Tag Archives: Persian Gulf

The Eastern Mediterranean Region: A new perspective

The Eastern Mediterranean region, also known as the Middle East, continuously features on top of the international news. In fact, it has been in the news since the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. The problem is that it is currently the focus of global threats and most probably will continue to be so for at least the foreseeable future.

Conceptual inertia holds hostage decision-makers’ minds and actions. A re-boot is needed for a fresh constructive solutions.

In order to gain some future-oriented understanding, it is worthwhile to take a brief look at the history of the region.

History under the Ottoman Empire

The region was unified under a single, though corrupted, administration. But the second half of the 19th century saw the emergence of Nationalist movements concomitantly with a competing Pan-Arabic organized sentiment.

During WWI, Turkey – which was than the pre-eminent power in the region – sided with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empires. In 1916, the British and the French empires signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement to divide the Middle East.

The triumphant Western colonial powers implemented their agreement in 1919.

Syria was given to the French who created Lebanon as an area with a Christian majority that presumably would be more friendly and controllable.

The British relinquishment of Syria had a grave and long-lasting impact. That area was promised to the Hashemites who rode with the iconic Lawrence of Arabia from Hejaz and helped him and the British to capture Damascus. As a substitute, the British created Trans- Jordania (currently-Jordan) in the Eastern part of Palestine and Iraq – in Mesopotamia. They installed the Hashemite emirs on the thrones; they were unable to return to Arabia – the vacuum had already been filled by their rivals, the Saudis.

The major problem in drawing the new maps was that interests and wishes of local people were not a consideration of the colonialist attitude of the period.

A “minor” problem was that Palestine was promised by the British foreign secretary, Lord Balfour, to be established as a Jewish homeland at the conclusion of the war.

The British were granted a Mandate by the League of Nations to implement that agreement.

In Mesopotamia, three non-mutually-friendly ethnic-religious groups – Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurds – were put together under the rule of a foreign Sunni monarchy.

Indeed, post-WWI there was no consideration of tribal and religious diversity. New nations-states were quite arbitrarily created by functionaries in the powers’ capitals.

In addition, the mythology of the uniformity of the Middle East and the image of the noble courageous Arab were imprinted in Western minds by the story and later the movie of Lawrence of Arabia.

The first step for progress is a change of attitude – an unbiased regional definition. Even the designation of the region as the “Middle East” is a Eurocentric colonial-era remnant. If you travel from London, Paris, Berlin or Rome to India or China – the “Far East” – you go first through the “Near East” or the “Middle East.”

In the same way that the geographical delineation of the “Far East” is East Asia, the West Pacific Rim, and South Asia, a first step to a non-biased perspective of the Middle East is its region-focused definition as the “Eastern Mediterranean Region” (EMR). That definition is applied by the United Nations and its agencies, though exclusions and inclusions are subject to political considerations.

So, what are the realities of the region? What are the seeds of the near future conflicts? What, if anything, can the US and the rest of the West do to help prevent conflicts and resolve them? Prior to any assessment, it should be emphasized that a local perspective is essential.

Recently, it has been demonstrated that even long-entrenched regimes may be toppled, though media popular adjectives such as “the Arab Spring” as well as the generous use of “democracy” need to be further examined.

I BELIEVE that the main potentially combustible processes may be delineated along several lines: A) Religious and tribal conflicts B) Fundamentalism versus moderates C) Economic inequalities D) Individual liberties and rights and individual pursuit of happiness.

Here the focus will first be only on the first basic point; the others deserve further discussion.

Religious-tribal-territorial conflicts Iraq and Kurdistan A still evolving process is taking place in Iraq. The dictatorships of the monarchy and then the relatively secular regime of Saddam Hussein held together conflicting fragments, notably the Shi’ites and the Kurds, as well as Saddam’s own base of Sunni.

A new common denominator was created by the US, which has been perceived by all to be the occupying external military power.

Before America claimed success and withdrew from the country, supervised elections were held. As should have been predicted, Shi’ite parties won the majority because,as is the case in most countries in the region, the main consideration of voters is family (hamullah), ethnicity and religion.

Traditionally, the Iraqi Shi’ites have been aligned with their Shi’ite Iranian neighbors. This will most probably continue. The Sunnis will be increasingly frustrated at their new oppressed minority status and religious violence will be increased. Eventually a civil war,or more accurately ,an inter-ethnic war, may erupt, as was the case with another former dictatorship-Tito’s communist Yugoslavia which disintegrated into it’s ethnic components.

Once they became independent and following violent ethnic conflicts, they have been adapting to live peacefully with each other. This has been facilitated by the integration of the fragmented Nations into a more comprehensive coalition – the European Union.

