Potential Hot Spots: August 4, 2000

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The Middle East Bomb; The Middle Eastern nightmare no one wants to talk about is Saudi Arabia. For the last twenty years, this kingdom has been sliding towards Islamic fundamentalism, and all the dangers that implies. 

Saudi Arabia is one of the few absolute monarchies in the world today. Actually, it's a family business. Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud put the kingdom together in 1932, after three decades of fighting. His sons, he had 46 of them, still run the kingdom. Abdul Aziz made deals with the three key groups in Arabia. First he had placate the religious leadership, and generally quite fundamentalist population. Abdul Aziz agreed to protect the Moslem holy places and run the kingdom according to Sharia (Islamic law.) The tribal loyalties were more difficult to deal with, and still are. Abdul Aziz was himself an accomplished tribal leader, and used his reputation to cajole, threaten and charm the other tribal chiefs into going along. Once the oil money began rolling in after World War II, it was possible to literally buy the tribes loyalty. Same with the third major force in Arabia, the merchants and professionals. 

Oil wealth did not keep monarchies going in Iraq, Libya and Iran, so it was obvious that the Saudi clan had something else going for it. That something else was the ability to balance religious, tribal and commercial interests so that no one was unhappy enough, or strong enough, to rebel. A blatant example of this is seen in the organization of the Saudi armed forces. In addition to the regular forces, there is the heavily armed National Guard for the rural, tribal and much more traditional men. The presence of two distinct military organization makes it more difficult for either the generals or the tribal chiefs to oust the Saudis from power.

The Saudi monarchy also has to worry about a religious rebellion. Arabia has always been a stronghold of Islamic fundamentalism, and the king has to keep the religious fanatics happy while still allowing enough technology and skilled foreigners into the country to keep the oil pumping. 

The monarchy is beginning to lose it's struggle to keep everything in balance. 
For two generations, the monarchy has provided housing and make work jobs to keep everyone content. While education is available for all, the Islamic fundamentalists insist that much of the school time be spent on religion. Lacking the incentive of an uncertain paycheck, most Saudis will not do the dirty work like construction and garbage collection. So foreigners are brought in to do it. The education system does not turn out a lot of engineers and technicians, so foreigners have to be brought in for many high tech jobs as well. Foreigners make up a third of the work force. Most of these people are from South and East Asia. During the 1991 Gulf War, the Saudis found that a lot of the Middle Easterners working in the kingdom were pro-Iraqi, so they were replaced with the (usually non-Moslem) Asians. 

Although the price of oil shot up in 2000, for most of the 1990s it was quite low and the kingdom ran at a deficit. Not only that, but the high birth rate was bringing over 100,000 young men into the job market each year. Some 20 percent of Saudi men in their twenties are unemployed. Women are discouraged from taking jobs, or even learning to read. Borrowing money to provide government jobs is not a long time solution, so some foreign workers are being sent home. Young Saudis are not happy with some of the jobs they are being offered, but at the low end, at least they are jobs Saudis can handle. Many young Saudis, aware that the oil will be gone in another generation or two, have been eager to do real work. Many, however, still yearn for the cushy government jobs that were once so abundant. 

It's a different situation at the high end. Engineers, portfolio managers, programmers and medical specialists require long training, often by foreigners, and the religious leadership in Saudi Arabia discourages this. The young people must not be polluted by Western ideas. So many of these critical high end jobs continue to be held by foreigners who can never become citizens. Not an idea situation.

Islamic fundamentalism is popular throughout the Islamic world, and you would think that conservative Saudi Arabia would be Jihad (Holy War) Central. In some ways it is. Thousands of Saudis have fought in places like Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir, Algeria and wherever Islamic fundamentalists are up in arms. Wealthy Saudis are a major source of funding for Islamic militants. Osama Bin Laden is one of these, and he is willing to fight to spread Islamic fundamentalism and drive corrupting Western ideas out of the Moslem world. The Saudi monarchy has long used it's close relationship (and generous funding) with senior religious figures in the Moslem world to keep disruptive fanatics out of the kingdom. But many of the Saudi princes (there are several thousand of them) are corrupt and lead very un-Islamic lives. This provides the local fundamentalists with a powerful recruiting tool among the millions of less wealthy young Saudis. Every year there are more incidents of violent unrest within Saudi Arabia. The government cracks down hard, with 50-100 executions a year. In more and more cases, criminal acts are driven by religious conviction, not greed. Abdul Aziz was a powerful figure in his time, but to the last two generations of Saudis, he is but a legend. If a charismatic fundamentalist leader came along in Saudi Arabia, the monarchy would be in trouble. And if Saudi Arabia became an Islamic Republic, a quarter of the planet's oil reserves would be at the service of ruthless fanatics. 
Long live the king, for if he loses his balance, his replacements could make Iraqi dictators and Iranian mullahs seem mild by comparison. The last time Arabia was ground zero for a religious crusade, the world was changed forever. The next time the Holy Warriors will have more terrible weapons, and we will all feel it.

 

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