No. 481 July 2002
The Giant of the Persian Gulf Oil States / A Tradition of Disdain for Manual Labor / Frameworks of Loyalty in Saudi Arabia / American Presence Triggers Saudi Hatred / Placating the Religious Establishment / The U.S. War Against International Islamic Terrorism
The Giant of the Persian Gulf Oil States
The Persian Gulf is a region of outstanding anomalies and immense energy wealth. About two-thirds of the world’s proven energy reserves are located in the Gulf States, foremost in Saudi Arabia (25 percent). As long as the rest of the world requires this energy, its dependence on this region will continue. Yet, the evolving U.S. war against terrorism, coupled with the growth of non-OPEC oil output led by the revived energy industry in Russia and other former Soviet republics, is beginning to erode the coercive power of the Gulf states.
Other than Iran and Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf oil states, Iraq included, are the creations of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British imperialism. The United Arab Emirates, with the highest per capita income in the world and about 9 percent of the world’s oil reserves, consists of seven principalities that jealously guard their independence. It has a citizen population of nearly one million, plus about 1.5 million foreign workers and technicians.
Kuwait, practically a desert with a central oasis (Kuwait City), controls about 10 percent of the global oil reserves and is the second richest country in the world. Nearly half of its 750,000 citizens currently live abroad, especially in London. Those who remain in the country share its terrible climate with 1.5 million foreign workers (before 1991, these included largely well-to-do Palestinians who practically ran Kuwait).
Before its formal independence in 1970, Qatar had a population of only 100,000. Its wealth emanates from its oil reserves, but even more so from its huge offshore natural gas field which is among the largest in the world. Although the influence of Wahhabi Islam is strong, as it is in Saudi Arabia, Qatar is far more liberal and, partly out of fear of its powerful neighbors, the state welcomes Westerners and a U.S. military presence (as does Kuwait).
Saudi Arabia is the giant of the Arabian Peninsula kingdoms with over 250 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. In 1993, while serving as a Woodrow Wilson Institute (Smithsonian) Fellow, I was requested to prepare a report on “Manpower Problems in Saudi Arabia.” I soon realized that official Saudi population statistics were grossly inflated in order to improve the image and standing of this backward, oil-rich kingdom. After careful research, I concluded that, rather than the 9-10 million citizens and 3-4 million foreign workers claimed by Riyadh, the number of Saudis in 1980 had barely surpassed 4 million. Saudi Arabia’s current citizen population amounts to 12-13 million (with one of the world’s highest birth rates), and not the 20 million claimed officially. There are presently about 5-6 million foreign workers, technicians, and experts in Saudi Arabia.
It seems odd to speak of an unemployment problem among young Saudis in a country that has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure and oil-related industrialization since the 1960s. Saudi sources claim an unemployment rate in the kingdom of about 15 percent. However, neutral sources estimate that unemployment among Saudis below the age of 25, who comprise half of the kingdom’s citizens, is nearly 30 percent. Inasmuch as Saudis abhor manual work and lack expertise, the kingdom’s economy would have collapsed without foreign workers and Western experts.
A Tradition of Disdain for Manual Labor
One key problem of the Saudi populace is the traditional Bedouin folkway that despises any kind of manual labor and even occupations that relate to it. In researching one of my books on Saudi Arabia, I reviewed nearly 180 doctoral dissertations written by Saudis, principally for American universities but also for British and French ones. (Parenthetically, it should be noted that the academic level of these dissertations proved to be very low when compared with the accepted academic standards). One of the initial conclusions arising from the study of this material was the extraordinary degree of contempt found in Sunni Saudi society (about 90 percent of the population) for manual labor. This attitude is so deeply ingrained that even an engineer who works with machines and wishes to marry is considered somewhat inferior for marriage purposes because his occupation is related to manual labor.
