I visited the Kingdom in May 2001 and had long conversations about the future of Saudi Arabia with several individuals. All of them were men. All of them were highly educated. All of them insisted on anonymity. Each of them also insisted that his view was not representative of Saudi public opinion anyway. Ironically, though, their views were remarkably similar to one another’s. But whether representative or not of society as a whole, or just of highly educated men, their views were interesting, intelligent, and very much worth considering—especially in light of the crisis that has developed since September 11.
I asked each person I interviewed to assess the Kingdom’s economic and political prospects. In general, they were quite pessimistic. They described the Kingdom as suffering from several serious problems—none of which are being resolved and all of which are growing worse. First and foremost of these is unemployment. In the Kingdom, male unemployment rate is estimated to be as high as 25-30%. This problem appears set to grow worse due to the population boom that the Kingdom is experiencing. It appears that the Saudi population is increasing at about 3% a year, though the exact figure is uncertain. What is clear is that Saudi high schools and universities are graduating large numbers of young people for whom there are no “suitable” jobs.
My interlocutors also noted that Saudi women have become increasingly dissatisfied. Educated young Saudi women want to work. The country’s economic contraction is impelling them to work. But there are few jobs available to Saudi women due to the Kingdom’s well-known restrictions on women, and gender segregation in the workplace. Indeed, the only professions in which large numbers of Saudi women have found work are nursing and teaching. But since most educated Saudi women reside in the Kingdom’s major cities, jobs in these two fields have become increasingly difficult to come by in them. Job openings for women in these two fields, then, are now mainly available farther and farther away from the main cities. And since women are not allowed to drive in the Kingdom, they have to be chauffeured to and from work either by a driver (who must be paid) or by their husbands. Even with a driver, the men I spoke to complain that women who work far from Riyadh spend so much time away from home that men must devote more and more of their time (including work time) to household tasks. In short, the increasing desire of educated Saudi women to work combined with the restrictions that Saudi society places on women have resulted in making life increasingly difficult for both men and women in the Kingdom.
While the Saudi men I spoke to all favor lifting the restrictions on women, they all insisted that they are very much in the minority. Most Saudi men, they said, do not want to allow Saudi women to freely enter the work force both out of religious conviction and, perhaps more tellingly, the fear that increased Saudi female employment would come at the cost of increased Saudi male unemployment.
One of the negative consequences arising from widespread unemployment and low expectations for employment among young Saudis has been increased drug use and the crime associated with it. Nor has the harsh nature of Saudi criminal punishment proven to be a deterrent to this growing problem.
Another problem resulting from difficult times, some of my interlocutors noted, is the revival of tribal and regional identification. The inability of the government to provide employment and other benefits combined with a sense that Riyadh favors one group (the Najdis) over all others has led people to rely increasingly on their tribal or regional kin. While not threatening at present, some of my interlocutors fear the impact that the growth of this trend could have for the unity of the Kingdom.
Why Haven’t These Problems Been Solved?
Why has the Saudi government been unable to deal with these problems? Because, I was told, it is corrupt, inefficient, and has the wrong priorities.
Everyone I spoke to claimed that corruption is pervasive throughout the Saudi government, especially its upper echelons. Far more weapons than are needed are purchased for the Saudi armed forces so that powerful figures can obtain commissions from these deals. Many officials have private companies on the side which sell goods and services (often in partnership with foreign firms) to their own ministries. The entourages surrounding many of the senior princes routinely use their positions to benefit their own relatives and friends. Bribery or connections are necessary to get almost anything done.
While corruption is hardly a new problem in the Kingdom, inefficiency in government is something that has become increasingly noticeable. Several of my interlocutors attribute this to a vicious dynamic. Although Saudi government ministries and agencies may have thousands of employees, those at the very top refuse to delegate decision-making, but guard it jealously to themselves. What this means is that virtually all decisions, no matter how trivial, must either be made or approved at the very highest levels. The senior princes and their staffs are often up all through the night deciding matters that would be dealt with by mid-level bureaucrats in other countries. The more time they have to spend reacting to immediate problems clearly leaves them with less time to develop strategies for dealing with the chronic, root problems which plague Saudi society—assuming they are actually interested in doing this.
But, according to most of my interlocutors, this is not the top priority for the Saudi leadership. Instead of Saudi society’s problems, the top priority for the royal family is its own problems. And these are very serious.
Despite its wealth, the Saudi government does not have the money to subsidize the swollen ranks of the royal family to the extent that it did in the heyday of high oil prices. Furthermore, my interlocutors claim, many of the seven odd thousand princes have become so indebted trying to keep up the ostentatious lifestyle they believe themselves entitled to that they cannot pay their bills. One source claimed that as many as 90% of the princes fall into this category.
While people in such circumstances would be forced into bankruptcy in other countries, he noted, the Saudi royal family protects its own from this indignity—as well as from the inconvenience of paying off creditors. As a consequence, nobody who knows which royals don’t pay their bills will extend additional credit to them. The situation has gotten so bad that Saudi businesses try to avoid accepting checks written by impecunious members of the royal family due to the high probability that they will bounce.
