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Saudi Arabia: Trouble in the making?


Two recent articles discuss the situation in the Saudi monarchy. One says the situation is bad, the other says the situation is much worse than that. A Forbes magazine commentary recently painted the following bleak picture of Saudi Arabia:

Turki bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, a prominent dissident now in exile in Cairo, issued an open letter to his fellow royals, urging them to abandon their desert fiefdom for greener pastures. According to the prince, the current social compact between the House of Saud and its subjects had become untenable, with the government no longer able to "impose" its writ on the people and growing grassroots discontent at the royals "interfering in people's private life and restricting their liberties." His advice? That King Abdullah and his coterie flee the Kingdom before they are overthrown--and before their opponents "cut off our heads in streets."
Grassroots prosperity, meanwhile, has headed in the other direction. Since the oil boom of the 1970s, per capita income in Saudi Arabia has constricted precipitously, falling from $28,000 in the early 1980s to below $7,000 in 2001. In other words, average Saudis have experienced a devastating reversal of economic fortune, even as the royal cohort that rules over them has become more numerous, indulgent and bloated.

In contrast, a recent Economist article, When kings and princes grow old, about the Saudi succession, studiously and apparently deliberately ignores Turki Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud's warning entirely and paints the following fairly rosy picture:

... Its $420 billion economy faces little risk of losing its place as the biggest in the Middle East, given steady oil reserves and production, around $150 billion in annual energy exports and a strengthening world oil market. The country's net foreign reserves still nearly equal its GDP. Economists expect growth to accelerate slowly from around 4% this year, ensuring steadily rising living standards.

These are seemingly impressive figures. Indeed, the Saudi economy is expected to grow 3.8% in 2010, but that is evidently in nominal terms. Since there is inflation of 5%, the economy is actually shrinking as the population grows.

Contrary to the assertion of the Economist, the Saudi GDP is not the largest in the Middle East. The following are some CIA estimates for 2009:
CountryReal GDP*Nominal GDP*Real Growth








Saudi Arabia












* In billions. "Real GDP" is adjusted for purchasing power parity. "Nominal GDP" is GDP at the current official exchange rate.

Turkey has a larger economy than Saudi Arabia any way it is measured. Iran has a larger economy in terms of purchasing power. In terms of real per capita GDP, Qatar, with $121,700, is second in the world. Saudi Arabia with a GDP of about $20,000 is ranked 60, but Israel, with only 7.5 million people, and (until 2010) no developed energy resources, has a GDP of over $200 billion and a per capita real GDP of about $28,400 and is ranked 48 in the world. There are no data on the distribution of wealth in Saudi Arabia. That is probably the most problematic and threatening aspect of Saudi economics. There is evidently a very large income differential between the royal family and the poorest classes (see also this NYT article from 2008).

It may be true, as the Economist notes, that Saudi Arabia sent 200,000 students to study abroad. But that is perhaps because of the highly unsatisfactory state of Saudi universities. Only 85% of males and 70% of females over the age of 15 are literate according to the CIA estimate.

The Economist article does caution that the succession is uncertain, but it claims:

Most Saudis expect that their ruling family will, as it usually has, reach quiet consensus on whom to crown, assuming that King Abdullah and Prince Sultan depart in reasonably short order. Aside from the 1992 royal decree tipping the "best qualified" prince to rule (a term that in Arabic can mean either the most virtuous or the most capable), there are some established guidelines. Traditions of Muslim kingship suggest that the line should pass through brothers of one generation in order of age, before descending to the next...

Yet with their unique political system looking increasingly anomalous in the modern world, Saudis are beginning to worry about what might follow if the al-Sauds fail to agree...

Neither analysis mentions some other ominous factors. The specter of Shi'ite Iran has frightened the Saudis, not least because of a restive Shi'ite minority in south-east Saudi Arabia, where its oil reserves are concentrated. Not only Shi'ites threaten Saudi stability. From the first, it seems that the main goal of Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden may have been to overthrow and supplant the Saudi monarchy. Bin Laden's 1996 Fatwa was significantly entitled "Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places". In it he writes, among other things,

They stood up tall to defend the religion; at the time when the government misled the prominent scholars and tricked them into issuing Fatwas (that have no basis neither in the book of Allah, nor in the Sunnah of His prophet (Allah's Blessings and Salutations may be on him)) of opening the land of the two Holy Places for the Christian armies...

