No. 365 September 1, 1997
The stability of Saudi Arabia (and the Persian Gulf as a whole) is crucially important to the world’s industrial countries. According to the Gulf Center of Strategic Studies, “oil is expected to account for 38 percent of all the world consumption of energy until 2015, compared to 39 percent in 1993. Increasing world-wide demand for oil, now about 74 million barrels per day, is projected to rise by 2015 to about 110 million” (Gulf Report, London, July 1997). Over 60 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves are located in the Persian Gulf, and Saudi Arabia alone controls 25 percent of the total.
Resentment of the “Infidels”
The future stability of the ruling Al Saud government is thus a subject of keen interest. Opposition to the Saudi regime for its corruption and its modernization program associated with the West reemerged in the 1980s, erupting into the open in 1990 following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the invitation by King Fahd to “infidel” Western forces to enter Saudi Arabia. This act was legitimized by the Wahhabi establishment ulama (Islamic scholars) who issued a fatwa (religious edict) justifying the monarch’s decision. Yet even during the war with Iraq, extremist preachers attacked the “infidel” presence in Islam’s holy land. The idea that Saudi territory was being used by the U.S. to attack a Muslim country further enraged some popular preachers and ulama who used their pulpits to attack the Western military presence in their country. Following the Iranian example, they taped their sermons and circulated them throughout Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, the small, timid, Western- educated, liberal element within the intelligentsia began to demand constitutional reforms and limits on the ulama’s control of daily life in the kingdom. When ignored, they and other elements of the substantial Saudi middle class criticized the U.S. for supporting the anachronistic-autocratic Saudi regime.
The majority of the conservative-nationalist home-bred intelligentsia, whose ranks have expanded from year to year, are also resentful of U.S. Mideast policy, especially concerning Israel and American-initiated sanctions against radical Arab regimes (Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria).
This resentment was exacerbated by the economic crisis Saudi Arabia has experienced since the early 1980s, resulting from the sharp decline of oil revenues. The multi-billion dollar infrastructure and defense contracts given to American companies, and payment for U.S. help in the 1990-91 Gulf War, further intensified anti-American sentiments. Yet most annoying to the majority of Saudis is the presence in their country of about 17,000 U.S. civilian and military personnel.
After the Gulf War ended, the rank and file of the establishment ulama, led by the present reactionary mufti Abdulaziz Ibn Baz, along with some other prominent ‘alims and extremist preachers, attempted to realize their long standing aspiration to establish their primacy in their historic partnership with the House of Saud. Seemingly dangerous to Al Saud’s government, this attempt was easily contained by the regime, which threatened to withdraw the ulama’s extensive privileges and to punish those who would not accept the existing order.
Yet extreme anti-American, anti-regime preachers, non-conformist ‘alims, and fundamentalist Sunni professors continued to attack the American presence in Arabia and the Sauds’ corrupt regime and to criticize the senior ulama who legitimized it. In 1993 they founded the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR), exploiting human rights slogans to win Western sympathy despite their ultra-fundamentalist beliefs. The government reacted quickly, outlawed the CDLR, and incarcerated many of its extremist leaders.
The militant Saudi Shi’ite underground Movement for the Liberation of the Arabian Peninsula enjoys wide support in the eastern (oil) province where Shi’ites, who account for about 10 percent of the kingdom’s population, constitute about 50 percent of the inhabitants. In the 1980s, after the rise of the Islamic republic in Iran, this group escalated terrorist activities against the regime, demanding equal rights and respectful treatment for the Saudi Shi’ites. Through fax machines, their center in the UK (and in the U.S.) flooded the Western media and Saudis at home with anti-regime propaganda. After reaching an agreement with King Fahd in December 1993, this mainstream Shi’ite underground ceased all operations at home and abroad, while the king undertook to improve the treatment of his Shi’ite subjects, channel development funds to their areas, and halt the Wahhabi clergy’s anti-Shi’ite incitement. The king further promised that Shi’ite political refugees who returned to their country from Europe and America would not be harassed.
