President Obama visited Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on January 27 to pay his respects to the late King Abdullah and establish ties with newly reigning King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, age 78. The importance of Saudi petroleum and regional security concerns arising from matters like the Islamic State (ISIS) problem factored into the president’s discussions with King Salman. Governed by a traditional monarchy, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is home to 16% of world proved oil reserves. It is the world’s largest exporter of petroleum. Saudi Arabia accounts for around 19% of current world crude oil exports with 68% of shipments going to countries in Asia, 19% to the Americas and about 10% to Europe.
Until the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire controlled the area along Saudi Arabia’s west coast, including the Muslim holy sites of Mecca and Medina, and much of the coast on the eastern side. The interior, a land of unforgiving desert, was the domain of fractious Bedouin tribes. Over time, the al-Saud clan rose to supremacy. After a 30 year campaign of conflict and tribal alliances secured through marriages, its shrewd leader, Ibn Saud, unified the country in 1932. It had been a long process, a previous attempt by the al-Saud tribe to make a state had been wrecked by the Ottomans in 1818.
The House of Saud and the austere clerics of Wahhabi Islam have a relationship dating back hundreds of years. Originally reformist, the Wahhabi school of Islam urged the nomadic Bedouins to practice a pure form of Islam free of heresies, to follow a literal interpretation of the Koran. The resulting version of Sharia (Islamic) law set a stern moral code. Although considered to be ultraconservative and intolerant by many outsiders, Wahhabism appeared to be a good fit with the stark realities of life faced by the desert tribes.
The Saudi population is conservative in all things social, political and religious. As a consequence, Saudi Arabia is widely criticized for its poor human rights record. There are restrictions on freedom of speech, gender inequality is unrestrained. Saudi women live under a male guardianship system, they are banned from driving. Court proceedings are closed in capital cases. There is detention without judicial oversight. Public beheadings and floggings are common.
After oil was discovered in 1938, the economic environment began to change. By the 1970s, Saudi Arabia was in an era of breakneck development. The nation, with a population of around six million and a literacy rate in the range of 15%, began pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into education, communications, transportation, electricity generation, healthcare, water desalination and industrial infrastructure. The ruling monarchy was the driving force, the conservative nature of Saudi society remained in place as the development tide changed the country.
The modernizing kings often had to wage political battles with the conservative clerics resisting change in a highly traditional society. Currently, Saudi Arabia has a population of 30 million, it is over 82% urban. The country’s 8.4 million labor force is about 80% expatriate. Under the late King Abdullah, the government continued to push slow, steady reform in a society with a large proportion of highly literate, restless young people and a very conservative religious establishment. The government headed off the discontent raised by the Arab Spring movement by pouring $130 billion into the economy.
The country remains a focal point of the Muslim world. Approximately two million pilgrims make the Hajj visit to the holy sites in the Kingdom on an annual basis. As part of its religious outreach, Saudi Arabia funded the establishment of mosques teaching Wahhabi Islam in other countries. Critics say its theology attracts the disaffected, providing most of the intellectual foundation motivating extremist groups such as al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram. The effort has plagued its sponsor, Saudi Arabia was hit by a series of al-Qaeda attacks in 2003-05.
What happens next is of interest to oil dependent counties. Will Saudi Arabia transform itself over time into a constitutional monarchy? How far and fast can gender equality measures be pushed in conservative Saudi society? Although Saudi Arabia is majority Sunni, the Shias make up about 15% of population. They feel they have long been treated as second-class citizens. There are regional concerns, the war in Syria, the problem of ISIS, instability in Yemen and Iraq plus Iran’s regional aspirations.
Thus far in the progression process, Saudi rulers have managed to confound their critics as the Kingdom adapted. In a nation where religion, state and Bedouin tradition are tightly interwoven, it has been easy for foreign observers to remain apprehensive. With its growing youthful population, the need for economic diversification and dicey gender issues, Saudi Arabia’s transition still has a way to go. The ruling family faces a dilemma, how to implement change while holding society together. In other nations, it has been a most difficult thing to do.