The Saudi government finds this attitude nearly impossible to overcome when it attempts to bring more of its citizens into the ranks of the employed through its endeavors to expand its economic infrastructure and to bring about the Saudi-ization of its workforce. Moreover, Riyadh’s plans to provide additional workplaces fall far short of matching the rapid Saudi population growth and the number of high school and (half-baked) university graduates that increases from year to year. Thus, the number of unemployed young citizens rises each year. Indeed, the majority of the unemployed are unprepared to accept most of the lowly jobs that are now performed by a host of foreigners from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Indonesia, and from poor Arab countries (Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, and Yemen), and there is little chance that this situation will change.
This factor may prove to be explosive since, in addition, the Saudis look down on all foreigners and especially dislike Westerners who hold most of the skilled positions in the country. This haughty attitude toward foreigners stems from the Saudi belief that they are chosen by God, and that all others, even if they are co-religionists, are inferior.
Saudi jihadist Wahhabism (Muwwahidun), an Islamic trend based on the strict Hanbali school, was developed by Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab in the mid-seventeenth century and led to the emergence of the first Saudi kingdom. This stream of Islamic fundamentalism even considered all non-Wahhabi Muslims as infidels.
Saudi loathing for Westerners relates to their being Christian and representing a dominant and successful civilization with a “materialistic culture” and superior military-political power and technology that has humiliated the world of Islam. Since the 1950s, America has been considered the foremost representative of this civilization. In addition to long-standing dislike for the Americans employed by Aramco and affiliated oil industries, the U.S military presence in Islam’s holy land since 1990, and Washington’s Middle East policy, has turned Saudi antipathy toward Americans into passionate hatred. This was most clearly demonstrated in the rise of anti-Western, militant Islamic fundamentalism and the support that al-Qa’ida’s September 11 terrorist attack on America received in Saudi Arabia and the Muslim world, in general.
It is important to understand that the oil era has brought revolutionary changes to Saudi society. The formerly nomadic Bedouin have undergone an extraordinarily rapid process of urbanization. Some still maintain camels in the desert largely as a status symbol, but ironically they transport their camels from one oasis to another in padded GMC trucks in order to protect them. Today, the new upper crust of Saudi technocrats, made up largely of the offspring of settled elements, are purchasing camels at exorbitant prices.
Frameworks of Loyalty in Saudi Arabia
Although the Saudi kingdom remains an Al Saud (“al” means clan) autocracy (with 7,000-20,000 princes of varied royal links), it has a more or less modern government staffed by graduates of Western, primarily American, universities in all key and secondary positions. At the top of this modern structure are largely non-royal ministers (key ministries are held by the most senior Saudi princes), who are entrusted with the execution but not the formulation of policy. Policy-making is dominated by a royal consultative council made up of the most senior princes of the Saud clan. Yet, alongside the modern government structure exists the traditional tribal pyramid of “desert democracy.” This patriarchal framework allows access by the lowliest of tribesmen to his sub-tribal sheikh, and through him and the tribal and tribal coalition’s sheikhs, to the princely district and provincial governors and theoretically to the king. This practice, thus, preserves the traditional support base for the Saudi monarchy.
Television cameras occasionally show scenes of lines of Saudi citizens waiting during weekly sessions (majlis) to speak to a governor-prince or (theoretically) even to the monarch, to claim justice, request economic help, or discuss other matters. This is how a typical patriarchal government maintains the traditional connections and loyalty of its citizens toward the rulers. However, the process of urbanization in Saudi Arabia has been accompanied by serious changes that have affected the traditional structure of government (hukuma). Since the extended family and tribe members migrated to the urban centers, they no longer live together and have more direct access to central government services. This development, coupled with access to the media and political agitation in the towns, has eroded the regime’s traditional loyalty system.
In parallel, there have been significant fluctuations in oil income. By the beginning of the 1980s, the per capita income in Saudi Arabia had surpassed $18,000 annually (some claim it reached over $20,000), but the past twenty years have witnessed a drastic decline in the Saudi per capita income to about $6,000- $7,000. Yet the per capita figure fails to differentiate between the rulers and those close to them, together with the big entrepreneurs, and the poor masses of the Saudi people. The legendary wealth and indulgence in luxuries of the corrupt Saudi royal princes further skews the gap between rich and poor. Much of this wealth was amassed through the “commission system” which required foreign businessmen to use the services of well-connected members of the Saudi ruling class to serve as patrons for their business dealings in the country. Indeed, even foreign workers needed a Saudi patron.