Economic Downswing: 1981-1995
Yet this idyllic picture was quite misleading. Under the surface, criticism of the regime was increasing, enhanced by economic hardship resulting from the sharp fall in the kingdom’s oil revenue. Indeed, Saudi per capita income, which was about $14,000 in the early 1980s, by 1994 dropped to about $6,000. Riyadh had to repeatedly reduce its annual budget (which declined from over $90 billion in 1981 to $37 billion in 1994) and was still left with a deficit. Thus, Saudi economic activity gradually ground to a halt.
In addition to shelving development projects which had channeled part of the kingdom’s oil revenue to all classes, Riyadh increasingly delayed payment to suppliers and contractors, sometimes for as long as three years. All this seriously affected Saudi entrepreneurs and the middle class, as well as increasing unemployment among school and university graduates and lower class Saudis (abhorring manual labor, the Saudis still employ 5-6 million foreign workers). Yet as recession set in, the Al Saud princes’ avidity, always an anathema to urban Saudis, became even more pronounced.
Admission to universities, which had been practically automatic and entitled students to meaningful remuneration and eventually assured them of respected government employment, was made far more difficult. Graduates in social sciences and Islamic or Arabic studies could no longer find work. As their employment prospects diminished, students increasingly disapproved of the regime and of the rulers’ excesses.
Not surprisingly, students at the kingdom’s Islamic universities eagerly absorbed the anti-Saud and anti-American propaganda of their ultra-fundamentalist professors and preachers. Together with elements in the Saudi middle class, they increasingly accused America of bleeding the country dry by inflating the cost of the Gulf War and selling the minuscule Saudi armed forces vast quantities of expensive, sophisticated weapons. Although King Fahd practically initiated the Arab-Israeli peace process with his August 1981 eight-point plan, the Saudi intelligentsia, middle class, and clergy were strongly critical of America’s Mideast policy and particularly of the 1991 U.S.-launched Arab-Israeli peace process.
The Opposition in Exile
Led by Professor Muhammad Al-Mas’ari, some CDLR’s activists, released from prison at the end of 1994, escaped to London and reestablished their organization there. Sheltering behind slogans advocating human rights and non-violent reform of the Saudi regime, they flooded the media with anti-Saud material. Yet by the beginning of 1996 the CDLR disintegrated. It appears that its two more militant offshoots had ties with and were supported by Usama bin Ladin, a Saudi ultra-fundamentalist billionaire, who in the 1980s funded Arab mujahhidin in Afghanistan. Later he supported groups of “Afghanis,” Arab veterans of the war in Afghanistan, and militant groups in the Middle East, Bosnia, and elsewhere in the world.
Stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1994, Usama bin Ladin was forced to abandon his safe haven in Sudan in 1996, due to U.S and Saudi pressure, after the abortive attempt to assassinate President Mubarak in Ethiopia. Following interviews to the press from his hideout in Afghanistan in which he declared a jihad against America and the Saudi regime, he has practically become a prisoner of the Saudi- and Pakistani- (and C.I.A.-) sponsored, Kabul-based, Taliban movement.
Paradoxically, while fighting militant fundamentalists at home and in friendly Arab countries, Riyadh supports the Muslim Brothers in the Middle East (Hamas included), the extreme fundamentalist Afghani Taliban, and other militant Islamic groups in different parts of the world.
Propaganda by London-based Saudi opposition groups may have contributed to the erosion of the Al Saud support base. Yet more threatening were Saudi “Afghanis” who returned to their country. Strongly disapproving of the Sauds’ “corrupt Islamic” regime and its relations with the U.S., comrades-in-arms formed small militant cells. Some, with bin Ladin’s and/or the new Saudi Shi’ite Hizballah’s help, found their way to the Lebanese Hizballah’s Biqa’ training camps. There they hatched anti-American terrorist operations in Saudi Arabia.
Most alarming to the Saudi regime, however, was the neo-fundamentalists’ success in penetrating the armed forces and National Guard. Lt. General Ahmad Ibn Ibrahim Bihari, the airforce commander, was dismissed by a royal decree on April 9, 1996, after the discovery of a radical Muslim airforce officers’ group which met covertly from time to time, of which Bihari had been unaware.
