Sympathy for the Sauds

I’ve always been confused by the US alliance with Saudi Arabia. Its a state with values abhorrent to many Americans, and it seems like we don’t get much practical value out of the alliance.

This essay on Saudi history, politics, and economics by Matt Lakeman makes the situation more comprehensible. I still don’t know that I want the alliance, but I can now see how so many US presidents have continued with it without necessarily being stupid, crazy, or corrupt. In short, they think that most of the realistic alternatives are worse. Some highlights:

Before starting this research, I had the same perception as Wood that the Saudi economy is essentially what he calls a “petrol-rentier state.” Basically, Saudi Arabia sits on top of a giant ocean of easily-accessed oil which they suck out of the ground and sell at enormous profit to prop up the rest of their extremely inefficient economy and buy the loyalty of their own people and foreign powers. Saudi Arabia is the wealthiest large state in the Middle East today by sheer virtue of geographic luck rather than any innovation or business acumen on the part of its people.

And after doing my research, all of the above is… basically true.

But all of that should also be true of Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, Libya, and a few other countries which are also situated on giant oceans of oil but are far poorer than Saudi Arabia.

Economically, Saudi Arabia deserves little credit for its success. Politically, Saudi Arabia deserves a tremendous amount of credit for enabling its economic success. 

Dealing with the resource curse is always challenging, and foreign ownership is an additional challenge. How did they manage it?

the Sauds struck a clever balance between being too aggressive and too placating of the foreigners operating their oil wells. If the Saudi state had been aggressive and tried to nationalize its oil quickly, Saudi Arabia could have ended up becoming another Venezuela or Iran with lots of external political pressure from hostile Western countries and a low-efficiency oil industry. But if they had nationalized too late, they would have ended up like a lot of African nations who have all their natural wealth siphoned away by foreigners.

Instead, the Sauds executed a patient, and most importantly, amicable assertion of power over Aramco, which did not become fully owned by Saudis until 1974. At the very start of Aramco, the company was entirely owned and operated by Americans aside from menial labor. However, the Saudi government inserted a clause into their contract with the corporation requiring the American oil men to train Saudi citizens for management and engineering jobs. The Americans held up their end of the bargain, and over time, more and more Saudis took over management and technical positions.

In addition to carefully negotiating the balance of power with various foreigners, the Sauds have done so with the religious establishment:

Though the monarch has absolute power, his authority is at least in part derived from Saudi Arabia’s Islamic religious establishment. The ulema (a group of the highest-ranking clerics) is officially integrated into the government, and plays an important role in legal matters. However, the religious establishment has slowly been marginalized by the monarchy over the last few decades, and has possibly been subjugated entirely since the reform era began five years ago.

Winning freedom of action has been a long road with many setbacks:

[King] Abdulaziz constantly had to reassure enraged Wahhabi clerics that he wasn’t selling out the Arab homeland to treacherous infidels. IIRC, it was some time in the 1920s that Abdulaziz had to publicly smash a telegraph to prove to the clerics that he wasn’t bewitched by infidel technology.

In late 1979, 400-500 extremist Sunni Saudis seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca (the holiest Islamic site on earth) and demanded the overthrow of the Saud dynasty in favor of a theocratic state meant to await an imminent apocalypse. They held on for two weeks while managing to fight off waves of Saudi police and military squads. Eventually, three French commandos flew to Mecca, converted to Islam in a hotel room, and led a successful assault to retake the Mosque. Over 100 men died on each side, with hundreds more wounded.

The Grand Mosque seizure was the final wake-up call for the Saud dynasty. Something drastic had to be done or their regime would likely be ground down under mounting internal and external pressure…. King Khalid led a social/religious/political reactionary revolution within Saudi Arabia to align with the Sunni extremists. Up until about four years ago, Saudi society was still gender segregated and enforced a largely literalist interpretation of Sharia, hence the array of bizarre and antiquated laws – gender segregation in public, requiring women to cover their faces, outlawing of non-Muslim religious buildings (there are a few Shia mosques), restrictions on foreign media, etc. Saudi Arabia was always conservative, but most of these draconian laws were only put into place in the 1980s. The Saud dynasty purposefully induced a reactionary legal regime and pulled Saudi Arabia further away from liberalism.

The charitable take on making an already oppressive regime even more oppressive is that the Sauds were trying to bend Saudi Arabia to the extremists so the country would not break. And by all accounts, it worked; the conservative Wahhabi clerics backed by the Saud dynasty placated a sizeable portion of the Sunni extremists inside and outside of Saudi Arabia, and they became a pool of support against the Shia and Baathists. Saudi Arabia was certainly made a worse country for its citizens, but that was the price to pay for averting civil war.

More recently, Crown Prince Salman has consolidated power to the point where he can make modernizing reforms that Wahhabis might have opposed, like allowing women to drive, allowing non-Muslim foreigners to to get tourist visas, allowing music concerts, et c. Lakeman obviously likes these reforms, but at the same time worries that the concentrated power that so far Salman has largely used to enact positive reforms could be abused going forward, and on a larger scale than murdering the occasional dissident.

Wood argues that a worst case scenario parallel to MBS is Syrian Dictator Bashar al-Assad. Like MBS, there were high hopes that Assad would be a liberal reformer when he took over Syria. After all, Assad had been living and working in the UK as an ophthalmologist with no political aspirations, and was known to be a fan of Phil Collins. He was called to the throne after the unexpected death of his older brother, and so the West hoped that this nerdy British doctor would bring upper-middle class liberal values to Syria. Instead, Assad became one of the worst dictators of the modern Middle East, probably second only to Saddam Hussein.

I recommend reading the whole thing, here I’m quoting relatively small parts of an article full of interesting detail on the history, economics, and politics of Saudi Arabia. There’s also a section on visiting:

The silver lining to Saudi Arabia’s lack of tourism is that there aren’t many tourist restrictions. I went to two ancient settlements and I found no guards, no gates, no notices at all. I walked in, around, and on top of 2,000 year old houses, and I honestly have no idea if I was allowed to.