Does Saudi Arabia Face Revolution?

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.