Following the Al-Khobar bombing in which 19 American servicemen perished in June 1996, the Saudi mukhabarat (intelligence) arrested, inter alia, about a hundred Shi’ites. Riyadh announced that it had unearthed a Saudi Hizballah organization which, they claimed, was responsible for this atrocity, with Iran’s complicity. Yet the Saudis refused the F.B.I.’s request to interrogate the suspects or examine material related to them. In some way the Saudi disclosures seemed connected to Riyadh’s apprehension of an intended U.S. reevaluation of its Gulf policy and of the Saud regime’s stability.
As noted earlier, anti-American sentiments and, to a lesser degree, anti-Saud ones are quite widespread in the kingdom. Yet such sentiments should not be interpreted as support for “Afghani” or Shi’ite terrorism or that the clergy and the conservatives wish to replace the House of Saud government. The intelligentsia and middle class’s growing criticism of the Saud regime is only aimed at reforming and democratizing the system. Inter alia, dissatisfaction with the regime is also an outcome of the corruption and avidity of a host of parasitical princes whose scandalous behavior enrages all classes of Saudis. The near total urbanization of the Bedouin and the kingdom’s vast education system are also important factors affecting the gradual erosion in the masses’ traditional loyalty to the House of Saud.
Economic Upswing Since 1996
In 1996, oil prices rose by an average of about $4 a barrel compared to 1995. Hence, Riyadh enjoyed a windfall last year of about $13 billion and its oil income in 1997 is expected to be similar (nearly $50 billion). For the first time since 1982, oil revenue alone is expected to substantially exceed the $37 billion expenditure budgets for 1996 and 1997. As demand for OPEC oil is likely to rise further in the coming years, Riyadh’s financial stability seems assured. Yet Saudi Arabia’s citizen population, estimated in the late 1970s to be about 4-5 million (not counting foreign workers), is now estimated at about 10 million, due to a 3.8 percent annual population growth and an improved health system. Thus, Saudi per capita income has been practically halved due solely to population growth, and renewed income growth is expected to be relatively slow in the future, despite rising oil revenue.
The substantial windfall from the rise of oil prices since the end of 1995 has enhanced Riyadh’s ability to stabilize the situation in the kingdom. With a sizable revenue surplus for the first time in 15 years, the government began to pay its debts and managed to generate substantial sums for the private sector through infrastructure and development projects and by paying suppliers’ and contractors’ bills within 90 days of submission.
Cognizant of the danger of dissatisfied unemployed youth, Riyadh reinstated the previous minimal admission requirements to its seven universities and reopened government employment to all school graduates. It also promulgated additional laws to accelerate the Saudi-ization of its workforce (including 5-6 million foreigners). Yet only non-Saudis opt for manual work and Saudis cannot replace many skilled foreign experts. Riyadh has also coerced the private sector, where barely 6 percent of employees are Saudis, to indiscriminately hire a larger quota of citizens.
Following the Al-Khobar atrocity, the Saudi Council of Senior Ulama unanimously issued a fatwa (edict) condemning the murder of allies, even “infidel” ones, as being anti-Islamic. Considered by the militants and the intelligentsia as part of the corrupt system, the Council of Senior Ulama and its directives are, nevertheless, highly respected by the majority of Saudis who generally also support the regime. Conversely, the opinion of the militants’ leadership, comprised of laymen and extremist preachers, carries little weight with most Saudis. Nevertheless, objection to the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia and antipathy for Americans as a whole is nearly universal.
Saudis consider themselves superior to all other people including their more developed Arab “brethren.” With the exception of the Western-educated elite, Saudis dislike foreigners (Arabs included) and are extremely suspicious of them. They particularly dislike Western “infidels” who reside in their country. The fact that their Western “employees,” whose way of life and materialistic culture they deplore, enjoy special privileges in the Wahhabi kingdom is anathema to Saudi conservatives and most of the middle class. Saudis are angered, as well, by the fact that American experts, advisors, and the military treat them as inferiors in their own country and behave as if they own it.
Saudi-American relations are further complicated by the U.S.’s special relationship with Israel. The rise to power in 1975 of pro-American Crown Prince Fahd (who became king in 1982) changed little in this regard. Riyadh’s becoming the linchpin of the U.S.-initiated Arab-Israeli peace process since 1991 and its de facto recognition of the Jewish state is still unacceptable to most Saudis. The American military presence in the kingdom since 1991 to protect it is low profile and Riyadh has repeatedly refused to sign a defense agreement with the U.S. or allow it to stockpile heavy weapons on its territory.