What is the solution? The people of Mesopotamia should not continue to undergo Yugoslavia-like bloodshed when the outcome is quite predictable.

Iraq was an artificial creation; it should be encouraged to complete a peaceful separation process.

Most important is the recognition of a fully independent Kurdistan! The Kurds in Iraq are already autonomous. This is a fact that the Iraqi Shi’ite government already admits.

Indeed, an independent Kurdistan would encourage demands by Kurds in Turkey and Iran as well as eastern Syria to join their homeland. Turkey is a strong US ally, while Iran∂s government is currently a strong enemy. The adjustments of these two opponents to the separatist and eventually independent Kurdish movement might not be easy for them.

An independent Kurdistan is inevitable; it will control oil fields and other natural resources. It∂s strength will be an inspiration and material support for their brethren in the neighboring regimes who will enhance their armed struggles. The feasibility of violent interventions may be lower if the US and the EU stand strongly for the principles of self-determination, justice and human rights.

UNREST IN the Persian Gulf countries may be next! When “Middle-East oil troves” are considered, the primary oil and natural gas deposits are concentrated in mainly two areas – the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea.

A second, conveniently less apparent fact, is that most oil areas are populated mostly by Shi’ites (Kurdistan as well as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are exceptions).

The Shi’ites’ populated oil deposits are ruled by Sunni dynasties. Even most of the Saudi Arabian oil-rich fields and reserves are in the Persian Gulf coastal area, which is home to the Shi’ite minority.

The socioeconomic-demographic situation in the Gulf has been undergoing rapid changes.

While the traditional feudal rulers who control most of the wealth attempt to share some of it with their citizens or at least provide them with direct benefits, the percentage of the citizens – who were few to start with – is shrinking due to the influx of foreign workers needed by and benefiting the booming economies.

For instance, in the United Arab Emirates, Emirati constitute fewer than half of the residents. Other Arabs, Iranians, South and East Asians as well as Westerners are already a majority. Kuwaitis constitute only 45% of the inhabitants of their own homeland. In Qatar, only about 40% are local Arabs.

When will the population be dissatisfied with the relative crumbs that are shared with them? When will foreign workers feel that these lands are also their lands? When will Iran support a political Shiite cessation movement from Saudi Arabia? A movement that may take arms? Will the old Arabia and Gulf dynasties be dragged into an oil war that may be marketed to their populations and the other Muslim world as a Shi’ite jihad with a strong (justified) uprising of the socially oppressed? An uprising driven by increasing food prices and frustrations of financial inequity is not unheard of. Pooley and Revzin (2011) described the former Tunisian president Ben Ali as “The leader who was toppled by a vegetable cart.”

The following string of revolutions in the region are at least in part attributed to rising food costs creating a direct link between (pita) bread and politics.

The Gulf states import 90% of their food supplies and are struggling to provide sufficient water to their growing populations. Therefore, volatility in commodities’ prices and availability may cause dramatic effects on Gulf societies.

Especially foreign workers feel the crunch but even citizens’ food rations and subsidies only cover the basics.

Therefore, food inflation may cause frustrations among large segments of populations and drive them to demonstrations which might turn to be violent.

This is not a far-fetched scenario. The dynasties are fully cognizant of its plausibility and are trying to keep a delicate fragile balance in their countries. It is questionable if they would be successful.

They may survive if they gradually transfer political power to non-family citizens and let the elected government run and benefit from the Natural Resources. Eventually, they will turn the royal crowns to culturally-adapted models of the British and Scandinavian countries.

This is better done prior to pending revolutions. In this way they may maintain much of their financial wealth.

The immense economic powers are already turning into global corporations. Locally tolerant economic competition would only enhance social stability.

Israel and Palestine

As should be apparent by now, considering the civil war in Syria, the continuous protests in Egypt, the percolating tensions in Iraq, the nuclear threats by Iran and the expected 2014 takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, as well as some other conflicts, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the pre-eminent dangerous issue in the Middle East, though it has been illuminated as such by many Muslim leaders, a concept that has been adopted by US policy makers.

Israel has been a continuous antagonistic common-denominator of the Arab world. Gradually, this has been changing; two regimes -Jordan and Egypt, entered into official peace agreements with Israel and several others maintain some de facto relations.

Situations may shift with change of governments, as was demonstrated when the relative bi-directional cooperation during the Shah’s regime in Iran was replaced by threats of annihilation of Israel by the current regime.

Conclusion In 2012, we were confronted with the reality that many people in the Muslim world do not like the US (to say the least).

Extremist youth attacked US embassies and consulates in over 20 Muslim countries in which they burned American flags. (They did not attack European Union’s embassies and did not burn French, German or Israeli flags).

