day: 70
arabic ability: شارلز فىشر-بوست
sanity status: Perhaps all you need to know about Saudis. This man’s beard indicates his clerical status.


1744. 1932. 1979. 1990. If you want understand Saudi Arabia today, events from these 4 years provide a good outline. (Take it from someone who’s been here over 2 months and read one relevant, non-picture book. No, not the Koran.)


In 1744, Muhammad bin Saud, founder of the Saud dynasty, made an alliance with the religious scholar, Muhammed al-Wahhab. Wahhab was a proponent of what became Wahhabism, an austere version of Sunni Islam that preaches a return to the fundamentals of the religion, looking at just the Sunna and the Koran, while stripping Islam of clerical interpretations or any rationalism (“It is written! What must you interpret?”). For his severe teaching, Wahhab had been banished from various towns prior. (As an example, he professed that adulterer/esses should be stoned to death, and that Mohammed’s memorial be destroyed since worshipping it went against Islam.)


At that time, Saud was the ruler of Diriyah, a fortified city in the Najd region whose ruins today lie just northwest of Riyadh (permit required for a visit). Arabia as a whole was still an Ottoman domain. It was many years before a pan-Arabian movement spearheaded by the Sharif of Mecca and assisted by the British (led by T.E. Lawrence) succeeded in overthrowing Ottoman rule of Arabia at the end of the Great War. (Western nations believed the Arabian sands to sit upon enormous oil reserves after discoveries made in Iran; some say WWI taught the powers about the importance of securing oil supplies.) When indepedence failed to manifest a united Arabia, Abdul-Aziz bin Saud was able to take advantage from his powerbase in Riyadh.

Abdul-Aziz’s power lay with the Ikhwan, fiercely religious Bedhouin militia and early Wahhabi converts who had been convinced that the proper worship of Islam required forgoing the nomadic way of life. The Hejaz region, the southwestern part of Arabia where Mecca is located, was the last area of the present kingdom to fall to Abdul-Aziz.* Wahhabism inspired loyalty and ideological justification for conquest for those loyal to Abdul-Aziz, but for the newly conquered, eager to forget years of Turkish rule, it offered something as well, a return to an authentically Arab version of Islam.

*He then promptly turned on the Ikhwan, with British support.

In 1932, Abdul-Aziz founded the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This was the same year that oil was discovered in Bahrain. Shortly thereafter, Abdul-Aziz granted an oil concession to Standard Oil of California, later named Chevron.* When they experienced no initial success, Texaco bought 50% of the subsidiary company, later named Aramco. The first oil was discovered just outside of Dammam 3 years after the concession was granted, whereupon Esso quickly purchased 30% of the investment, and the company that became Mobil 10%. (For those keeping score at home, that’s Chevron 30%, Texaco 30%, Esso 30%, Mobil 10%). Check out this photo.

*He had previously granted a British oil concession ten years prior while still consolidating his power in the west, but that initiative had ended without any fields discovered.

Aramco, of course, became so profitable that soon King Abdul-Aziz looked foolish for the terms he had offered the companies, and he began to threaten to nationalize Aramco; the Americans granted Saudi Arabia (the Saud family, really) a 50% stake in profits in a secret agreement called the “golden gimmick”–instead of paying taxes to the U.S. government, the oil companies paid 50% of their profit to the Saudi King.* In the mid-70’s, the Saud government initiated the Saudization of Aramco; by the ’80s it was 100% Saudi owned.

*It’s been argued that this arrangement suited the U.S. government, as they could continue to “fully back” Israel, while these “private” companies propped up the Saud regime. They point out that it was the U.S. government, not the companies’ own initiatives, that first pushed U.S. big oil into Arabia.

Oil was the basis of international support for and interest in the Saud family in their conquest of the previously little-regarded area that became the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; today it accounts for 75% of government revenues. Saudi Arabia is very conscious of maintaining oil within a certain price range following lessons learned in the ’70s and ’80s. The Oil Embargo in ’73 following Western support of Israel in the Yom Kippur/Ramadan/October* War caused dramatic price inflation. OPEC nations, assuming price inelasticity of demand for oil, got greedy and lost cohesion, neglecting to maintain oil quotas, leading to an abundance** of oil in the late ’70s and ’80s.  Western economies, meanwhile, had looked to alternate sources of energy, such as coal and nuclear power, when the prices of oil had increased so dramatically. Supply increased, demand decreased, prices plummeted and in the 1980s Saudi Arabia’s economy collapsed, along with those of most other oil-producing nations. Since the 1980s, OPEC nations have maintained greater cohesion, trying to keep prices above a certain level by advocating quotas, although Saudi Arabia has been a proponent of making sure to keep prices below a certain level as well and supply flowing.*** As the former Saudi Oil Minister Sheikh Yamani said, “the stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.”