The Rise of Crown Prince Abdallah
The deterioration of King Fahd’s health at the end of 1995 and the temporary transfer of power to the conservative Crown Prince Abdallah, known for his past anti-U.S. stance, support for Arab nationalism and opposition to the “peace process,” further complicates matters. However, Abdallah cannot ignore the power structure established by Fahd, his six full (Sudayri) brothers, and their numerous sons and kinsmen who hold many key positions in the government, security apparatus, and armed forces. On their part, the Sudayris grudgingly accepted Abdallah’s pre-arranged succession (Fahd’s full brother, Defense Minister Sultan, is next in line of succession).
If anything, the 1990-91 Gulf War convinced Abdallah of Saudi Arabia’s and Al Saud’s dependence on U.S. support. Yet Abdallah still strongly objects to changes in the character of the Wahhabi kingdom inspired by America, and to cultural influences that come with Western presence in the kingdom. He also remains an ardent pan-Arabist and opposes most elements of America’s Mideast policy, which he believes contradict Arab aspirations. Unlike Fahd, Abdallah has shown his distaste for the U.S.-initiated Mideast peace process, unless it was to lead to a Pax-Arabica.
Since Abdallah replaced Fahd at the end of 1995, Saudi cooperation with the U.S. has become less amiable. King Fahd’s decision to partially resume power in March 1996, it is claimed, resulted from the Sudayri brothers discomfort over Abdallah’s direction. (It was reported that the ascetic Abdallah, openly critical of the excesses of Al Saud princes, was determined to stop them.) Crown Prince Abdallah’s position is favored by many Saudis of different camps. Indeed, Riyadh’s empathy for Arab causes (Iraq excluded), even when contradicting U.S. policy, is a reflection of the Saudi people’s sentiments.
In spite of the kingdom’s improved financial situation and its successful suppression of the different opposition groups, the Sauds’ ruling circle became aware of the need for additional measures of political reform. The ulama and the conservatives’ dissatisfaction with government policy could not be ignored. Yet by this time, criticism of the regime by the substantial middle class and intelligentsia carried more weight. The U.S.’s growing disenchantment with Riyadh’s ambivalent policy and signs that Washington was reevaluating its Gulf policy amidst questions regarding the Saudi regime’s stability, also undoubtedly influenced the Saud rulers’ acceptance of the need for a measure of political reform.
Political change in Saudi Arabia has always been slow. Already in December 1993, using the “carrot and stick” principle, King Fahd appointed the often promised National Consultative Council. Composed of 60 commoners who were chosen largely from the ranks of the intelligentsia and middle class, the Council was given limited authority to discuss aspects of the government’s policies “behind closed doors.”
On July 6, 1997, King Fahd announced that in addition to the legislated replacement of 30 of the Council’s 60 members at the end of their four-year term, he was expanding the Council by an additional 30 (appointed) members, to 90 altogether. He also declared that the authority of this “parliament” was to be increased and that journalists would be allowed to follow its debates and comment on them.
In addition to the sole Shi’ite Council member, three more were appointed to represent the kingdom’s 5 percent Shi’ite population (according to Saudi statistics; 10 percent according to other sources). This was in line with the new government policy to grant its Shi’ite subjects as much equality as it dared, and possibly to compensate the Shi’ite mainstream for the harsh suppression of the few Saudi Shi’ite Hizballah militants.
Surprisingly, three other Council appointees were identified with the militant Sunni preachers and university professors who since 1990 have attacked the U.S. presence in Arabia and later the “corrupt” Saudi regime and the establishment ulama who legitimized it. Several university professors who were moderate Islamists were also appointed to the Council, as well as two delegates who are related to the former Hashemite dynasty of the Hijaz.
The London-based nationalist Arab press (Al-Quds al ‘Arabi, in particular) commented that the House of Saud had reverted to its traditional modus operandi of coopting the opposition by bribing them with influential positions, government jobs, and different privileges. Fahd’s decision, it claimed, “was partly an outcome of a cultural struggle between modernists and traditionalists and the need to counter the growing dissatisfaction with the Saudi regime.”