In most cases, these were not “terrorist attacks”; there were protests against a despised power.

Americans cannot live in denial and bury their heads in the sand. Many people in the region (as well as in other regions) “do not like them.”

They respect the US’s economic, technological and military might, and they wish to catch up with the technological achievements, but many do not want the US to impose its force and culture on their domains.

Academics from the region want partnership and cooperation according to their priorities. They feel patronized by the Americans for their biased perceptions and insensitivities.

Domestically, the American conversation strives to encourage pluralism, cultural diversity and sensitivity.

This should be emphasized as a matter of fact and even more so in foreign affairs and interactions.

It is of importance to notice that other domestic US issues are also common denominators in the Eastern Mediterranean Region, mostly the conflicts between religious and social fundamentalists and moderates, as well as ingrained economic inequities, though,of course the colors and flavors of the conflicts are locally different.

The main distinction between fundamentalists and “moderates” is the extreme conviction and intolerance of the first group. Many times they also attempt to impose their life-style on others. Many moderates believe in Islam but conduct their life in different shades of observance and traditional costumes. Tolerance of diversity and respect to others’ ideas are the trademarks of “moderation,” technology is not.

Savvy applications of updated technological advances have been documented by suicide bombers and organizers of large-scale social protests alike.

The notion of “individual pursuit of happiness” is deeply culturally determined. We may take this notion as a departure point for change in US policy in the region (and in any region).

The American attitude needs to be changed from “We know best what you need and how to achieve it,” to priorities and solutions that are initiated by people in the relevant countries and the region.

Solutions should be site-adequate, locally acceptable, implantable and sustainable. The US and the EU should only provide financial and technical assistance when requested and needed.

A benevolent pursuit of individuals’ well-being and cooperation with middle-class moderate local people would empower them in their struggle with the fundamentalists in their countries. Moderate Muslims suffer the encroachment of religious extremists on their day-to-day life.

Fundamentalism’s restrictions on individual expressions and rights are coupled with the convictions that they have a mandate from God to impose their views and way of life on everyone else “for their own good.”

They gain more power by their genuine concern for the poor who follow them not only because of religious convictions but also based on their social and physical well-being services.

This notion leads to the acceptance of diversified value systems. We are not dealing with a conflict between Good and Evil. Zealot Muslim Fundamentalists strongly believe that they are the “God-obiding good people” and Americans are “the bad guys.”

Many Americans believe in the opposite. Hopefully, the cultural differences should not lead to a cultural clash.

The crusades to the Holy Land and the Middle East took place a thousand years ago. Nobody needs a contemporary repeat of these self-convinced zealots’ clashes.

Implementable operational solutions

What can the US government and the American people do? First and foremost, they should acknowledge that people in the Eastern Mediterranean have different culture,values and ways of life. We can not delude ourselves that we can change them.

Even when there are power struggles, can we apply European terms as “the Arab Spring” (inspired by the mid-1800s “Spring of Nations” and the mid-1900s Czech revolt against the Soviet Union)? Can Americans celebrate “democracy” following every coup? Can the US expect other cultures to adopt the American model of democracy? A change of attitude is needed to change our image from that of forceful intruders, from insensitive-economically- driven neo-colonialists to benevolent partners for progress.

We can infuse technology and professional skills. We can facilitate movements of tolerance and acceptance of diversity (if we are sincere). We cannot impose our culture on people who are immersed in their own.

“Culturally sensitive” is not only a euphemism and a cliche for preachers and academics, it starts with the realization that some others wish to continue to be “others.”

That said, sensitivity also means the realization of diversity and the will and ability to see under the surface and realize the common denominators across the superficial and not so superficial differences.

The common denominators exist, but they should be determined by the people in the region. Americans see themselves as having goodwill. Past administrations established remarkable assistance programs. They are well-funded and they work. But who decides what is important; what are the priorities? Regretfully, decisions about priorities and disbursement of funds are made in Washington, DC. American experts are consulted and usually they also opine from a Westernized- focused perspective. This is acceptable for private foundations, which may distribute their donated funds according to their pre-determined priorities. Public national funds should be spent by federal agencies to promote US interests.

US interests in the Eastern Mediterranean region should be clearly defined.

They should preferably be pro-active (as opposed to reactive), sustainable and lead to naming squares in honor of the US instead of burning American flags.

THE US should establish itself as the benevolent supporter instead of intruders and enforcers. American interests in the Eastern Mediterranean region and its people will be strengthened when several concepts are operationalized.

A.) Ask local experts what is important for their countries and the region’s well-being. Support and promote peaceful programs that are locally initiated by local governments, local municipalities and local NGOs.

B.) Invest in build-up of local human and services’ capital and capacities.

