Sand kingdom's surprising strength

January 12, 1996|By Jonathan Power

LONDON -- The effective resignation of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia has been over-dramatized in the West because until recently everything in the desert kingdom has seemed so predictable. But change there began long ago.

Those who think the Saudi turning point was the Gulf War of 1991, when secular modernism met Islamic conservatism, might dip into Harry St. John Philby's history of the country. Philby was a good friend of Abdul-Aziz ibn Abdul-Rahman Al Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, and this is how he describes the country in the 1950s at the end of his reign:

''Even the seclusion of women had been tempered by the prevailing breeze of modernism; and the motor car provides facilities for visits to some beach or desert pleasaunce, where they dance or frolic to the tunes of a gramophone [another prohibited article] in the latest summer frocks from Paris, or dine alfresco in strapless bodices.''

Oil under the dunes

The rush to modernization started in 1938 when oil was discovered under the dunes. The Gulf War was merely one more eruption in the string of religious and political volcanoes that periodically erupt in this fundamentalist fiefdom.

When Abdul-Aziz died, Saud, his son, took over. He soon alienated the other princes with his materialism. He spent lavishly on new palaces, while the kingdom, despite the gushing oil, staggered from one financial crisis to another. In 1962, Saud was pushed aside in favor of his brother Faisal.

An assassin cut down Faisal in 1975, and in 1979 armed rebels captured the Holy Mosque at Mecca. Their leader, Juhaiman ul-Utaiba, condemned a royal family that ''worships only the rigal,'' the Saudi currency. In the toilets of Riyadh University appeared the graffito, ''Juhaiman, our martyr, why didn't you storm the palaces? The struggle is only beginning.''

In London, the International Institute for Strategic Studies convened a seminar of the world's wisest Saudi watchers. Many concluded that Saudi Arabia was a house built on sand, with little time, if any, to come to terms with its structural weaknesses.

The power of religion

Arnold Hottinger of the Neue Zuercher Zeitung observed that ''Religion, for many centuries a force of cohesion, has become another force of division because it is used much too blatantly as an instrument of power by the ruling classes. The religious laws are officially enforced for the ruled, but they are increasingly flouted by the rulers who seem to imagine that their subjects are unaware of their drinking and fornicating.''

Seventeen years on, Saudi Arabia remains intact and its ruling family in control. At war with itself parts of the country may be, but it holds together.

Yet American and British observers tremble over the recent upheavals in the world's leading oil producer, particularly since the bombing of an American military installation in Riyadh in November that left five Americans dead and 60 injured.

Every new disturbance rattles the West. ''The Saudis have not grasped the breadth of discontent simmering in their ordered land. Despite their apparent invulnerability, I suspect they ignore it much longer only at their peril,'' writes Milton Voirst in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.

I wonder. While I despise the summary arrests, torture, kangaroo courts and off-hand executions, not to mention the Saudi willingness to fill the coffers of Western arms merchants with recycled petrodollars, I suspect that Saudi rule for most of its subjects is relatively benign. While other oil states like Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, Algeria and Venezuela have grossly misused their wealth, the ruling princes of Saudi Arabia have channeled their resources into prosperous cities, efficient communications and transportation, bustling universities and factories -- and, above all, a sense of order.

During two and a half centuries of relative stability in Saudi Arabia religious and temporal authority have been intertwined. This country, the West's most important Arab ally, is also, ironically, what many American and British leaders say they most fear -- a fundamentalist Islamic state.

One day the contradiction will doubtless be made apparent to them. One day, perhaps, the rigidity of Saudi Arabia will buckle. But I suspect it may be a long time.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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