Trouble in the House of Saud
Could Saudi Arabia’s have-nots spark a revolution?
Heidi Kingstone London PARTS OF OIL-RICH Saudi Arabia are as shockingly poor as Somalia — or so claim the harshest critics of the ruling Al-Saud family. According to the calculations of an active Saudi dissident living in exile, three trillion dollars have been generated mostly by oil over the past 30 years in the Gulf kingdom. Yet, he asserts, only $800 billion-$1 trillion have been reinvested into the country. “So where has that two trillion dollars gone?” asks the dissident, speaking to The Report on condition of anonymity.
He blames Saudi’s ills on the corruption of the ruling class. While one Saudi princess flies her hairdresser over from Europe first class, and pays him $5,000 a cut, he claims that in Hafr al-Batin, 50 kilometers from the Kuwait border, 60,000 people are living in shacks with no electricity, sewerage and only minimal food.
With the United States heading into another Gulf war, Saudi Arabia, its longtime ally, may be heading into trouble. Simon Henderson, a London-based Gulf specialist with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says that those who view Saudi as a rock of stability and a reliable friend of the United States constitute “an increasingly small minority among Western analysts. If you were to try to apply Marxist-Leninist theory to an Islamic Beduin society,” he goes on, Saudi might be said to be in “a pre- revolutionary situation.”
The petroleum-hazy halcyon days are over. Saudi Arabia’s soaring population now numbers over 22 million, including 5 million foreign nationals, compared with about 6 million 30 years ago. This, together with fluctuations in the oil market over the past two decades and corruption on a royal scale, is bringing the kingdom to the brink of bankruptcy, the dissident says.
With an annual population growth rate of well over 3 percent, similar to Gaza and Uganda, Saudi Arabia’s government-owned infrastructure is increasingly stretched. The government is no longer able to provide everybody with a job and the private sector prefers to hire foreigners, notes Gregory Gause, a political scientist and Saudi expert at the University of Vermont. While there are no official figures, 20-30 percent of Saudis of working age are said to be jobless. Yet over 4 million foreigners are employed as menial laborers, middle managers and oil executives.
The government is also facing a disaffected underclass of angry Saudi youths committed to Islamic extremism, a native Bin-Ladenist militancy of the kind that spawned 15 of the 19 hijackers of 9/11.
Some Arab intellectuals point to serious shortcomings in the education system. Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, editor-in-chief of the London-based, Saudi-owned Al-Sharq Al-Awsat wrote a column in the fall blaming the radicalization of Saudi youth not on economics, but on the “culture of violence that has infiltrated religious education deviating from the traditions of the conservative and peace-loving Saudi society.” And Saudi columnist Abdullah Abu Sameh wrote an article in the Saudi daily Okaz, translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), arguing that for Saudi society “to regain its peace and innocence and reconciliation with the world, our youths must be reeducated.”
Indeed, the Saudi rot has also brought about an educated, middle- class opposition. Its members — like the dissident who spoke to The Report — include scholars, writers, businessmen and university students. They seek comprehensive political and judicial reforms in the Saudi Kingdom, as well as transparency and power-sharing.
The movement started out 10 years ago as a Saudi-based human rights group. Since there are no polls, it is hard to gauge its strength. The source, a member of Saudi’s educated elite, spent a month in prison and was sacked from his job after he challenged the government.
While shari’a law is taken for granted in the kingdom — Saudis adhere to the strict Wahhabi form of Islam — the reformists dispute the government’s religious interpretation. They accuse it of “monopolizing the texts to enable themselves to practice corruption,” and berate the rulers for “confiscating the country’s resources” and “giving them cheaply to the superpowers.”
As the Saudi regime faces growing American qualms about its reliability in the wake of 9/11 and allegations of its funding of terrorism (see page 30), Saudi opposition voices insist that the royal house of Al-Saud is doomed.
“Why has the royal family been so hesitant about war [with Iraq]?” asks the dissident. “Is it because they care about the sentiments of the population? No. This war is not in their favor. Even if it finishes quickly and America takes over Iraq, the Saudis are the losers,” he asserts, sketching out the Al-Saud doomsday scenario. “Iraqi oil will flow, oil prices will collapse. Saudi Arabia, already on the verge of collapse, will collapse properly then.”
SAUDI’S OIL WEALTH IS NOT what it was. Though forecast to earn some $50 billion in oil revenues in 2002, the kingdom has one of the largest domestic debts in the world, at around $170 billion. The GDP per capita has dropped from $23,000 to $8,400 in 20 years.
But none of this seems to have impinged on the consciousness of the Saudi royals, who continue to spend as if there is no tomorrow. The ruling Al-Saud clan, headed by the ailing 81-year old King Fahd, counts at least 7,000 male members among its ranks. When the females are factored in, the family numbers some 25,000 souls.
Saudi royal expenditures are gossiped about no end on the dissident grapevine. One prince is said to maintain Rolls-Royces in green, blue, red and silver. Not only does he color coordinate his outfit to match his car on any given day, but it is told that his entire liveried staff does the same. Another prince died, leaving a 28-bedroom palace in Jiddah which nobody wanted because it was seen as a second-hand property. It stands empty. And when King Fahd arrived in Marbella for a month-long vacation in August, with a retinue of thousands, a local florist was reportedly asked to supply $1,500 of fresh flowers daily to the Saudi palace on the Costa del Sol.
Back home, the royal family runs Saudi Arabia like a private company, the disgruntled dissident complains, and more than that, it operates above the law. If a contract with an Al-Saud is not honored, as is common, there is no redress, he says.
The Islamic extremists also focus on the monarchy’s corruption. Saudi Arabia’s most infamous son, Osama Bin Laden, the scion of a large family of contractors, was declared persona non grata in Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s. He and his followers argue that American “decadence” has degraded the Saudi royal family, necessitating its removal from control of Islam’s holy shrines in Mecca and Medina.