Yet the Council is clearly dominated by the intelligentsia and middle class. The majority of its members are in their 40s and over 80 percent, including fundamentalists and the few tribal appointees, have university and even doctoral degrees, largely from American universities. The Council’s members come from the kingdom’s different provinces, with a mix of (many) university professors, scientists, retired military officers, media people, physicians, ex-diplomats and government officials, businessmen, and Islamic jurists. Clearly, the regime exerted itself to produce a largely modernist-reformist “parliament,” representing the Saudi people’s different components in terms of origin, region, and occupation. Indeed, even the London-based nationalistic Arab press had to admit that, by and large, the Saudi population was satisfied with the new Council’s composition and expanded authority, as well as the fact that its deliberations were to be accessible to the media and the public.
The Future Direction of Saudi Foreign Policy
Since he suffered a stroke in 1995 it was frequently claimed that King Fahd was no longer in control of the government. In reality, he is still functioning as head of state, although many of his daily duties are carried out by Crown Prince Abdallah, including relations with the Arab-Muslim world. Prince Sultan (the minister of defense and Abdallah’s successor) deals, inter alia, with matters pertaining to the U.S. and Europe. Fahd’s succession is no longer an issue in the royal family. Abdallah’s position is accepted by all, whereas he respects Fahd’s Sudayri brothers’ power.
It is evident that the pro-American Fahd is no longer fully in control of Saudi foreign relations, further leading Washington, as noted earlier, to reevaluate its Gulf policy and its relations with Riyadh. This does not mean that America ceased to consider Saudi Arabia (and the Gulf’s oil) a primary strategic asset, or that it intended to renege on its undertaking to protect it. Yet, although determined to maintain sanctions on Iraq, the U.S. began reexamining its Iran containment policy, if Teheran were to give up its extremist militant policy.
Indeed, pressure was exerted on the administration by extremely powerful business and oil conglomerates supported by former senior office holders and retired diplomats (James Baker, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, Richard Murphy and others) whose present occupations are related to oil interests. All claimed that the U.S. dual containment policy was only harming America’s interests and would enable European and Asian oil and gas companies to win Iran’s rich resources at the expense of their U.S. rivals.
Worried by deteriorating relations with the U.S., a high-level Saudi delegation led by Prince Sultan visited Washington in April 1997 to meet with President Clinton and administration officials to try to smooth over differences between the two countries. The two sides again agreed that it was essential to continue the embargo on Iraq and to maintain the U.S. presence in the Gulf to protect its regimes and the undisturbed flow of reasonably priced oil from Saudi Arabia and its allies to world markets. Washington, however, refused the Saudi request to make Riyadh privy to the formulation of its new regional policy. In addition to suspecting Riyadh’s motivation for accusing Teheran of complicity in the Al-Khobar atrocity, America could also not ignore Riyadh’s non-cooperation concerning most aspects of its Mideast policy.
Sultan’s disappointing talks in the U.S. were related to the Sauds’ decision to “democratize” the system by strengthening the Consultative Council. There is no doubt, however, that what the Saudis heard in Washington influenced their decision to open a new chapter in their relations with Teheran, despite the Arabs’ historical enmity to Persia, Wahhabi revulsion of Shi’ites, and the deteriorating relations between the two countries following the rise in Iran of Khomeini’s Islamic republic.
Tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia had further escalated due to Iranian subversion of Arab regimes, particularly those in the Gulf with their large Shi’ite minorities. Riyadh was a primary target for Teheran’s vitriolic propaganda because of its relations with the U.S. Iran claimed that the Saudis were responsible for the “imperialist” U.S. military presence in the region which, of course, stood in Iran’s way of becoming the Gulf’s dominant power. Teheran not only incited the Saudi population against their “corrupt rulers,” but every year organized political demonstrations and rioting in Mecca during the haj season. Lastly, the consolidation of Iran’s hold and recent fortification of Abu Musa and the Tunb Islands facing the Straits of Hormuz, which are also claimed by the UAE, would (if not for the U.S. presence) enable Iran to control the shipment of Arab oil from the Gulf to world markets.
