COVER

THE VEILED KINGDOM

SAUDI ARABIA IS MODERNIZING WHILE STILL TRYING TO MAINTAIN A STRICT MUSLIM CODE

Michael Snider June 25 2001
COVER

THE VEILED KINGDOM

SAUDI ARABIA IS MODERNIZING WHILE STILL TRYING TO MAINTAIN A STRICT MUSLIM CODE

Michael Snider June 25 2001

THE VEILED KINGDOM

SAUDI ARABIA IS MODERNIZING WHILE STILL TRYING TO MAINTAIN A STRICT MUSLIM CODE

COVER

To most outsiders, Saudi Arabia is a stable

and modern nation—rich, successful and

influential. Known primarily for its vast oil

wealth, it has developed strong economic

ties with Western countries, including Canada. In a re-

gion where conflict seems endless, it is also seen as a political ally, allowing 600,000 allied troops into the conn-

try during the Persian ( hilf War a decade ago. Yet Saudi

Arabia is an extremely closed society, run by the Saudi royal family in concert with religious leaders. Today, Saudi Arabia’s rulers face constant pressure from their subjects as they grapple with a seemingly insurmountable problem: how to maintain their iron grip, preserve the country’s strict Islamic and tribal traditions, and still press ahead with economic and political reforms.

'I he roots of that quandary date back 60 years. Saudi Arabia was a recently unified Islamic desert kingdom when the discovery in 1938 of vast oil deposits in the deeply conservative country brought Western interests to develop those reserves. A further burst of rapid development in the 1970s and 1980s, fuelled largely by skyrocketing oil prices, forced Saudi Arabia to confront even more changeas the country acquired all the trappings of modern infrastructure.

But change brought friction and resentment, with the royal family controlling much of the economy in a country where unemployment is rampant and opportunities for the middle class curtailed.

There have been superficial reforms. Religious dissent, meanwhile, continues to grow. Within Saudi Arabia’s borders lie Mecca and Medina, the holiest of Muslim cities. Mecca, birthplace of the prophet Mohammed, is the city towards which Muslims around the world pray five times daily; Medina is where Mohammed is entombed. Islam is ingrained in all aspects of the country’s culture, and the Saudi justice system is a strict form of Sharia, Islam’s sacred law. But extremist religious leaders have strongly criticized the royal family over Saudi Arabia’s reliance on the West for economic development and external security.

The U.S. military presence, ostensibly to check the ever-present threat from neighbouring Iraq, is a constant sore point. Some leaders also believe that the six million foreigners in the kingdom are corrupting the faithful. The monarchy has made efforts to “Saudi-ize” the workforce by offering employment training to citizens. That strategy, experts say, is failing, primarily because foreign manual labour is cheaper than hiring locally, and in many respects is also more reliable. In higher positions, many Saudis do not want to work as subordinates to foreign specialists, who by nature of their expertise are often the bosses. “The hierarchical view of jobs,” writes Daryl Champion, a research scholar at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, “dictates that nothing less than a position of authority, status and respect is honourable.”

Saudi Arabia is also facing a population explosion that is fuelling the ranks of the extremists. Experts estimate that nearly half of the Saudi people are below the age of 17, most of them unemployed and more inclined to listen to radical messages. There are signs of increasing violence. After the execution of a political dissident in August, 1995, a building belonging to the U.S.-trained Saudi National Guard was the target of a bombing. And after four Saudis accused of the attack were executed the following May, a U.S. military housing complex was levelled by another blast, killing 19 Americans and injuring more than 400. Reports last week indicated 13 Saudis belonging to a militant Hezbollah group will be indicted for the attack.

Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler because of his half-brother King Fahd’s ill health, is seen by some Saudis as the country’s best chance of avoiding wider unrest. “He’s a very devout Muslim, one with whom traditional Saudis are comfortable,” says Middle East expert Judith Yophe, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for National Strategic Studies. “But he’s also seen as a reformer.” It’s a tough balancing aa, for a ruler caught between demands for change and pressure to turn back the clock.

Michael Snider