginning of the 1960s, King Saud, who had succeeded Abdul Aziz in 1953, briefly installed a reform cabinet that included several commoners and set out to establish some form of representative government.

Ahmed Mater/Athr Gallery, Jeddah
The Saudi artist Ahmed Mater’s Evolution of Man, 2010. Born in 1979 and trained as a doctor, Mater has said that artists must ‘reflect what’s happening around them. Not…what people already know.’

The reasons Saudi Arabia became the authoritarian US client state we know today—rather than the more pluralistic society this early experience might have foretold—is the subject of Sarah Yizraeli’s revelatory new study, Politics and Society in Saudi Arabia: The Crucial Years of Development, 1960–1982. A senior research fellow and Arabist at Tel Aviv University, Yizraeli has managed to penetrate Saudi society from afar in ways that have eluded journalists and scholars with more direct access. Although she is apparently barred from entering Saudi Arabia as an Israeli citizen, she has long had a following among specialists for her mastery of obscure Saudi and international source material. Significantly, she focuses not on the much-studied decades since 1979, during which an Islamist awakening pushed the regime to reassert its Wahhabi credentials and impose sweeping restrictions on cultural life, but on the largely neglected preceding era.

Intricate in its accumulation of detail and nuance, the story Yizraeli tells is nevertheless stark in its conclusions. During the 1960s and 1970s, exploiting its unprecedented oil wealth, Saudi Arabia was able to build with great speed a technologically advanced, economically self-sufficient welfare state. Far from a project driven by the US and Aramco, however, this radical transformation was masterminded by the royal family itself (above all by King Faisal, who after a power struggle succeeded Saud in 1964) and expressly designed to strengthen its rule and neutralize any pressure for political reform.

Described by Yizraeli as “defensive change,” this strategy involved creating a vast central administration that could co-opt competing factions of society even as it broke down traditional tribal loyalties. Crucial to the state were the assertion of the monarchy’s Islamic roots and the consequent need to separate economic development from political and religious institutions, which could not be tampered with; and the embrace of an ideal of broad consensus that served to isolate and marginalize proponents of more radical reforms.

Equally provocative is Yizraeli’s careful dissection of US policy beginning in the 1960s. Up to the early years of the Johnson administration, she observes, the State Department assumed that economic and social development was supposed to produce representative government, and put constant pressure on the Al Saud to open up the political system. “So consistently did the American Ambassadors to Saudi Arabia…highlight the issue of political and social reform,” Yizraeli writes, that at a meeting with then US Ambassador Hermann Eilts, Faisal “once responded by exclaiming: ‘Does the US want Saudi Arabia to become another Berkeley campus?’” But all this came to an abrupt end in the mid-1960s, when Washington began to take a paramount interest in curbing the spread of Nasserism and promoting the US-led industrialization that Faisal championed: “Stop pushing the Saudis on internal reform,” Secretary of State Dean Rusk advised Eilts, “the king knows what is in his own best interest.”

Thus King Faisal, the robust defender of Al Saud absolutism who by the early 1970s had thousands of political prisoners in his jails, quickly became seen in Washington as the ruler who “modernized the kingdom.” In effect, the US endorsed a state-building strategy that brought American companies such as Chevron, Bechtel, and Lockheed Martin billions of dollars of contracts and investments while giving the monarchy and the religious establishment an ever-growing hold on Saudi society. This was a fateful decision. It fostered years of disregard for human rights and an abysmal record of stirring up violent jihadism, and both continue to this day.

When I met the current US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, James B. Smith, in Riyadh last May, he couldn’t have been clearer about the US–Saudi relationship: the three pillars, he said, are oil security, stability, and counterterrorism; pressure on human rights and political change were unproductive. Instead, Washington is actively embracing the mainstream of Saudi youth who, however dissatisfied they may be with their leaders, are now seeking to study in the US as part of King Abdullah’s ambitious scholarship program.

Certainly, sending young Saudis to American colleges should over time have a liberalizing effect on Saudi society. But it also fits with a series of innovations—including the private Red Sea beach clubs where Saudis can wear Western attire, the causeway to neighboring Bahrain, where they can freely indulge in alcohol (and other pleasures), or even the proliferation of gated communities in the Saudi capital itself, where they can live beyond the purview of the religious police—by which the regime can cultivate the most progressive parts of society.

As Asaad Al-Shamlan, a political scientist in Riyadh, explained, what Western eyes may regard as mere hypocrisy might be better understood as an intentional strategy to alleviate social pressures. By granting Saudis a “right to exit” the system, he said, the regime has “effectively derailed momentum for reform.” In this view, by inviting women into the Majlis al-Shura in his 2011 speech, King Abdullah may simply have been opening another escape valve in the established order.

Perhaps as a result, the few dedicated oppositionists one encounters in Jeddah and Riyadh have until now seemed less like the vanguard of a broader movement than as outliers, rejectionists who have fallen through the cracks of an all-encompassing system. (Not coincidentally, they are often punished with travel bans that deny them Al-Shamlan’s “right to exit.”) Indeed, far more young Saudis appear to be concerned about violent upheavals in neighboring countries than about the repressive order at home. In a 2012 survey of Arab youth in twelve countries, a disproportionate number of young Saudis—55 percent, more than in any other country—identified “civil unrest” as the “biggest obstacle facing the region” against only 37 percent who said it was “lack of democracy.”5

If this is the case, then the continued viability of the Saudi regime will depend little on the particular strengths or weaknesses of the current ruler and his immediate successors. Far more important may be the question of whether the overall approach of defensive change—by now deeply embedded in all areas of Saudi society and backed by a vast state bureaucracy as well as an entrenched religious establishment—can continue to persuade a majority of Saudis to support or at least tolerate a repressive government in which they have almost no say.

For decades, the parched kingdom has flourished on the promise that its leaders could turn oil into water and provide the comforts and escapes of advanced Western society without giving up the country’s ultra-traditional religion and culture. With continued oil and US backing, it may continue to do so for years to come. But as soon as Saudis start to believe that the promise is no longer being kept—that the oil revenues that drive the whole operation can no longer sustain domestic needs, a shift that some analysts believe could take place in the middle of this decade—then the future for the Al Saud may be precarious indeed.

—December 12, 2012

Research for this article was supported by the International Reporting Project in Washington, D.C.


Did Aramco Exploit the Saudis? March 21, 2013

  1. 2

    When a “Day of Rage” protest was announced for Riyadh in the spring of 2011, a single protester showed up. See Madawi Al-Rasheed, “No Saudi Spring: Anatomy of a Failed Revolution,” Boston Review, March/April 2012. 

  2. 3

    See Caroline Montagu, “Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector in Saudi Arabia,” The Middle East Journal, Winter 2010, p. 67. 

  3. 4

    America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier (Stanford University Press, 2007)

  4. 5

    After the Spring: Arab Youth Survey 2012 ( ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller, Dubai). 

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