*What’s in a name?

**“Over-abundance” depending on who you talk to.

***In 2004 the Kingdom finally eclipsed its daily production historical peak from 1980, though the world demand for energy obviously grew enormously in those interim years.


On Nov 20th 1979, Saudi preacher Juhayman al-Otaibi led a group of about 200 armed militants in a takeover of the Grand Mosque in Makkah, whereupon they proclaimed the brother-in-law of Juhayman, Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani, the “Mahdi,” or redeemer of Islam. The date was significant as its the first day of the year 1400 in the Islamic calendar. There’s a hadith, a selection from the Sunna, which foretells that on this day the messiah would reveal himself. The militants took hostage hundreds of pilgrims on hajj, commanding that oil to the United States be cut-off, contact with the West severed, and all non-Muslims expelled from the Kingdom, among other demands. It was two weeks before all the militants were dispatched and the mosque cleared, with assitance from French special forces. What made the attack especially disturbing was that al-Otaibi was from a prominent Saudi family; his former teacher became Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, or chief arbitrator of religious law and fatwas (like precedent opinions) in all of the Kingdom, the very man who had to sanction the use of violence on sacred soil first before the Saudi authorities could legitimately begin their siege to reclaim the mosque.

While none of the demands of the militants were met and all were killed, it is argued today that these insurgents in certain ways won, much in the same way that the notion of Confederate defeat has been reexamined in American history. In the 1970s, when oil was booming and Saudi Arabia was wealthier (per capita) than it has ever been, before or since, a massive project of modernization had been implemented by the Saudi regime. It would appear that the regime had little appreciation for the Islamist movement that was sweeping Saudi society at the same time. In the 1950s and 1960s, as secularists (frequently Soviet-supported) regimes in Egypt and Syria, among other places, forced out prominent Muslim opposition leaders, Saudi Arabia, rival particularly to Egypt as leader of the Arab world, had welcomed these scholars and granted them influential positions in the new Saudi universities. In the 1960s, most people in Saudi Arabia were still semi-nomadic, there was no prominent urban culture. By the late 1970s, the first generation educated in this Islamist climate was coming of-age, and they did not like what they saw: Western-educated Saudi bureaucrats supportive of Western-style development policies, embracing secularized lifestyles alien to the Wahhabist tradition. This religious revival opposed to the secularists intellectuals and bureaucrats became known as the Sahwa movement, or the “awakening.”

The Saud regime, forced to finally note this shifting social climate by the rise to prominence of religious extremists*, reacted by becoming more conservative, endowing the ulema with greater influence over society, including the education system, and providing them more financial support. In the 1980s, the mutawwa or “volunteers,” were encouraged to prominence as religious police responsible for assuring that Saudis comply with Shari’a law and Wahhabi codes of conduct. Women were made to cover their whole bodies, non-married couples seen fraternizing were subject to flogging, shops and restaurants were forced to close during times of prayer, among many other changes. King Fahd even signed a declaration assuring compliance with Shari’a law on the part of the royal family. He had already adopted the title “Protector of the Two Holy Mosques,” while mandating construction of a massive new wing to the Masjid al-Haram mosque surrounding the Ka’aba in Makkah finished in ’88.**

*The 1979 Iranian revolution and the Khomeini declaration that his was the only truly Muslim regime was also a factor.

**Whereupon a third, even more massive expansion was begun, completed in 2005. The 4th expansion, larger still, will be completed in 2020, wherupon 2.5 million worshippers will be able to simultaneously pray in the mosque. Controversy surrounds the fact that the construction has damaged a few thousand year-old buildings and archaeological sites.

That Saudis were willing to accept this social shift seems surprising (at least to me…why would anyone accept this?), but requires understanding how demographics have changed in the country. Today Saudi Arabia’s population is over 25 million, but in 1980 it was under 10 million, in 1970 under 6 million. In addition, cities only started to explode in the 1970s. The Bedouins or semi-nomads moving to urban environments, meanwhile, were familiar with more traditional modes of life and were therefore socially conservative; liberal, pro-secularist citizens became even more in the minority, confined only to areas of certain cities. The 1980s, meanwhile, were a time of economic recession in Saudi Arabia. A budget surplus had become a massive budget deficit, with the government unwilling to significantly cut social spending, even while oil revenues plummeted, lest that stoke anti-regime fervor. It was easier for them to support anti-secularist stances, blaming the Western-educated intellectuals for the failure of Saudi economic policies. The power and security of the Saud regime came from playing the intellectual and religious fields against each other, while appearing to be the unbiased, social benefactors, protectors and arbitrators above it all, dissociated with either side.