The royal family is reported to be focusing much of its attention on finding “suitable” positions for its younger members. There is, however, a scarcity of the former and an abundance of the latter. Both the armed forces and the government are so saturated with princes that vacancies for positions with any real authority are few and far between. And giving them positions with no authority is one more unneeded drain on the government’s budget.
The solution to this dilemma the royal family has reached, I was told, is to cajole or pressure profitable Saudi businesses run by non-royals to hire these young princes. The problem with this, the two Saudis I spoke to with close connections to the business world indicated, is that few of these young princes appear to have much talent for business. Despite this, Saudi businesses cannot really refuse when asked to hire them for fear that doing so will negatively affect their relations with what is usually their most important client—the Saudi government. And since princes must clearly be paid princely salaries, no matter how little talent for business they may have, Saudi businesses which have hired them have consequently experienced declining profitability. My friends indicated that this is a very serious and growing problem since there is a constant supply of young princes needing jobs, and because no Saudi business would dare try to get rid of a prince no matter how much of a liability he proves to be after being hired.
What Does the Future Hold?
The Saudi government’s growing corruption, inefficiency, and misplaced priorities have resulted in its being unable to prevent Saudi society’s problems from getting steadily worse. The group I spoke to all fear that if things keep going the way they are, an increasingly paralyzed Saudi government will simply be unable to deal with more and more intractable problems, not the least of which is the inability to reform itself.
In addition, all this is coming about at the same time that Saudi society has become more connected to the rest of the world than it ever has before. With access to relatively independent news sources such as Al-Jazeera and Sky TV—plus access to the internet—Saudi citizens now can readily compare the circumstances of their lives with those of people in other countries. A strong sense of relative deprivation as well as resentment has consequently developed among younger Saudis over the restricted lifestyle they lead compared to people in both the West and even neighboring Middle Eastern countries, including Iran.
Everybody I spoke to expressed the belief that things cannot go on like this much longer. To the extent that the government cannot deliver what people feel it owes them, then opposition is likely to arise. This in itself would not necessarily amount to anything, but if the Saudi government cannot solve its other problems, will it be able to suppress opposition to it? The main concern of the royal family vis-à-vis the Saudi armed forces, according to my interlocutors, has been to render it incapable of mounting a coup. They have clearly succeeded at this. But will they be able to get Saudi soldiers to fire upon their fellow citizens “if necessary,” especially if they share the same grievances? It is when armies won’t do this, several noted, that the governments they are supposed to protect fall apart.
Some I spoke with said this was irrelevant since American armed forces would protect the Saudi monarchy against its internal opponents, just like it did against Saddam Hussein in 1990-91. Others insisted that while the U.S. government could be expected to intervene militarily to defend the Kingdom from external attack, Congress and the American public would not permit American intervention to defend the Saudi monarchy against its internal opponents. All agreed that if the U.S. did intervene, the monarchy would lose all legitimacy and would be weaker and more vulnerable than ever. The monarchy would inevitably fall after this, though perhaps not quite as quickly if the U.S. refused to intervene in the face of rising domestic opposition.
And what would come afterward? Most thought that it was likely to be something so virulently anti-Western, anti-democratic, and Islamic fundamentalist that it would make Ayatollah Khomeini himself look tame by comparison. Indeed, the new regime might even try to spread its brand of Islamic revolution to Iran, as well as other neighboring countries. Whether it tried this or not, it would certainly expel the Americans and destroy both the royal family and all those connected with them. Like the Taliban, it would bring misery to the country for many, many years. This is not a prospect that the group I spoke to was happy about at all.
Is There Any Hope?
Can this fate be avoided? Nobody in the group thought that democratization was the answer. They insisted that their society was simply not ready for it. If elections were held in the Kingdom, they believe that most Saudis would vote for authoritarian forces, probably of the Islamist variety, at this point in time. Any external pressure on the Kingdom to democratize would only be seen as a plot to somehow increase American and Western domination over the country. The Saudi royal family has no intention of allowing any sort of elections anyway.
A few even went so far as to say that the appointment of the majlis al-shura, touted by some in the West for being the beginning of democratization or even the embodiment of “desert democracy,” was actually intended by the Saudi royal family as a clever means of discrediting democracy. In the view of all my interlocutors, most members of the majlis are distinguished only for being especially incompetent and inept. Some believe that by appointing them, the royal family sought to inculcate the idea that non-royals cannot govern effectively, and so ordinary citizens need the royal family to protect them from one another. None expect these appointed members of the majlis to push for democratization.
So if salvation through democratization is unlikely, then what does the future hold? Some in the group have no hope at all. They believe that the Saudi monarchy will fall, and that what comes after it will be far worse. One even said that many people were preparing for this by sending as much money out of the country as they can while there is still the opportunity to do so.
Others, though, believe that there may be a way out of the mess that the country has gotten into: Although the royal family as a whole is not held in high regard, some members of it are. Some in the group felt that the then Crown Prince, Abdallah (who is now King), is a reformer. Others, though, think that while his heart may be in the right place, Abdallah will not be able to overcome the pervasive corruption that has become so firmly entrenched in the government—including, they all said, in his own entourage. And even with the best will in the world, it will be extremely difficult for him to sack the incompetent and inept among his own brothers.
A decade later, the Saudi royal family remains firmly in charge of the Kingdom. But the problems described above remain as well.