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.

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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.

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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.

But what about those who cannot leave, who must remain at home—the uprooted Bedouins, the lower-class town dwellers robbed of their traditional mode of existence, the swarms of imported laborers from Yemen, India, Pakistan, Palestine, Egypt, and Indonesia, who do most of the dirty work? In the view of quite moderate observers, people not at all inclined to extremist predictions, these masses will gradually drift toward a “revolution of disappointed hopes.” The time is not yet quite ripe for such a development, say these informants. One of them, a regular visitor to the desert kingdom, suggests that it may take two and a half or three years more before matters come to such a pass.

When and if a revolution comes, however, it will probably not be one under the aegis of Islam—which makes it all the more probable that a Marxist tone will predominate. In all likelihood any violent change in Saudi Arabia’s situation will emanate from the armed forces. Until now the existence of the special Bedouin army as a counterweight has frustrated coup attempts originating in the regular Saudi army, which consists primarily of urban dwellers and has been ripe for revolution for some time. It is quite conceivable that when violent change finally comes it will take place at a moment when the frustrations of the Bedouin population have progressed to such a point that the Bedouin army will be prepared to make common cause with the regulars.

Against the background of rampant modernization and its attendant middle-term potential for revolutionary upheaval, a political debate is now going on in Saudi Arabia over two fundamental issues: succession to the throne of King Khalid, whose health is not good, and the country’s basic political orientation.

There is no question about who is supposed to succeed King Khalid. It is Crown Prince Fahd Ibn Abdul-Aziz, now the country’s deputy prime minister. The real skirmishing is over who is to succeed Fahd in his present position and thus in turn become crown prince and deputy prime minister. Most observers think that Fahd himself would prefer his successor to be his next-youngest brother Sultan, who for many years held the post of defense minister. These brothers were born of the same Sudairi prince; they are “full brothers,” as it is expressed in Arabia—a bond which has always been far stronger in Oriental history than half-brotherhood restricted to the paternal side only. Oriental dynasties have repeatedly been plagued by bloody struggles between brothers whose bond is solely paternal, and who have proceeded to live out the rivalry between their mothers.

But there is some opposition to a solution to the problem of succession which would bring dominance to the Sudairi clan (which should really be called the Saudi-Sudairi). Those who do not feel an allegiance to that clan have rallied behind Prince Abdullah Ibn Abdul-Aziz, the past commander of the country’s Bedouin army, who is generally thought to be a very sound man, marred even less than his Sudairi half-brother with the stigma of gambling and high living during travels abroad. Those who advocate bypassing Sultan and establishing Abdullah as crown prince maintain that such a move would guarantee a certain balance among the various branches of the royal house.

But in the event that neither Sultan’s nor Abdullah’s backers emerge victorious, there is a third possibility: namely, one of the sons of the late King Faisal, representatives of the younger generation, several of whom have studied in the United States. The most important figure in this group is Saud Ibn Faisal, currently serving as foreign minister. Some Saudis believe that the Americans would be pleased if the next crown prince and deputy prime minister were to be a member of the younger generation who had been educated at a US university. This is the first generation of the royal house to have an academic background. There is a theory that its members would be in a position to bridge the steadily more visible gulf between the actual rulers from the royal family and the so-called California Mafia.

The “California Mafia” is a label adopted by the younger specialists who, educated largely in California and not members of the royal house, occupy many leading posts in Saudi ministries. There are vast differences between them and the sons of the great Abdul-Aziz (Ibn Saud), the actual founder of the kingdom, who grew up as genuine Bedouin princes. The former see themselves as children of today’s world, while their older rulers have their roots in a timeless world of sabers, falconry, Bedouin tents, and fortified oases, pervaded by the spiritual dominion of the Koran. Optimistic observers believe that, were the younger generation to come to power, it might possibly be able to exercise some control over the destructively excessive flow of petrodollars. But pessimists point out that it is equally possible that, once the members of the younger generation have gotten out from under the restraining paternal influence of the house of Abdul-Aziz, they may fall victim to la dolce vita with a vengeance.

The question of Saudi Arabia’s basic foreign policy choices is closely linked to that of succession. The older generation of Abdul-Aziz’s sons is inclined to rely on the old, and in some respects proven, “alliance” with the United States, which on the whole has been based more on mutual confidence than on any written documents. But today confidence in the Americans is somewhat shaken. In Riyadh there are clearly many prominent personalities who simply cannot understand how Washington could have done nothing to save its close friend the Shah of Iran. They suspect that, at a certain point, the Americans actually decided to topple the Shah and establish a silent pact with Khomeini. In their view this is the only possible explanation for the Shah’s sudden fall. And it inevitably raises for them the question of whether Washington may not one day also find it expedient to topple the Saudi regime.

Some basic disagreements are also involved. Washington would still like to obtain Saudi approval of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. The Saudi leaders, however, feel that giving their approval would be the start of suicide, because they would thus expose themselves to the broadsides of Arab nationalist propaganda. The more mistrustful among them ask: Is this the beginning of Washington’s attempt to destabilize our dynasty?