This tenuous position adopted by the royal family, however, was exposed by the events of 1990. On August 2nd, claiming Kuwait had been slant-drilling underground into Iraqi oilfields, and over-producing to keep oil prices low (which hurt an Iraqi government paying back massive Iraq-Iran war debts), and, besides, that Kuwait had been an Iraqi territory all along before British imperialist reorganization, Saddam Hussain launched an invasion. By the 4th of August, much of the “million man” Iraqi army was massing on the Saudi border, even skirmishing and firing rockets across the border, having easily toppled Kuwait. Without the funds or forces to repel this threat, the Saudi regime was forced to called upon the United States for protection. (Saddam believed that the U.S. ambassador told him that the U.S. hadn’t any interest in “Arab-Arab affairs.”)

To many Saudis and Muslims throughout the world, this act delegitimized the Saud regime; they could not accept that a Muslim regime had called for infidel forces to land within the realm of the two holy mosques (Makkah and Medinah). When prominent Muslim scholars wrote features in Saudi newspapers lauding the actions of the regime, this only served to expose the machinations of the royal family as never before. (No one believed that true Muslims would actually appreciate the arrival of the American Army, the heavy-handed approach was obvious.) Suddenly the religious field became the main source of opposition to the Saud regime and began to support subversive activities. Fundamentalist groups, including Al Qaeda, which perpetrated attacks in 2003 and 2004 in Saudi Arabia, have pointed to the arrival of U.S. troops as a prime motive for their actions. General dissatisfaction with the policies of the nation culminated in the Sahwa protests of 1995 in Riyadh and a few other cities. In reality, very few participated and the protests were soon extinguished, with all leaders imprisoned and many motivated to “recant” their positions. But, they remain significant as the first of their kind in Saudi Arabia, and while many did not directly participate, they were still sympathetic to the cause; subsequent, rival opposition movements in the Kingdom have claimed to inherit the Sahwa protest legacy, groups as diverse as Islamo-liberals demanding a constitution, to even Bin Laden and neo-jihadis in declaring death to the non-Muslim world.

Since 1990 the regime of Saudi Arabia has moved slowly back towards liberalization and has been much more careful about which members of the ulema they have thrown their support behind. Meanwhile, the steady increase in oil prices has ushered in a new era of modernization and increased government spending and social programs, while greater employment opportunities (Saudization) have contributed to a decline in general hostility towards the regime, replaced by mere disorganized frustration. Still, the regime has to be worried—if the economy goes into recession, the protests may just start up again. At the same time, opening up the country might only put Muslim extremists once more into positions of power as nationals object to secularism. The population of the nation is very young (average age around 25) and will need jobs—can the oil industry and its derivatives provide enough opportunities? Meanwhile, the leadership is incredibly old—King Abdullah is age 87, the Crown Prince Naif 78 (every subsequent king of Saudi Arabia has been a son of the nation’s founder, King Abdul Aziz, who was born in 1876!!).

The strategy for the short-to-medium term for the regime seems pretty clear: opposition can come from either the secularist left or the religious right. The prescription must be a steady show of job-producing progress, steeped in Islamist language—any pandering to the West must be kept private, any move towards secularism kept subtle, inexplicit. The path to steady economic development is maintaining a steady flow of oil to a world whose taste for petroleum must be neither quenched, nor teased. One wonders what behind-the-scenes political lobbying is going on in the world to insure that Saudi Arabia will remain among the world’s chief suppliers of energy.* After all, there’s a shitload of money being made from oil revenues in this country, and yet in Dammam and Khobar, the closest major cities to where 18% of the world’s oil is being tapped, the streets aren’t even in a state of repair. (These massive building projects in Makkah don’t account for it all.)

*Climate change? What climate change? It’s still hot in summer, cold in winter, isn’t it?

At any rate, in a world of increasing inter-connectivity, with formerly totalitarian regimes being pushed towards democratization (at least nominally), and with green energy and sustainability fashionable, we can bet that the hydrocarbon uber-rich, oligarchic and nepotistic regime (captained by octogenarians) of a nation dominated by religious fundamentalists will be heavily invested in the inertia of the status quo. When Saudi Arabia changes, so will have the world.