In the last couple of weeks, Saudi Arabia has seen an unprecedented shake-up of the old system by Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the 32-year old crown prince, who may be the first of King Abdel Aziz’s grandsons to rule the oil-rich kingdom, as the throne historically passed among his sons. While some of MBS’s moves, like allowing women into sports stadiums or granting them the right to drive are welcome, others like arresting several prominent princes and ministers and turning Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel into a detention centre do not bode well for the future stability of Saudi Arabia or the region.
I grew up in Saudi Arabia. Expats, like my parents, marvelled at the thought of not having to lock their front doors, as reports of theft or other crimes were few and far between. Certainly, the calm and security came at a price. Saudis did not have the liberty to speak out or criticise the royal family, leave alone participate in the affairs of government. But they were well cared for.
A relatively small population with enormous oil wealth meant that the average Saudi had a highly subsidised lifestyle. With no taxes to pay, Saudis could rely on the government for all basic amenities such as healthcare, education and even home loans.
As for the expats, repressive Saudi laws didn’t always apply, particularly in the case of those coming from the West. Compound living provided women a respite from having to cover up in hijabs or abayas and country-club style community centres circumvented the otherwise strict gender segregation practised in the country.
At the ARAMCO compound in Dhahran (in the oil-rich eastern province of Saudi Arabia), where I grew up, the largest of its kind, women were allowed to drive or jog in shorts if they fancied, Halloween was celebrated with greater fanfare than in London, and there was even a pork store for its largely non-Muslim residents. In some ways, it was more like living in a suburb of Texas or Arizona than in Jeddah or Riyadh.
Western expats could not only live in compounds disconnected from the local culture, they had the added advantage of being at the top of the expat hierarchy. Hence, while the colour of an expat’s passport often determined what he was paid or which school his children could attend, the colour of one’s skin determined treatment by the authorities. For instance, my very light-skinned aunt could go out with her head bare and escape the wrath of the mutawa (or religious police) because she passed as western, and the mutawa were far more lax with western women than they were with Pakistanis, Indians or Filipinas.
To be sure, it was never in western interest to see Saudi Arabia evolve into a democracy. The compounds that allowed them to bypass Saudi laws would most likely not have been plausible if the average Saudi began to have a say in the affairs of the state. Nor would it have been possible for the British and Americans to sustain their defence industries by selling equipment worth billions of dollars to Saudi Arabia ($87 Billion in 2015 alone). Defence equipment that Saudi Arabia never really needed, but would buy with the understanding that in the event of a revolt the royalty could rely on its western backers to step in.
Saudi oil moreover was crucial for the stability of global economics. The oil embargo of 1973 had sent the oil price soaring and created a realisation in western capitals that a pliable leadership in Saudi Arabia was essential to their economic interests. King Faisal, who then ruled Saudi Arabia and had a reputation for living more simply than other royals, had, in preparation for the Yom Kippur War, dared to use oil as a weapon to coerce western capitals on foreign policy. In 1975, he was mysteriously assassinated by his nephew.
No subsequent Saudi king attempted confrontation with the West. With the United States particularly, Saudi royalty maintained exceptionally close ties. Following the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979, Saudi Arabia allied even more closely with the West, fearing a similar religiously-inspired revolution at home. From 1980 to 1988, Saudi Arabia bankrolled Iraq’s war against Iran, with the blessing of western powers. And yet, in 1990, when the US turned on Iraq for invading Kuwait, Saudi Arabia was again very much at the forefront of the US coalition.
US troops descended on Saudi Arabia, ostensibly to protect its oilfields, with armed American female troops freely driving on Saudi streets, defying Saudi law openly and not just inside walled expat compounds. It caused resentment from many quarters, and inspired some Saudi women to follow suit and take to the streets of Riyadh in their own cars. The Saudi women were arrested and fired from their jobs but the female American troops appeared to be in total control and untouchable.
Some believe the allowances granted to the western troops and the cloistered resentment emanating from the Saudi decision to join a western coalition, not just against a fellow Muslim country but also a fellow Arab country previously considered a close ally, led to the appeal of Al-Qaeeda and the likes of Osama bin Laden within Saudi Arabia. Yet even after September 11, 2001, when fifteen of the nineteen hijackers turned out to be Saudi citizens, the United States and Saudi Arabia continued to enjoy a very close relationship. The Bush-Cheney leadership was more interested in protecting their commercial interests and waging yet another war on Iraq than they were in investigating Saudi links to the 9/11 terror attack.
It wasn’t until Barrack Obama became President and John Kerry started making overtures to Iran that the Saudi-American relationship began to sour. And thus, while much of the Muslim world was dreading Trump’s victory in the 2016 US election, Saudis were rooting for it. For his part, Trump has much in common with the Saudi royals, a taste for gaudy gold furniture, autocratic tendencies, multiple wives and an utter disregard for the rights of women. It isn’t surprising that he gets along with the ambitious young Saudi crown prince. Nor is it surprising that the US and Saudi Arabia appear to be once again teaming up against Iran.
What is different this time, however, is that this historical geopolitical alignment is being questioned within the many arms of US government that formulate foreign policy. What is also different this time is that the line of succession to the Saudi throne is contested. MBS is trying desperately to consolidate power by purging potential rival claimants to the throne but his battle is far from over. The Saudi royalty, in spite of its very large size, has survived thus far by remaining united, and only occasionally had to sideline a renegade prince.
The rifts and factions that will undoubtedly be created in the wake of MBS’s power grab are quite likely to create alternate power centres within the royal family and certain key institutions, such as the National Guard, historically under the Abdullah branch of the royal family, but recently stripped of its leadership. In such an eventuality, would MBS be able to rely on Trump to step in for him, as past Saudi royals expected from their American friends? Or would the rifts within the US government and Donald Trump’s unique relationship with other branches of his own government preclude that possibility? It may finally be time for Saudi Arabia to manage its own succession battle, free from western influence.