All of this assumed a different perspective once Riyadh became convinced that an American-Iranian dialogue was to be expected. Moreover, Riyadh is now leading a crusade in the Arab world against the normalization of relations with the Jewish state because of the new Israeli government’s hard-line policy. This created a common cause with Teheran which ideologically ob-jects in principle to peace with Israel (“the Small Satan”).
Furthermore, new Turkish-Israeli military and trade links have not only aroused Arab-Iranian anger, but were also seen by them as related to Turkish aspirations concerning oil rich, Kurdish-Turkman inhabited, Kirkuk province, wrested from Turkey by the British in the early 1920s to be united with their newly created Iraq. This Turkish aspiration is totally unacceptable to all Arabs, not just to Iraq, and is also considered a strategic threat by Syria and Iran.
Iran has endeavored to improve its relations with its Arab neighbors in recent years. Yet its Gulf ambitions and the growth of its conventional and unconventional military power, as well as other factors discussed earlier, had undermined such efforts. All this has now begun to change following Prince Sultan’s visit to Washington. Even earlier (in March 1997), Crown Prince Abdallah met with Iranian President Rafsanjani during the Islamic Conference Organization (ICO) summit in Pakistan. In the last few months Iran and Saudi Arabia have exchanged delegations of different kinds, in addition to cooperating before and during OPEC’s Vienna summit in June 1997.
In July, a Saudi minister of state carried messages from King Fahd and Prince Abdallah to President Rafsanjani concerning the expansion of relations between the two countries. Now former President Rafsanjani is to participate in the haj in November while Crown Prince Abdallah will attend the next ICO summit in Teheran. Iran’s ambassador to Riyadh was received by Saudi Arabia’s reactionary mufti, Ibn Baz, and other senior Wahhabi ulama, and they reportedly discussed coordination of moves to prevent the “Judaization of Jerusalem.” Indeed, when Crown Prince Abdallah called for the cancellation of the U.S.-supported fourth Middle East and North Africa economic conference in Qatar in November, Teheran applauded. Abdallah’s stance is favored by most Saudis who disapproved of Fahd’s support for the Arab-Israeli peace process.
Riyadh’s rapprochement with Teheran is an outcome of necessity, undoubtedly a byproduct of Washington’s review of its Iran containment policy and the possible future improvement of U.S.-Iranian relations. Yet Riyadh and Teheran’s interests are diametrically opposed on major issues. Disregarding historical animosity and Wahhabi intolerance of Shi’ism, Saudi apprehensions about its powerful neighbors will continue to enhance Riyadh’s dependence on U.S. military presence in the region. Aspiring to become the region’s superpower, Iran opposes this presence. To counterbalance U.S. military might and the possible revival of Iraqi power, Iran is endeavoring to develop its conventional and unconventional military capabilities. This, naturally, only further increases the fears of its weak neighbors. Riyadh also cannot ignore Iran’s influence over its own and its neighbors’ Shi’ite minorities, as well as Teheran’s control of Hormuz and the passageway for the flow of Arab oil to the world.
Much as he may oppose U.S. Mideast policy and side with Syria and other Arab radicals, Crown Prince Abdallah is well aware of Riyadh’s dependence on the U.S. protective umbrella. Therefore, Saudi cooperation with Washington, particularly concerning Persian Gulf security, the embargo on Iraq, and the supply of “reasonably priced” oil to the world market is unquestionable. Nonetheless, once Abdallah succeeds Fahd, Riyadh is likely to endeavor to further reduce the profile of the American presence in the kingdom and distance itself from U.S. Mideast policy.
Militant fundamentalism in Saudi Arabia is bound to remain a secondary problem, at least as long as elements of American military forces remain in the kingdom, but is unlikely to win support among the majority of the population despite pervasive anti-U.S. sentiments. The Al Saud regime’s stability will increasingly depend in the future on both economic prosperity and its comprehension of the need to expand its power base by granting the intelligentsia and middle class meaningful participation in the decision-making process.
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Mordechai Abir is a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and Professor 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 (Boulder, CO and London: Westview and Croom Helm, 1988); Saudi Arabia: Government, Society and the Gulf Crisis (London: Routledge, 1993); and United States-Saudi Arabian Relations and the Arab-Israeli Peace Process (in preparation).