In this way, vast wealth exists together with poverty, but the overall situation of the Saudi citizenry remains relatively reasonable, considering the extensive system of subsidies and welfare services. These include subsidies for basic commodities, electricity, water, and fuel (which costs next to nothing), and grants of plots of land and interest-free, home-construction loans, all of which help to promote internal stability, up to a point.
American Presence Triggers Saudi Hatred
In 1990, 500,000 American servicemen and women arrived in Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Suddenly, Western influences were being introduced into the most religiously conservative country in the world. Half a million American soldiers were on Saudi soil, among them amazons wearing pants and carrying guns who were seen walking into supermarkets as if they owned the place. This proved to be the breaking point for militant fundamentalism, that rose to the surface and was directed not only toward the ruling Saudi family but principally toward the West, as represented by America.
In reaction, radical young religious scholars began to preach against the Saudi government and the American presence in Arabia and the Gulf. Their sermons won wide circulation through leaflets and cassette tapes that were in great demand by the conservative Saudi population. Part of this trend included the reactivation of extremists such as Usama bin Ladin and his “Afghani” veterans.
Placating the Religious Establishment
The Saudi government has worked hard, since the establishment of the (third) Saudi kingdom at the beginning of the twentieth century by Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, to win legitimacy by extending authority and favors to the Wahhabi religious establishment. This group not only controls the Saudi judicial system but also tens of thousands of mosques in the country. Indeed, the ruling family’s practice of buying off the religious scholars continued during the reign of King Feisal bin Abdul Aziz (1964-1975), a reformer who was assassinated by a deranged nephew after he introduced (religious) television into the country, which triggered bloody demonstrations in the kingdom’s heartland.
In return for its agreement to the introduction of “modern” education in the late 1920s, the Saudi religious establishment was given control of the Saudi education system, in addition to its religious schools and (later) universities. Today, Saudi Arabia has seven universities with branches in all the provinces and a total of about 150,000 students. Over 70 percent of the curriculum in the four “secular” universities involves religious studies and Arab and Islamic history, whereas only about 25 percent is devoted to other general subjects (the Aramco-founded technical university in the Eastern Province is an exception). Thus, religious studies hold a central place even in educational programs for science, geography, and the like. Moreover, those who set the academic standards in the universities were largely Egyptians, whose level of education in their own country is among the lowest in the Arab world. The next generation of Saudi professors is, on the whole, not much better than their Egyptian predecessors.
While the Saudi rulers needed the legitimization and support of the Wahhabi ulama over time, they have been careful not to allow the religious leaders to undermine their authority in Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, the rulers have used the religious leaders against their political rivals in the Arab world and to further the spread of Wahhabi Islam among various Islamic states, minorities, and groups in Africa, Asia, and even in Europe. The Saudi state closed its eyes, if it did not contribute directly, to the flow of Saudi funds to these regions, thus enabling Wahhabi influence to reach into every corner of the world including Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines, central Asia, Chechnya, southern Sudan, Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia — all locations which have suffered from the rise of fundamentalist Islam. Thus, turning a blind eye to the spread of Wahhabism throughout the world was part of the price paid by the Saudi political leadership to receive legitimacy from the religious establishment.
Nevertheless, since the early 1980s, Saudi revenue from oil has gradually declined and, with it, the government’s ability to buy its population’s good will. As a result, dissatisfaction with the Saudi ruling house by middle- and lower-class Saudis and the ulama has increased. Furious criticism of the regime, which tolerated the U.S. presence in Arabia and the use of its bases against Iraq, has risen sharply. At the same time, the Saudi rulers and their allies continue to take advantage of their power and indulge in every possible luxury, despite the Wahhabi doctrine that frowns on external displays of wealth.