Both analyses agree that there are problems and signs of increasing instability in Saudi Arabia,. This cannot be good news for the United States, because Saudi Arabia is its prime ally in the Gulf region, and the Americans count on Saudi backing in the war in Afghanistan and in Iraq, though they don't always get such backing.

The U.S. government should be devoting much more attention to the problem of Saudi Arabia. After there is an Iranian-style revolution there, and U.S. administration officials will again be "surprised" as they were by the Iranian revolution, it will be much too late.

It is easier to say that something must be done, however, than to decide what ought to be done. Sad experience shows that any well-meaning reforms can result in a counter-coup by conservative religious forces. That counter-reaction was disastrous to 19th century Ottoman Turkish attempts at reform, and it was the undoing of the Pahlevi regime in Iran. As Azar Nafisi recounts in her books, "Reading Lolita in Tehran" and "Things I have been silent about," the liberated, secularized and Westernized students of Iran wrought their own destruction by working tirelessly in support of Ayatolla Ruholla Khomeini. It was enough for them that he hated the United States and the wicked Zionists. They knew about his sermons and his book about the Islamic State, but they were willing to believe his unabashed lies claiming he would not seek political office, because that is what they wanted to believe.

What reform may not excite the conservatives to violent reaction? What reform may not release the pent up fury of a partially liberated group? Allowing women to vote or drive an automobile? Abolishing the virtue police? Ensuring literacy for females as well as males? Improving the lot of the Shi'a minority?

There is one reform, perhaps that is essential, and that is allowing for a more equitable distribution of wealth, and reinvesting the oil revenues in industry, infrastructure and education. But even that may be dangerous. Some religious conservatives look upon any progress as dangerous. For with industrialization will come a larger middle class and more demands for equality of the sexes. In his book, "In the Anglo-Arab Labyrinth," Elie Kedourie described one source of Arab unrest and resentment of the Ottoman Turks. The Arabs were stirred up by the nefarious Turkish plan to build a railroad to Hejaz. The railroad would of course increase Turkish control in Saudi Arabia, but it would also bring with it dangerous progress. A similar reaction had greeted the introduction of the printing press in Ottoman Turkey itself. That devilish novelty was allowed for Jews and Greeks. When it was introduced for Turks belatedly in 1729, it was quickly suppressed in 1742 and was not allowed again until 1784. In more recent times, the Saudi monarchy was seriously challenged over the dangerous introduction of television:

Former King Faisal was assassinated in 1975 by his nephew, whose brother had died during protests against the introduction of television.

Conservatives have also condemned satellites and camera phones.

That quote from a Saudi government press briefing should give us a measure of the problems faced by reform initiatives in Saudi Arabia.

Ami Isseroff

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Replies: 4 comments

Excellent analysis. Compared to recent articles, this has less political propaganda and more insight and illumination of complex geo-political issues of the region. I call for more articles like this one.

Posted by Kiev500 @ 07/20/2010 07:31 AM CST

All that potential is written here indicates hostility, envy, hatred
For Saudi Arabia

Posted by ul-jubail @ 09/19/2010 04:24 AM CST

I think that Saudi Arabians are exhausted being excellent host & having too many guest in their country of exterior religion which is not in the best interest of their country in UN geographical maps.

They are one of the nice countries to have invested in their son's education from their nation who were much more refined, kind, excellent students in USA & also navigated through difficult cultural social situations with aplomb.

Their educational system appears to be quite the contrary of being antiquated compared to Texas & most of USA! Engineering students were brilliant, bright, & seemed to breeze through their academics.

The parallel loss of the Shah of Iran weakened the morale of Saudia Arabia
as two pro American countries in the 70's of Carter diplomacey.

Potholes politics: Televised USA cases. Royal families in Europeon losses
of multi faction military non indicted factions through Parliament.

