By Farooq Sulehria
February 22, 2011
Libya, Yemen and Bahrain are showing all the symptoms of the Tunisia syndrome. “Two down, twenty to go” is a slogan gaining currency on Arab streets. A demonstration in Jeddah is making the rounds in the blogosphere. Will the virtual spark in Jeddah set the whole desert on fire? Apparently, the ingredients necessary for a revolt (parties, unions, social movements) are missing. However, Saudi history is replete with mutinies, attempted coups d’etat, regional unrest, and struggles for reform. But the present Saudi dynasty has survived subversion every time. Will the House of Saud weather the storm?
In January 1902, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, not merely wrestled back Riyadh from rival clan, Rashid, but re-established the Al-Saud dynasty, for the third time. The first was established in the 18th century, but the Ottomans defeated it before it could extend its rule across the Arabian Peninsula. Revived in the 19th century, the second dynasty collapsed mainly because of internal strife.
As the members of the House of Saud became jetsetters, their commitment to Wahhabism evaporated. Wahhabism is attributed to 18th-century preacher Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, a revivalist zealot who was appalled to see Arabia sunk in corruption. The solution, he concluded, would be a return to puritan Islam, by force if necessary.
The present Saudi state would not have come easily had ibn Saud not courted the Ikhwan. Starting in 1912, the Ikhwan movement consisted of Bedouins who accepted the fundamentals of Wahhabism. However, British subsidies also played a key role in the defeat of ibn Saud’s rivals. When ibn Saud had subdued his rivals, the Ikhwan themselves became a challenge. By 1926 the Ikhwan had as many as one hundred settlements across the country and the ability to mobilise 50,000 to 60,000 armed men, and they were thus a grave threat.
But the Ikhwan were defeated in a series of battles in the following two years. Again, motorised transport provided by the British proved great help in the subduing of the Ikhwan, with the British Royal Air Force itself playing a role.
On Sept 23, 1932, ibn Saud proclaimed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. By the time he subdued the country, the Saudis had staged 40,000 public executions and 350,000 amputations.
On Feb 14, 1945, came the historic meeting between Roosevelt and ibn Saud, during which the oil-for-security relationship was established between the two sides. Ibn Saud died on Nov 9, 1953, and was succeeded by Crown Prince Saud.
In 1954, there was an isolated mutiny in the army. Communist-inspired pamphlets were found circulating in Al-Hasa in 1955. Anti-monarchy slogans were found even on palace walls in Riyadh. In 1956, workers of the Arabian-American Oil Company (Aramco) went on strike for three days. The strike was mercilessly crushed, with three activists beaten to death. Two hundred people were arrested.
When Gamal Abdel Nasser visited Riyadh in 1956, thousands turned up to welcome him. During the Suez crisis later that year, the Saudis used oil as a weapon for the first time, though reluctantly. Amid pressure from the USA, power passed to Crown Prince Faisal in March 1958. Faisal introduced some social reforms. Slavery was abolished. The need for girls’ education was emphasised. In 1965 television was introduced.
Eclipsed by Nasserism, the Saudi dynasty remained marginalised in the Arab world until the six-day Arab-Israel war. Two factors played a decisive role in the improvement of Saudi fortunes. First, the nationalists’ failure to bring about meaningful social change. Secondly, an unheard-of petrodollars rush. Between 1965 and 1975, the Saudi GDP rose from 10.4 billion riyals to 164.53 billion, enabling Faisal to lavishly increase disbursement of government revenues, stimulating business activity and benefiting merchants.
Petrodollars were not merely transforming the desert’s architectural outlook, emerging billionaires were forging new ties with global capital. Roughly 84,000 “high net-worth” Saudis invested a staggering $860 billion in American companies. The Texas-based Bush family greatly benefited from Saudi investments. The oil weapon used during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war improved the Saudi image in the Arab world. In January 1975 Kissinger warmed that the United States would use military force if the oil embargo threatened to produce “some actual strangulation of the industrialised world.”
This US-Saudi friction was temporary. Already, in March 1974, the Saudi threat to leave OPEC had been pivotal in keeping prices low, demonstrating Saudi commitment to imperialism. On March 25, 1975, Faisal was assassinated, and his brother Khaled became king. During Khaled’s reign, which ended on his death in 82, contradictions between the Islamic facade and affluence started worsening.
Two events symbolised it. Mishaal, a prince, eloped with a lover, Muhalla. They were caught while escaping from Saudi Arabia. Both were beheaded. On Nov 20, 1979, the Grand Mosque in Mecca was taken over by armed men led by Juhaiman bin Muhammad Utaibi. The bloody drama costing hundreds of lives ended on Dec 5 as Juhaiman’s band surrendered.
The Saudis funded Iraq against Iran (by $25 billion) and the Afghan Mujahedeen fighting the Soviet Red Army. When Fahd succeeded Khaled, oil prices had declined and a period of austerity had arrived. In 1985, for the first time since 1972, electricity and gas prices were increased by 70 per cent. Ordinary Saudis resented the hike.
Deportation of illegal immigrant workers meant that in 1985-86, 300,000 were bundled off. Social and economic divisions began to appear. Middle-class youths were becoming jobless and frustrated. Some responded to Osama bin Laden.
On Aug 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Over 50,000 US troops arrived, leading to a tense debate in Saudi Arabia. The central questions were: can Saudis get non-Muslims’ help against Muslims? Can a government that receives such help be Islamic? Mecca University’s Dr Safar al-Hawali’s taped speeches and Riyadh University’s Salman al-Awdah’s lectures began to find mass hearing.
On Nov 6, 1990, 45 women violated the driving ban in Riyadh. The religious police, the Mutawwa, called them “communist whores.” The ulema blamed this act on the presence of US troops that brought Western culture with them. The groups associated with bin Laden’s Advice and Reform Committee (ARC), appeared as the real oppositionist challenge.
In 1996, bombs exploded near a US military mission in Riyadh and Al-Khobar Towers, killing many Americans. In 2000, a Saudi airliner en route to London was hijacked by two Saudis. Their demands were schools, hospitals, welfare. Having eliminated secular opposition in the 1950s, the Saudis were now facing religious fanatics whom they pampered and continue pampering all across the Muslim world. These fanatics point out Saudis’ corruption and consider further Islamisation of the society as a solution to all ills.
But the democratic wave that has swept the Arab world is secular in outlook. Most importantly, it is peaceful as if the Arab world has learnt about the futility of Al-Qaeda methods. None of this is a good omen for the House of Saud. Even if it avoids another jolt, it will survive as a besieged fortress.
The writer is a freelance contributor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: The News, Pakistan