The U.S. War Against International Islamic Terrorism
The rise of U.S. President George W. Bush has been accompanied by a growing tension between Riyadh and Washington. The Saudi government is under constant pressure by conservatives and Arab nationalists, and especially the ultra-fundamentalist elements in the kingdom, to expel the U.S. from Islam’s holy land and to oppose Washington’s Middle East policy. Riyadh has also become increasingly apprehensive of itself becoming the target of its own Islamic militants.
Contrary to the accepted wisdom in the press, Usama bin Ladin was not the vanguard of anti-American activity in Saudi Arabia. He and his former “Afghani” followers received only marginal attention and support in the kingdom in the early 1990s. The standard bearers of attacks on the regime and on the U.S. presence in Arabia were the new generation of non-conformist ulama and preachers who gradually escalated their verbal attacks on the House of Saud and the American infidels.
A few years ago, I received a book in Arabic entitled “Let There Not be a Civil War,” by Dr. Ghazi al-Ghosabi, the “dean” of Saudi intellectuals (who later became the Saudi Ambassador in London). The book cites street slogans, pamphlets, and sections of recorded tapes by the most extreme preachers that received widespread attention. In it, Ghosabi challenges the tactics of the militant (Wahhabi) preachers who copy the teachings of Iran’s (Shi’ite) leader Ayatollah Khomeini and, according to the author, advocate the Shi’ite principle of “governance by clergy.” The book offers a wealth of material that enables us to comprehend the depth of Saudi antipathy, if not hatred, for the West and Western culture, together with evidence of the erosion in the standing of the Saudi regime among the general population.
With the power of extremist fundamentalist Islam on the rise in Saudi Arabia in recent years, it is no surprise that most of the participants in the murderous September 11 attack were Saudis, and it comes as no surprise that thousands of al-Qa’ida fighters in Afghanistan were Saudis and Yemenites, in addition to many others from all the Arab states and Pakistan. Funding for bin Ladin’s al-Qa’ida mujahidin and the cancer of international Islamic terrorism came largely from Saudi philanthropists and from other wealthy Gulf entrepreneurs.
America’s overwhelming and quick victory in Afghanistan and President Bush’s determined “war against international (Islamic) terrorism” changed the political environment in the Persian Gulf and the Arab-Muslim world, in general. Clearly, extreme militant Islamic fundamentalism (jihad) is still very much alive. Yet, the Saudi rulers under the leadership of ultra-conservative Crown Prince Abdallah finally realize that they can no longer afford to try to gain legitimacy by closing their eyes to the support of their countrymen for international (Islamic) terrorism, which eventually seeks their own overthrow. Indeed, Washington has also made it clear that it would no longer tolerate the Saudi double game.
Thus, Prince Abdallah has stopped Saudi philanthropists from funding al-Qa’ida and other militant fundamentalist organizations. He has also requested the Saudi ulama leadership to reduce their incitement against America and the West, in general. Yet, simultaneously, he declared that Saudi Arabia would not cooperate with the U.S. in an attack on Iraq, and that America would not be allowed to use Saudi bases and facilities in an operation against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Abdallah also requested that Washington reduce its presence in the kingdom.
Clearly, the Saudi regime is ready to go along with gentle American “prodding” up to a point (oil and limited use of bases). However, in the face of the erosion in the support base for the regime of the House of Saud, widespread criticism of its cooperation with the U.S. that “supports” Israel, and increasing terrorist acts in the kingdom, Riyadh cannot go much farther in accommodating the U.S. without endangering itself.
* * *
Mordechai Abir is a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and Professor (Emeritus) of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His books on Saudi Arabia include Saudi Arabia in the Oil Era. Regime and Elites: Conflict and Collaboration (1988); Saudi Arabia: Government, Society and the Gulf Crisis (1993); and United States-Saudi Arabian Relations and the Arab-Israeli Peace Process (forthcoming). This Jerusalem Viewpoints is based on the author’s presentation at a study evening on the outbreak of fundamentalist Islamic terror, held in December 2001 in memory of Professor Daniel J. Elazar.