Saudi officials counter that things are not nearly as bad as the critics make out. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, told PBS’s Frontline program in September 2001: “There are so many countries in the Third World that have oil that are still 30 years behind. We did not invent corruption…” The government, he went on, had spent $350 billion out of the $400 billion it had earned on building the country. “That we misused or got corrupted with $50 billion, I’ll tell you, ‘Yes.’ But I’ll take that any time.”
Through the 80s, enough petrodollars flowed from the coffers to paper over regal extravagance, providing Saudis with a reasonable standard of living and an abundant health, welfare and education network. But the economic and demographic pressures have eaten at much of that beneficence, opening deep fissures within the society. Now, the prospect of war in Iraq is adding to nervousness in the kingdom.
“Saudi rulers and people believe that Saudi Arabia is next on the American agenda. After all, Saudi Arabia provided Al-Qaeda with 15 of the 19 hijackers,” notes Dr. Mai Yamani, Research Fellow of the Middle East Program at London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs. “The fear is that if there is change in Iraq, there will be change in Saudi Arabia, and the United States has been telling the Saudis they are dispensable.” The prospects for the House of Al- Saud, she concludes, seem “grim.”
Given the popular resentment in the kingdom, the Saudi ruling house is unsure at this stage whether cooperation with the Americans against Iraq will bring greater stability or greater vulnerability, further undermining its legitimacy. The issue of succession is key in determining whether the Saudi rule will hold together. The 79-year- old Deputy Prime Minister, Crown Prince Abdullah, is the de facto ruler and is slated to inherit the throne when King Fahd, incapacitated after a series of strokes, dies. But the royal family is riven with rivalries: The closer you are to the king, the “deeper your face can be in the trough,” says Henderson.
Most of the infighting goes on between the 24 surviving sons of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz. The strongest subgroup within the 24 is the so-called Sudairi Seven, named for the tribe from which their mother hailed. Fahd is the oldest of these. Abdullah, not one of the seven, is said to be a weak personality who is being undermined by his brothers. In particular, Defense Minister Prince Sultan, the next Sudairi in line, and Interior Minister Prince Nayef are said to infringe on his authority. Fahd is being kept on his throne only to prevent the rivalries from erupting, the dissident asserts. “Because each individual controls a fiefdom, all you need is one assassination to bring down the whole house of cards.”
And if America succeeds in removing Saddam, the dissident theorizes, the United States will “no longer be looking at the Al- Saud as maintaining their interests.” The Americans, the argument goes, will eventually become less reliant on Saudi oil if the Iraqi fields open up. And they won’t need Saudi bases. “Then they will say, ‘Unless you run the country according to our detailed instructions, you will be deposed.’ People are full of anger and resentment. Given the opportunity, they will take it.”
Western analysts see little likelihood of an imminent revolution or coup. The military is believed to be pretty much under the royal family’s control. “The only way coups happen in the Gulf is within the family, when a son overthrows a father or a brother removes a brother,” says James Onley of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter.
And it seems likely that the Al-Sauds are here to stay for the foreseeable future. “The downfall of the regime would begin with serious splits within the family, at the top,” says Gregory Gause. “While there are differences of opinion, there are no open splits right now, and no organized opposition.” The problems will come when the line reaches the third generation, the grandsons of Abdul Aziz. “There is no precedent for how that is to be done,” he states.
But there may be increasing unrest. “The radicalized youth are growing in number and could form a revolutionary core,” says Henderson. “The example of Bin Laden means they think they can take on the world. If they can do that, they can take on Saudi Arabia.” The question, he says, is whether the security forces would act against them. “Conventional wisdom is that they would. I don’t see a coup; it is easier to think of revolutionary ferment.”
Crown Prince Abdullah has attempted economic reforms, and has reduced the massive stipends doled out to the 7,000 royals. “The notion that things must change has been acknowledged. But they think this should happen without anything changing,” says Henderson.
Of course, it’s oil alone that has propped up the Al-Sauds so far and provided them with American support. “Are we interested in Yemen?” asks Henderson. “No.” Saudi, he says, “is like Yemen with oil.”
The U.S.-Saudi relationship is one of mutual self-interest. Saudi has 26 percent of the world’s proven petroleum reserves, and oil provides 75 percent of the kingdom’s budget revenues. Notes Paul Stevens, Professor of Energy, Petroleum, Mineral Law and Policy at Dundee University: “The kingdom wanted U.S. protection and access to stable oil markets. The U.S. wanted stable oil markets and a stable Saudi regime.”
Saudi’s detractors in Washington may be dreaming of oil from Baghdad. “If Iraqi oil flowed, we’d presumably give Saudi even less leverage than they have now,” says Michael Ledeen, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “The War Against the Terror Masters.” But Iraqi oil won’t necessarily spell the Al-Sauds’ end. It will be more costly than Saudi oil, and harder to access because of the geology, notes John Felmy, chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute, a lobby group in Washington. What’s more, Ledeen adds, Saddam is apparently wiring up his oil fields so he can blow them up at the appropriate moment.
SINCE THE SHOCK OF 9/11, IT has become clear that there is no popular constituency on either side supporting the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Says Gause: “What keeps the relationship together is common interests at the top — oil and security,” though the relationship may not remain as close as it has been.
Energy expert Stevens admits that he has been predicting the fall of the House of Saud for the last 25 years. Now he believes the Saudi royals are very capable of using both their position and their resources to either buy off, or kill off, the opposition.
“There is potential for disputes within the family,” Stevens say. “But when push comes to shove, they stick together. Whoever rules Saudi Arabia will have Al-Saud at the end of their name.”
Copyright c 2003. The Jerusalem Report
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