A Saudi Arabia made in the USA

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Will Saudi Arabia Ever Change? by Hugh Eakin | The New York Review of Books

Hugh Eakin on Saudi in NYRB provides an overview of post Arab uprisings Saudi Arabia in this review of three new books on the kingdom:

With three quarters of its own citizens now under the age of thirty, Saudi Arabia faces many of the same social problems as Egypt and Yemen. By some estimates, nearly 40 percent of Saudis between the ages of twenty and twenty-four are unemployed, and quite apart from al-Qaeda, there is a long and troubled history of directionless young men drawn to radicalism. The country suffers from a housing crisis and chronic inflation, there have been recurring bouts of domestic terrorism, and the outskirts of Riyadh and Jeddah are plagued by poverty, drugs, and street violence—problems that are not acknowledged to exist in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques.

On top of this, Saudi Arabia also seems to possess several of the attributes that have led to broader revolt in neighboring countries. There is a restive and well-organized Shia minority in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, who have engaged in a series of street protests since early 2011. And young men and women all over the country are exceptionally well connected by new media: only Egypt ranks ahead in Facebook usage in the region; a higher proportion of Saudis now use Twitter and YouTube than almost any other nation in the world. This has made it easier to expose alleged corruption by members of the royal family, as one anonymous Twitter user, “Mujtahidd,” with apparent inside sources, has been doing, attracting more than 800,000 followers in the process. (A mujtahid is a scholar with independent authority to interpret Islamic law.

This youth crisis — some call it a lost generation produced by an incompetent and ultra-conservative educational system — and Saudi Arabia's structural economic problems were touched upon by occasional Arabist contributor Nathan Field here.

There's one particularly intriguing book Eakin reviews:

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.

The same US policy towards Saudi Arabia — based on what another Israeli scholar calls the "weapondollar-petrodollar coalition" — continues to this day.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.