C.) Nurture, promote and invest in Middle-class and assist organizations that may participate in Governance and may compete in take-over of regimes-if necessary situations arise.

D.) Build social services infrastructure and delivery systems that will be clearly identified with middle-class-moderate organizations. Their American funding and professional support should be clear to the recipients.

It should also be clear that foreigners are supporters and assistants. They are not the decision-makers; they do not tell the locals what and to do and how to do it.

In these activities, we should learn what gave the Hamas political movement a majority in Palestinian elections.

People voted for Hamas because they were impressed by the genuine concern for the well-being of the weakest populations.

They built an infrastructure of education, health and well-being services, many voters bought their claims of being the supporters of the “small victims in the villages.”

Voters were not necessarily swayed by the anti-Israeli terrorism, though, following the electoral win the Hamas violently gained control over the Gaza Strip and turned it into a rockets base against Israel, to the detriment of their own civilian population.

It is of interest that the Hamas followed a path similar to the Israeli ultra-religious party – Shas, which gained its initial electoral power by building social services infrastructure and demonstrating a genuine concern for the weaker Israelis of Eastern decent. Genuine efficient social services are the bridge to human hearts.

E.) Funding should be transferred from reductions in current US military support, the Sunni dynasties in the region should be persuaded to financially contribute some of their oil and business revenues for well- being not only of their citizens but the people of the region in general.

F.) If they wish to survive, they should adapt to the changing reality of the Eastern-Mediterranian: They should consider turning their countries to Constitutional Monarchies ,adapted from the models of The United Kingdom and Scandinavia. The family wealth may be partially retained (the Queen of England is one of the richest women in the world), but it should be shared with the citizens,according to the people∂s decisions.

G.) Political power should be in the hands of elected and not appointed officials. This may sound naively idealistic, but its implementation should be according to the situation in each country, through a gradual process that should be initiated by the current rulers, before accumulating frustrations and stress cause a crisis. The US can play a productive role in this process.

H.) A new Eastern-Mediterranean-American-Well- Being Delegation should be established. Its homebase should be in the region (not in Washington DC), with local American-friendly representatives in the region’s countries. It should be coordinated with, but independent of the State Department. The delegation will closely work with the region’s ministries of health and well-being, will coordinate regional advisory forms and will have its own adequate funding.

In order to ensure innovation, up-dated adaptation and flexibility, and avoid inertia, all appointments should be for limited time periods.

Indeed, the current US foreign-policy decision-makers may not like letting go of some of their control. But they should face reality that the on-going policy brought the US mostly burning flags and besieged embassies.

Let’s start a new page, a positive one for a change!

The writer is Chair of the WPA Section on Interdisciplinary Collaboration, Chair of PEMRN and Professor and Director of BioBehavioral Research in SUNY-AB. He is currently a Fulbright Awardee for MENA regional studies. The opinions expressed here are his own,they do not reflect and are not endorsed by the Fulbright program or any other USA agency.

Will Saudi Arabia Ever Change?

eakin_1-011013.jpgJames Hill/Contact Press Images

Portraits of King Abdullah when he was crown prince (left) and the late Prince Sultan (center), who was heir apparent when he died last year, on the outskirts of Riyadh, September 2003

It’s a funny place, Jeddah. Nobody knows the half of what goes on.
—Hilary Mantel, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street


On September 25, 2011, the aging ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, gave a remarkable speech to the Majlis al-Shura, the formal advisory body to the Saudi monarchy in Riyadh. Beginning in 2013, the king said, women would be allowed to serve on the 150- member body; and beginning in 2015, they would also be permitted to vote and run for office in municipal council elections.

To most outside observers, these moves were hardly worth noting. In 2011, popular revolts were toppling autocratic regimes across the Middle East; even fellow monarchies like Morocco and Jordan were amending or changing their constitutions to show they would be more accountable to the people. By contrast, the Saudi king’s speech conceded no new authority to the Majlis al-Shura, an unelected body with limited powers of consultation only, and Saudis have shown little interest in the largely symbolic local councils, only half of whose members are elected. Moreover, Abdullah’s innovations, such as they were, would only happen in the future: the 2011 municipal elections, which took place a few days after the speech, were, as in the past, open to men only.

Yet in a country whose only written charter asserts the Koran as its basic law and in which women have few legal rights, let alone the right to vote, the announcement struck many as revolutionary. Liberal Saudis and women activists called the decision “historic,” citing it as further proof that their nearly ninety-year-old monarch was a “reformer.” For their part, members of the government rushed to reassure the country’s powerful ulama—the religious leadership, which adheres to the puritanical branch of Hanbali Islam known in the West as Wahhabism—that the new women members of the Shura would not mix with the men. The king himself, in making the announcement, carefully noted that “since the time of the Prophet, the Muslim woman has had valid opinions and [sound] advice that should not be regarded as marginal.” Even so, prominent Saudi clerics suggested that the decree did not have religious backing, and two days later, as if to assert their continuing writ, a court in Jeddah sentenced a woman to ten lashes for driving a car.

