Saudi Arabia might be the biggest country in the Gulf, but it also the least understood. British journalist Robert Lacey peered into this murky world when he wrote The Kingdom – a bestseller that captured Saudi Arabia at the height of the first oil boom. As if adapting to the sudden influx of petrodollars and keeping Saudi’s disparate tribes together wasn’t enough, the intervening three decades have seen terror, regional wars and financial crashes stalk the Holy Land. But, perhaps surprisingly, Lacey has some good news.
“King Abdullah’s 2009 reform package was very significant,” he says. “He appointed the first woman minister and replaced three very prominent hardliners with more moderate members.” Four years into his reign real change is taking place. “He has basically attempted a coup d’état at the expense of the establishment and so far it is holding.”
Saudi Arabia is a country full of paradoxes, says Lacey. Not least the fact that “the elderly autocrats running the country are far more progressive than the bulk of the population.” Thirty years ago, Saudi, was, “heading in an Emirates-type direction; it was all sky scrapers, water skiing and that sort of thing.” But then something happened. “The money boom produced a religion boom”, which he attributes to, “a feeling of insecurity and the wish to hang on to their roots.”
“Saudi is a collection of tribes, but each tribe would rather have the House of Saud running them than any other tribe.”
Charting a course between necessary change – the country has staggering unemployment rates and wealth inequality – while not rocking the boat unnecessarily has been a fine balancing act. But that is exactly what the House of Saud seems to be achieving.
“Extreme groups from all sides have taken shots at the House of Saud over the years; all of them have been defeated.” And the reason is simple. “Saudi is a collection of tribes, but each tribe would rather have the House of Saud running them than any other tribe.” The ultimate act of diplomacy, however, took place after 9/11. “There were moments where you could question whether the special relationship with the US would continue. You have to give credit to both sides for building it back together.”
Lacey describes 9/11 as, “a Saudi quarrel played out on American soil.” Bin Laden, enraged by the decision to allow American troops onto Saudi soil during the first Gulf War, and ostracised from his homeland, wanted revenge. But he couldn’t get at the “near enemy”, the Saudi royal family, so he took the war to the “far enemy”, the US. “Suddenly the first decade of the 21st century became the Saudi decade,” says Lacey. “That’s what brought me back.”
Stability may have been restored, and the special, if uneasy, relationship with the US continues. Nevertheless there are still clouds on the horizon. A royal prince told Lacey: “Yemen is Afghanistan on our Southern Boarder”. “It’s a small, poor country, with inaccessible terrain which is ideal for Al Qaeda,” says Lacey.
And then there is Somalia just across the Red Sea, another country where rebellion, extremism and lawlessness hold sway. “It’s clearly the headache of the future for Saudi Arabia and more of a headache because they can’t get their hands on the problem; it’s happening in another country.”
These challenges aside, Lacey is optimistic about the future. “It’s been a pretty tempestuous thirty years but I think the Royal family learnt its lesson from the disunity of the fifties and sixties.” There are other hopeful signs. Not least the fact that sixty percent of graduates are now female. “There are bright, young woman helping to run companies. They don’t make a fuss about it, but behind the scenes woman are making more progress than people realise.”
This is the key to understanding the country. It is a land of vested interests, where balance of power is everything. Change, when it happens, will be incremental and done in a manner that suits Saudi Arabia. We may not be able to fathom its complex workings, but King Abdullah, a master of tribal politics, understands all too well.