A small but characteristic mishap intensified the uncertainty in Riyadh: Immediately after the Shah’s departure from Teheran, the Americans sent a squadron of F-15 jets on a “friendship visit” to Saudi Arabia in order to show their support of the Riyadh government. But a number of European states (Spain among them) refused to permit the aircraft to make refueling stops on their territory. As a result the F-15s had to be refueled in midair. They also had to fly in small groups, because the countries they passed over wanted no large formations traversing their airspace. Thus, instead of the demonstration of support which was probably originally intended, what resulted was a demonstration of how difficult it would be for the Americans to come to the aid of the Saudis in a crisis. And being of a devious turn of mind themselves, the Saudis couldn’t help wondering if that was not precisely what Washington had wanted to demonstrate, both to Riyadh and to the world at large—or, alternatively, if the unfortunate operation was not itself part of a possible destabilization effort.

The Yemen war of February and early March did not do anything to improve the mutual trust between Washington and Riyadh. In that conflict the army of communist-dominated South Yemen (Aden) proved itself much superior to that of North Yemen, a close Saudi ally. South Yemen’s armed forces have tanks, anti-tank weapons, and motorized artillery, all of which can be effectively used thanks to the presence of Soviet and Cuban instructors. The South Yemenites conquered three cities in North Yemen. Riyadh did not intervene militarily; instead it mobilized the Arab League and, through its offices, organized peace negotiations which led to a cease-fire and a “mutual withdrawal of troops” (which in reality was a pullback of South Yemen’s forces from the positions they had conquered in North Yemen). But this diplomatic success had its price. Last July Saudi Arabia and North Yemen had persuaded the Arab League to expel pro-Soviet South Yemen, because—according to the not unlikely North Yemenite version—Aden had arranged the murder of North Yemen’s President al-Ghashmi by having a bomb smuggled in by diplomatic courier. Now, however, there is no more talk of a boycott or expulsion resolution.

All these events happened to coincide with the renewal of America’s Middle East peace offensive, and anti-American forces, notably the Palestinians, immediately spread a version of things which sounded in no way improbable to Middle Eastern ears. According to that story, the Americans had incited North Yemenite tribesmen to attack South Yemenite tribes in order to provoke retaliation by South Yemen, which in turn was meant to show the Saudis how weak and dependent on American support they are.

The younger generation led by Foreign Minister Saud Ibn Faisal inclines to the view that open collaboration between their kingdom and the Americans, visible for all the Arab world to see, does more harm than good, because in that way Riyadh exposes itself to attack by the Arab revolutionary countries. They point out that the newly created Syria-Iraq axis runs counter to Saudi interests. Saudi Arabia has always pursued a policy of disruption toward efforts at Arab unification, because unification moves in the Arab world raise the danger of attracting the people of Saudi Arabia as well. Saud Ibn Faisal favors a policy which offers the kingdom’s Arab rivals as few points of attack as possible. And he seems to be succeeding in pushing such a policy through, at least in part.

Riyadh now appears firmly ensconced in the Arab camp opposed to the Egyptian-Israeli peace pact and is hardly likely to publicly grant it any support. Although reluctantly, it also surprisingly agreed to the relatively strong anti-Egypt measures decided upon at the Arab ministers’ conference in Baghdad at the beginning of April. And although it may hedge its bets by finding an acceptable way of continuing to supply Cairo with limited financial aid despite the Arab sanctions, Saudi Arabia is hardly likely to agree to a military pact with the US as proposed to it recently by Defense Secretary Harold Brown.

For the present, however, the reigning sons of Abdul-Aziz will probably continue to work with the US in security policy, avoid excessive direct attacks against Washington’s peace efforts, and exert a certain moderating influence on OPEC’s oil pricing. How long this informal collaboration will continue will depend in part on the Americans’ tact. If they insist too energetically on a military pact and on active Saudi participation in the search for Middle East peace, they will probably drive Riyadh to draw increasingly close to the member nations of the “Arab rejection front” and to adopt more of a neutralist pose. It is worth noting that Foreign Minister Saud has clearly advocated establishing diplomatic relations with the Kremlin. For the time being, however, the representatives of the older generation appear to have vetoed that idea.

Foreign Minister Saud doubtless would prefer to pursue a policy of close cooperation with all Arab states, and he can justifiably maintain that even the kingdom’s Arab opponents would be willing to engage in such a policy of official “friendship.” Aden agreed to pull its troops out of North Yemen; Iraq has concluded a “security alliance” with Saudi Arabia (within which each partner is undoubtedly trying to outmaneuver the other). The Saudis feel certain that they can exert a moderating influence on the more extreme Arab states. But a prerequisite for them to accomplish this is that their ties to the US become somewhat looser—or at any event remain hidden so far as possible.

Copyright © 1979 Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Letters:

This Issue

June 28, 1979