Thus the king’s revolutionary speech was also a deft maneuver to preserve the status quo. On the one hand, the monarch was appeasing one of the country’s most aggrieved constituencies—educated Saudi women—and openly acknowledging that the country’s political institutions must evolve. On the other hand, he left the Saudi system hardly more democratic than before, and by raising the ire of religious leaders, reinforced the divide between the two groups—liberals and Islamists—that pose the greatest threat to the monarchy. “In effect, nothing has changed,” Mohammad bin Fahad al-Qahtani, an economics professor and human rights activist, told me in Riyadh last May. (A few weeks after I spoke to him, al-Qahtani was put on trial for starting an unauthorized human rights organization and could face up to five years in prison.)

The same might equally be said of Saudi foreign policy. Mindful of the political awakening sweeping through the region, the king has shown a degree of support for uprisings elsewhere, from arming the rebels in Syria to reconciling with the new Islamist leadership in Egypt. Yet the only direct intervention by Saudi Arabia has come in neighboring Bahrain, where, in March 2011, a Saudi-led force was sent to stave off a popular revolt and prop up the Bahraini monarchy. Riyadh has also been using its influence in the Gulf Cooperation Council, the alliance of autocratic Persian Gulf states, to pull together support for the beleaguered royal houses of Morocco and Jordan. The White House has remained silent. The US does more trade—overwhelmingly in oil and weapons—with Saudi Arabia than any other country in the Middle East, including Israel, and depends on close Saudi cooperation in its counterterrorism efforts in Yemen.

Indeed there are few signs that the Saudi monarchy is even contemplating serious reforms. During a recent visit to several parts of the country, I spoke to academics, journalists, members of the Shia minority, and young bloggers, as well as clerics and government officials, and many were outspoken in criticizing the government; one journalist who had worked for official media told me, within minutes of our acquaintance, “I can’t wait for this regime to collapse!” But almost without exception, no one seemed to think that would happen anytime soon. I asked one prominent women’s rights activist why more Saudis weren’t agitating for a full written constitution—a moderate reform that could provide a more rigorous legal frame for continued Al Saud rule and that was discussed publicly during a brief opening after the September 11 attacks. She replied: “No one’s talking about it anymore. All the constitutional monarchists have been jailed.”

Among the many enigmas about the increasingly elderly group of brothers who have ruled Saudi Arabia since 1953—the year in which their father, Abdul Aziz, the country’s modern founder, died—is how they have continually evaded the forces of change. Despite Saudi control of the largest petroleum reserves in the world, decades of rapid population growth have reduced per capita income to a fraction of that of smaller Persian Gulf neighbors. Even the people of Bahrain, a country with little oil that has roiled with unrest since early 2011, are wealthier. Having nearly doubled in twenty years to 28 million, the Saudi population includes over eight million registered foreign residents, many of them manual laborers or domestic workers. Illegal migrants, who enter on Hajj (pilgrimage) visas, or across the porous Yemeni border, may account for two million more.

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 2011.1 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.)

In stark contrast to the country’s youthful population, the Al Saud dynasty often seems geriatric and disconnected. Though he has worn the crown for only seven years, Abdullah was crown prince for twenty-three years before he became king, and commander of the National Guard for nearly half a century. He has not been in good health; his medical visits to the United States often generate as much comment as his trips as head of state. Moreover, owing to Saudi Arabia’s unusual system of succession, there is little likelihood that a charismatic young reformer will soon ascend to the throne. The current monarch is supposed to designate a successor, or crown prince, from among his younger brothers—the remaining survivors of the founding king’s thirty-seven sons by more than twenty wives—before the monarchy passes to the third generation, many of whose members are already middle-aged.

In 2006, King Abdullah established an “allegiance council” made up of senior princes to ratify succession decisions, a step that also seems designed to reinforce conservatism. Two of Abdullah’s successive crown princes, themselves in their late seventies and mid-eighties, respectively, have died in the past year; the current crown prince, Abdullah’s half-brother Prince Salman, is a comparatively young seventy-six. Meanwhile, there are now some seven thousand princes in the ever-growing royal family, each getting some share of the mostly hidden national budget.

Faced with such intractable challenges, can the US-backed regime survive? Two new surveys of the country, both written since the Arab Spring by veteran American journalists, arrive at dramatically different answers. Karen Elliott House, a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, sees a country whose people are “seething” with discontent and whose leadership reminds her of the “dying decade of the Soviet Union.” In her book On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines—and Future, she envisions a potential “crash” when the crown passes to the third generation.

