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Economics

If Saudi Arabia Falls

30 May 2004

If Saudi Arabia Falls….

By Gwynne Dyer

If you drew up a list of Royal Families That Were Long Overdue To Be Overthrown, the al-Saud family would rank right up there with the Bourbons and the Romanovs. The latest terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, in which twenty-two people, almost all foreigners, were killed, and three of the four Islamist attackers escaped, raises the question of whether the time of the family Saud has come round at last — and of what would happen next.

The al-Khobar slaughter was the second terrorist attack that killed foreigners in a month, and once again it came in a town where expatriates supply much of the technical expertise that keeps the Saudi Arabian oil flowing. The foreigners are starting to leave, as the terrorists intended — but that could soon force cuts in the flow of oil. Lots of native-born Saudis work in the oil industry by now, but key technical sectors still depend on foreigners.

The physical plant is vulnerable, too. Former CIA officer Robert Baer claims in his recent book, ‘Sleeping with the Devil’, that “taking down Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure is like spearing fish in a barrel.” A coordinated assault on five or more junctions in the 10,500 miles of pipeline that connect the five main Saudi oilfields could put the country out of the oil exporting business for up to two years, Baer argues. Many others would argue that the terrorists don’t need to attack the oil facilities; they can just destroy the government and inherit the oil wealth.

The main problem in Saudi Arabia is demographic: its native-born population has doubled to 18 million in the past twenty years, while its per capita income has almost exactly halved. Thirty percent of the adult male population is unemployed, and 400,000 extra young men enter the workforce each year with little hope of finding a job.

Even a democracy would be in trouble with these numbers, and Saudi Arabia is no democracy. The average monthly stipend for a run-of-the-mill prince in the Saudi ruling family is $30,000 — and there are between 7,000 and 15,000 princes. (The exact number is a state secret.) In all, the royal family skims off an estimated 40 percent of oil income before it reaches the government, and most people in Arabia know that. They are not happy about it.

The Saud family’s solution to this problem has been to wrap itself in the green banner of Islamic orthodoxy (while sending its sons to American universities and their wastrel elder brothers and uncles to London casinos and strip clubs). It cut a deal long ago in which the puritanical Wahhabi (Salafi) sect that dominated the original Saudi home base, the province of Najd, was given national control over education, public morality and much more in return for its loyal support of the regime. That deal is now all but dead.

The real reasons it is dying are economic and demographic, but the political trigger for mass disaffection was the too-close alliance of the Saudi regime with the United States. It was tolerable when the Americans were far away, or when US troops were first based in Saudi Arabia itself in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on 1990. It turned into a major irritant when the American troops didn’t go home again after 1991, for many Muslims believe that the Prophet himself forbade the presence of infidel troops in the ‘land of the two cities’ (Mecca and Medina). It became quite intolerable after the US invasion of Iraq last year.

Even in 2001, a secret opinion poll commissioned by the Saudi Arabian Interior Ministry found that 95 percent of males aged 19-34 approved of Osama bin Laden’s attack on the United States. The US invasion of Iraq made matters worse — the sight of American tanks in Baghdad is painful and humiliating for any Arab — and the announcement in May, 2003 that US troops will be withdrawn from Saudi Arabia didn’t help because nobody believed it. The uniformed American soldiers are going, but the specialists will remain (in plain clothes) along with their huge bases, and the uniformed troops can return at any time.

A slow-motion insurrection has been underway in the kingdom for two years now, and it probably has the silent support of most people under thirty. It was no coincidence that Osama bin Laden himself, like fifteen of the nineteen hijackers of 9/11, was a Saudi Arabian citizen. If the revolution comes, what will happen? Would the US seize the oil-fields?

Most people in the oil-rich Eastern Province are Shia Muslims who have long been treated as second-class citizens by the Sunnis who run the country, and some spiritual heir of Henry Kissinger would doubtless already come up with a plan to split off the Eastern Province as an American protectorate and leave the Sunnis to starve. But if the sensible people won, Washington would just leave the country alone: Islamists in power would still have 18 million people to feed, and the only way to do it is to export the oil.

People who are running whole countries have a lot to lose, and are much more open to persuasion than when they were terrorists living in basement apartments. And so what if the oil price ends up quite a bit higher? The world needed an incentive to wean it off hydrocarbon fuels. This is not an earthshaking crisis, but we may soon have to get used to calling the place just Arabia.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“The physical…wealth”; and “Even…time”)