Yugoslavian Bosnian: Anglo Saxon Moslems vs. authentic desert kings.
Asian Indian Moslems do not appear to have full grip on understanding the
Moslem cultures but some kind of Arabic art symbol which is flying dagger
in their personality. They appear as a culture which never grew up monitored by curry spiced franchise fine arts cultures.

Desert nations should have invested in buying the Bosnian scientist & other prisoners since they have the best prisons & hosts for Iraqui prisoners which appear to be quite nice & pleasant accommodations. More profitable to invest in a Bosnian scientist handsome nation than USA Louisiana tire treads of underground Russian corruption with lilting accents.

Also, Saudia Arabians were treated very unkindly by American journalist in an interview with king: Guillotining sentences by female journalist. Interrupting the guest until his expressions appeared in a head light eye exam of swinging gestapo light with gauntlet punitive disciplining the actual KING!
He handled that interview with amazing reserve facing American dog lb face
Anglo Saxon American. The American was extremely rude to the guest & also
not educated to interview a king whose country enabled more southern state expatriate to return home as millionaires. The opportunity would never have been available in USA, nor today. I think that S. A. do not want to be foster homes for Americans. Americans have greatly admired their ability to assess unsavory leaders, Idi Amin, & reconstruct his life to a Moslem citizen. I saw him in person years ago in a parade in W. Africa, as an expatriate. He was wearing a uniform & body guards were Amazon females not necessarily males in close perimeters appearing to be about 6 ft 5 from a distance.

Americans have greatly complimented the safety of living in Saudia Arabia & extended tourist to 8 years as opposed to 2-3 in Africa. Multi compliments of Americans feeling much safer in S. A. than in USA.....

Also, art work is nice, pop up Christmas cards are just extremely beautiful & clever designs.

Tall vertical cards with camels & lovely "baseball cards" (term) one would cherish forever.

Saudia Arabians have UFOs which are almost extinct in USA from supposedly being shot out of orbit by unsupervised cretin bases. UFOs are important for equine life.

The news of sad family events in royal families noted across the world...a House Divided, equivalent to War of the Roses British history, always a mordrid lemon in the family, equivalent to Oklahoma state in USA, prehistoric
dysfunctional factions of barbarians & clinical embarassment for anyone, period. Village factions.

Mecca: Outstanding articles in National Geographic historically which was enlightning & spiritually edifying equivalent to crusades.

Most expatriates respect the Moslem religion because of the privacey & respectfulness of the culture colonizing this continent with Moslem religion was more effective than Christianity.

Excellent mathematicians. Americans are not excellent mathematicians. Rarely,
do American's days add up.

Also, I had a miracle experience at a petting zoo as a visitor. Mexican, of course, with kids in front of me. I noted a lovely camel resting to my left, single camel. I had great pianist concentration, foreign student in two other countries, & spoke to this camel in non-words, 'Rise!' (in the name of our Lord.) only in my thoughts pin pointed to this lovliest camel. I am a pianist, also.

This lovliest camel immediately rose! I just couldn't believe it! I had insightful knowledge of a relative, top racehorse breeders entrepreneur baron
in my family, who owned 196 franchises. This was not just a mammal but the first camel that I had seen in years...The other tourist were meandering around the fabulous tent zoo but I will never forget the instant energy of this camel rising. I graciously 'thanked' this lovely guest in my country
in a smile. This was one of the most memorable events of my entire life that I cherish, greatly. I even started working on a short story.

A few years later, I was standing next to a horse for sale & prayed for this dignified gentleman. And received two fold wisdom. I knew instantly this horse's lineage, ie, campaign military civil war horse, etc. I turned to the owner & questioned her regarding the history. I was correct! Horse sense
knowledge, a prophecy of archives knowledge. There are great gifts.

One of the greatest errors Americans have created is failing to "thank" other countries who have greatly prospered USA. Hostile Embassies (trailer court)
transactions & the sweetness of nations seems to be strained because of bold
American pell grants, aggressive women, very arrogant Americans with very high error rates.

Former official diplomatic expatriate.
B. G.

B. G.

Posted by BG @ 12/13/2010 08:54 AM CST

please, look at my story and cv photos section in arabic www.facebook.com/israeltwin

Posted by majid almajid @ 01/17/2011 07:11 AM CST

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