Covering much the same ground, however, Thomas W. Lippman, a former Washington Post reporter who has been traveling to Saudi Arabia for more than three decades, finds “scant evidence that any substantial portion of the Saudi population wants to replace the regime.” In Saudi Arabia on the Edge, he is generally bullish about a monarchy he regards as surprisingly adaptive and exceptionally well armed with cash. “For better or for worse,” he writes, “the outside world can assume that the House of Saud will stand—provided that oil revenue continues to flow into its coffers.”


Contrary to its desert image, Saudi Arabia is a highly urbanized country in which five large metropolitan areas—Riyadh in the center, Jeddah, Mecca, and Medina in the west, and Dammam on the Persian Gulf—account for more than two thirds of the population. Riyadh, the Saudi capital, is a Houstonian sprawl of offices, malls, and SUV-clogged thoroughfares; it is possible to miss the Grand Mosque if you are not looking for it. More affluent districts are filled with American fast food chains, British department stores, and French hypermarkets. Scruffier neighborhoods, like Bathaa in Riyadh’s Old City, feature the usual array of outdoor market stalls, electronics stores, and long-distance call centers, many of them clearly catering to a large immigrant population from South Asia. Seen from a car window, there is little to distinguish it from large cities in many other countries.

And yet at ground level, everything is different. The SUVs are all driven by men, many of them foreigners: since women are forbidden to drive, it is standard for middle-class households to employ a driver; but it is frowned upon for women to be chauffeured by Saudis (or other Arabs) who are not their husbands or fathers. Though women can purchase the latest upscale Western fashions at almost any Saudi mall, they are expected to wear a black abaya at all times and may be harassed by the Committee to Prevent Vice and Promote Virtue, the country’s religious police, if their hair shows just outside their veils. And in downtown Riyadh, not far from one of the main shopping districts, is a square where public beheadings sometimes take place.

SaudiArabia-MAP-011013Mike King

Lippman and House are both sensitive to these disconcerting contrasts. Yet the contradictory insights they draw suggest how hard it can be to get a handle on the Saudi regime. For example, looking at the proliferation of fatwas by different Saudi clerics on issues like gender mixing, Lippman sees a system in which “rules of behavior and appearance are not fully codified,” allowing the ruling family to use religion to tighten or loosen its grip as needed; while House thinks the monarchy has “largely lost control of an increasingly diffuse and divided Islam.”

Regarding Saudi women, however, House finds appalling evidence that some are subjected to “virtual slavery, in which wives and daughters can be physically, psychologically, and sexually abused at the whim of male family members, who are protected by an all-male criminal system and judiciary.”

Both authors lament the Saudi education system, which in the clutches of the religious establishment has produced what Lippman calls “a lost generation” of young Saudis. But Lippman argues that the king has embarked on an “education revolution”—purging school textbooks of “inflammatory material,” spending nearly $4 billion to establish a top-flight coed university north of Jeddah, and sending more than 100,000 young Saudis abroad to study; while House maintains that the government’s vast outlays have produced few results (Saudis still perform near the bottom of international tests) because the “religious-educational bureaucracy remains largely impervious to reform.” The two books concur that the Saudi government has made hardly any progress in weaning itself from oil. For House this shows how “unproductive,” “dysfunctional,” “brittle,” and “ossified” the economy has become. Yet Lippman observes that the steady flow of crude has allowed the regime not only to withstand the Arab Spring but also to “spend hundreds of billions of its revenue” preparing Saudis for a post-oil future.

Where does all this leave the Al Saud monarchy? Is continued rule by what House calls “more old men in their eighties” a symptom of imminent collapse or of exceptional longevity? Certainly, in Jeddah and Riyadh, it is not difficult to find young people who are acutely aware of the freedoms they are denied, and House is probably correct to see multiplying troubles ahead:

High birthrates, poor education, a male aversion to manual labor or service roles, social strictures against women working, low wages accepted by foreign labor, and deep structural rigidities in the economy, compounded by pervasive corruption, all have led to a decline in living standards…. Many of [the] young feel their future is being stolen from them.

And yet apart from the Shia in the Eastern Province, young Saudis have shown remarkably little interest in taking to the streets.2 Confronted with this paradox, House reverts to an unpersuasive account of the national character. Saudis, she insists, are “overwhelmingly passive” and “largely somnolent”; “pervasive social conformity” has made them “sullen”—a word she uses throughout her book—but unable to turn grievances to action.

But there is hardly anything passive about the country’s burgeoning political blogosphere, its growing population of young professionals with American degrees who are bridled by Saudi traditions, or even its leading clerics, some of whom not only issue opinions at odds with the regime but have themselves become powerful voices for reform. After spending years in jail, for example, former radical preacher Salman al-Awdah decries the inability of the leadership to connect with youth and tweets to nearly two million followers about the need for change.

In Jeddah, I met young artists and underground filmmakers who gather in private homes to discuss politics and screen movies in defiance of a general ban on cinemas. Even Buraydah—a deeply religious town in the center of the country that, according to House, is “so conservative that parents there protested the introduction of girls’ schools”—now has a local women’s organization that has taken on women’s rights issues, microcredit schemes, and legal advocacy.3 More important, then, is the matter of how the Saudi government has been able to prevent such social activism from turning against the regime itself.


To a remarkable degree, Western assumptions about Saudi Arabia still begin and end with the Rub al-Khali, or the Empty Quarter, the vast barren expanse engulfing the lower third of the Arabian Peninsula that ranks as the largest sand desert in the world. It was on the fringes of the Empty Quarter that oil was discovered in the 1930s, and it was through experiences among the nomadic Bedu (Bedouins) here that twentieth-century explorers like Wilfred Thesiger introduced Arabia to Western audiences.

From this basis emerged the story that has been taken for granted until today: spurred by the Standard Oil Company of California, a former subsidiary of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, the US government entered into an unshakable alliance with the House of Saud, a powerful tribal dynasty from the Nadj (Central Arabia) heartland whose hegemony could be traced back to the eighteenth century. They started by building the US-owned Arabian-American Oil Company (Aramco) in Dhahran, near Dammam on the Persian Gulf, which provided for the orderly exploitation of the world’s greatest fuel supply. (The Saudi government acquired part-ownership of Aramco in the 1970s and took full control in 1980.) And then they used Aramco itself to transform what House describes as an “impoverished and backward” land into an advanced nation with almost miraculous speed: Americans provided the skills and bureaucratic expertise; Saudi oil provided the cash; and the Al Saud—backed by the zealous followers of the Islamic reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792)—gave cultural and religious legitimacy to the whole enterprise.

However, very little of this story turns out to be true. The Al Saud did not consolidate power until the third decade of the twentieth century; and important parts of Saudi society were highly developed (and not necessarily under Wahhabi control) at the time oil was discovered. In the Hijaz region on the western coast, there was a tradition of civil association going back for centuries. Before the Saudi conquest, the cosmopolitan Red Sea port of Jeddah had sizable populations of Indians and Europeans who together with powerful local merchants traded in spices and other goods; and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina had large corporations that drew revenues from Hajj services. In the 1920s and 1930s, these and other cities in the Hijaz had political parties, elected councils, and a flourishing press.

For its part, Aramco was far from a benign instrument of enlightened development, as the political scientist and historian Robert Vitalis has shown in devastating detail.4 Brutally exploiting the local population, it produced a workers’ movement in the 1940s and 1950s that at moments threatened to destabilize the country. Indeed, in the early years of oil, the structure of the monarchy itself was open to debate: at the beginning of the 1960s, King Saud, who had succeeded Abdul Aziz in 1953, briefly installed a reform cabinet that included several commoners and set out to establish some form of representative government.

eakin_2-011013.jpgAhmed Mater/Athr Gallery, Jeddah

The Saudi artist Ahmed Mater’s Evolution of Man, 2010. Born in 1979 and trained as a doctor, Mater has said that artists must ‘reflect what’s happening around them. Not…what people already know.’

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.

When I met the current US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, James B. Smith, in Riyadh last May, he couldn’t have been clearer about the US–Saudi relationship: the three pillars, he said, are oil security, stability, and counterterrorism; pressure on human rights and political change were unproductive. Instead, Washington is actively embracing the mainstream of Saudi youth who, however dissatisfied they may be with their leaders, are now seeking to study in the US as part of King Abdullah’s ambitious scholarship program.

Certainly, sending young Saudis to American colleges should over time have a liberalizing effect on Saudi society. But it also fits with a series of innovations—including the private Red Sea beach clubs where Saudis can wear Western attire, the causeway to neighboring Bahrain, where they can freely indulge in alcohol (and other pleasures), or even the proliferation of gated communities in the Saudi capital itself, where they can live beyond the purview of the religious police—by which the regime can cultivate the most progressive parts of society.

As Asaad Al-Shamlan, a political scientist in Riyadh, explained, what Western eyes may regard as mere hypocrisy might be better understood as an intentional strategy to alleviate social pressures. By granting Saudis a “right to exit” the system, he said, the regime has “effectively derailed momentum for reform.” In this view, by inviting women into the Majlis al-Shura in his 2011 speech, King Abdullah may simply have been opening another escape valve in the established order.

Perhaps as a result, the few dedicated oppositionists one encounters in Jeddah and Riyadh have until now seemed less like the vanguard of a broader movement than as outliers, rejectionists who have fallen through the cracks of an all-encompassing system. (Not coincidentally, they are often punished with travel bans that deny them Al-Shamlan’s “right to exit.”) Indeed, far more young Saudis appear to be concerned about violent upheavals in neighboring countries than about the repressive order at home. In a 2012 survey of Arab youth in twelve countries, a disproportionate number of young Saudis—55 percent, more than in any other country—identified “civil unrest” as the “biggest obstacle facing the region” against only 37 percent who said it was “lack of democracy.”5

If this is the case, then the continued viability of the Saudi regime will depend little on the particular strengths or weaknesses of the current ruler and his immediate successors. Far more important may be the question of whether the overall approach of defensive change—by now deeply embedded in all areas of Saudi society and backed by a vast state bureaucracy as well as an entrenched religious establishment—can continue to persuade a majority of Saudis to support or at least tolerate a repressive government in which they have almost no say.

For decades, the parched kingdom has flourished on the promise that its leaders could turn oil into water and provide the comforts and escapes of advanced Western society without giving up the country’s ultra-traditional religion and culture. With continued oil and US backing, it may continue to do so for years to come. But as soon as Saudis start to believe that the promise is no longer being kept—that the oil revenues that drive the whole operation can no longer sustain domestic needs, a shift that some analysts believe could take place in the middle of this decade—then the future for the Al Saud may be precarious indeed.by Hugh Eakin


Research for this article was supported by the International Reporting Project in Washington, D.C.

  1. 1A full account of the Shia uprising can be found in Toby Matthiesen’s coming book Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t (Stanford University Press, 2013), an early draft of which was kindly shared with the author. 
  2. 2When a “Day of Rage” protest was announced for Riyadh in the spring of 2011, a single protester showed up. See Madawi Al-Rasheed, “No Saudi Spring: Anatomy of a Failed Revolution,” Boston Review, March/April 2012. 
  3. 3See Caroline Montagu, “Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector in Saudi Arabia,” The Middle East Journal, Winter 2010, p. 67. 
  4. 4America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier (Stanford University Press, 2007)
  5. 5After the Spring: Arab Youth Survey 2012 ( ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller, Dubai). 
  6. On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines—and Future
    by Karen Elliott House
    Knopf, 308 pp., $28.95

    Saudi Arabia on the Edge: The Uncertain Future of an American Ally
    by Thomas W. Lippman
    Potomac, 307 pp., $29.95

    Politics and Society in Saudi Arabia: The Crucial Years of Development, 1960–1982
    by Sarah Yizraeli
    Columbia University Press, 336 pp., $50.00

Second US drone shot down by Iran over Persian Gulf

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s state TV said Tuesday that the country’s Revolutionary Guard has captured a U.S. drone after it entered Iranian airspace over the Persian Gulf.

The report quoted the Guard’s navy chief, Gen. Ali Fadavi, as saying that the Iranian forces caught the “intruding” drone, which had apparently taken off from a U.S. aircraft carrier.

Fadavi said the unmanned Scan Eagle aircraft was now in Iran’s possession.


“The U.S. drone, which was conducting a reconnaissance flight and gathering data over the Persian Gulf in the past few days, was captured by the Guard’s navy air defense unit as soon as it entered Iranian airspace,” Fadavi said. “Such drones usually take off from large warships.”

He didn’t provide any further details nor said when the incident happened. There was no immediate comment from the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain.

If true, the seizure of the drone would be the third reported incident involving Iran and U.S. drones in the past two years.

Last month, Iran claimed that a U.S. drone had violated its airspace. Pentagon said the unmanned aircraft came under fire — at least twice but was not hit — and that the Predator was over international waters.

The Nov. 1 shooting in the Gulf was unprecedented, and further escalated tensions between the United States and Iran, which is under international sanctions over its suspect nuclear program. Tehran denies it’s pursuing a nuclear weapon and insists its program is for peaceful purposes only.

In 2011, Iran claimed it brought down a CIA spy drone after it entered Iranian airspace from its eastern borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan. The RQ-170 Sentinel drone, which is equipped with stealth technology, was captured almost intact. Tehran later said it recovered data from the top-secret drone.

In the case of the Sentinel, after initially saying only that a drone had been lost near the Afghan-Iran border, American officials eventually confirmed the plane was monitoring Iran’s military and nuclear facilities. Washington asked for it back but Iran refused, and instead released photos of Iranian officials studying the aircraft.