The oil wealth saved the kingdom, for Arabia has always been poor. Before the oil came along, the average lifespan was in the 40s and the many tribes in Arabia were always a real, or perceived, slight away from bloody rebellion. While the Saud's had an absolute monarchy going for them, they always acted like they were running for re-election. While the government was very much a family affair for the House of Saud, it was always a family custom to observe the ancient ritual of Diwaniya (open house where any subject could come and personally petition the king or other family member). The Diwaniya was also a hangout for the principal officials, businessmen and other big shots where affairs of state (and the Saud family) were discussed far into the night. This way, it was possible for the family to stay on top of potential unrest and potentially disruptive feuds. Tribal identity is still strong in Saudi Arabia, as is religious observance. The law of the kingdom has always been Sharia (Islamic law, based on the Koran). The king stays in touch with the senior Moslem clerics, and has a lot to say about who obtains these senior positions.
But the Saud family is sitting, literally, on an explosive mixture of religious fanaticism, fear of outsiders and sharp internal divisions. Religious fanaticism is what got the Saud family to the top in the first place. The Sauds are Moslems of the strict Wahhabi sect of Islam. The Wahhabis are intent on purifying Islam, which meant expelling non-Moslems from Arabia and keeping strictly to Sharia law. The Sauds had a falling out with the Wahhabis, and then reconciled, sort of. The Wahhabis and Sauds still regard each other warily. While many Saudis would like use a more modern form of Sharia law (like letting women drive cars), the king has to err on the side of conservatism lest the Wahhabis grow too strong by preaching that the king is not strict enough a Moslem. Osama bin Laden plotted the overthrow of the royal family because the king allowed non-Moslem troops into Saudi Arabia to liberate Kuwait. Some 4,000 American troops remain in the kingdom, but are kept out of sight lest they give the hard core Wahhabis more ammunition to use against the king. The royal family controls the media, and uses this to make sure the royals are always shown in a properly devout light. Everyone knows, of course, that many of the royals (there are over 5,000 male heirs of the kingdom's founder) get pretty rowdy, and non-Islamic, when they are outside the kingdom. But you would never know this by looking as Saudi media. Moreover, Saudi money and influence sees to it that few royal scandals show up in the Arab media. But the people know, and keep quiet about these lapses as long as they don't get their faces rubbed in it.
The fear of outsiders is understandable. For thousands of years, most people in Arabia were very poor. The nomadic life of the Bedouin may have looked dashing from a distance, but up close it was deadly, which most inhabitants of Arabia dead shortly after their 40th birthday. All of a sudden, Arabia is rich. And most Saudis know they are surrounded by stronger states (Iraq, Egypt, Iran) who would love to take all the oil away. The Sauds are admired for how they have obtained powerful friends (particularly America) to make sure the Saudi oil stays Saudi. But, to insure that whoever might try to take the oil does not get it, or at least not easily, most oil installations are rigged for quick demolition. This policy could, so to speak, backfire, if local fanatics decided to bring the kingdom down by setting off the explosives. This would not be easy, but the skill of the bin Laden suicide terrorists makes some Saudis nervous. They know that when someone is on a mission from God, anything goes.
And then there are the internal divisions. In Arabia, there has long been a split between "the sand (nomads) and the sown (farmers and townspeople)." Even the nomads now live in houses or apartments, although many still yearn for "the good old days." But many of the original townies have turned into middle class technocrats. The Sauds trust them about as much as they trust the Wahhabis. To this end, there have always been two armed forces. One is the regular army, air force and navy. The other is the National Guard, which is largely a ground force organized around men from the tribes most loyal to the House of Saud. Each force is a counter to the other, depending on whose loyalty might fail first.
The technocrats grow in numbers and influence as more college trained Saudis are able to take over jobs long held by foreigners. Eventually, the Sauds see a showdown between the technocrats and the Wahhabis. There have been many skirmishes already, and kings have had to let each side win some disputes. The royal family walks a fine line between oncoming modernity and ancient traditional and religious customs. While the West concentrates on the antics of the religious fundamentalists, it is the educated Saudis who have more control over the future. The religious conservatives can destroy, but they cannot build. The royal family knows this, and wants to let the future into the kingdom without triggering a civil war.
An Explosion Waiting to Happen- While terrorism in the United States is a dangerous thing, there is one other part of the world where it could be even more perilous. It's no coincidence that Saudi Arabia is the home of Osama bin Laden, and most of the suicide hijackers of September 11. Saudi Arabia is ground zero for all things Islamic. Home of the primary holy places and inhabited by the descendents of the desert warriors that led the meteoric spread of Islam fourteen centuries ago, Saudi Arabia remains an explosive place. Even without half the world's oil reserves, Saudi Arabia would be important. But all the oil wealth has made the situation a little more interesting. Without the oil, Saudi Arabia would be more like Afghanistan with holy places. The kingdom got it's start in 1924, when the Ibn Saud and his army took Mecca. Britain (and most of the rest of the world) recognized the Saud's as master of Arabia in 1927 and in 1932 the Sauds renamed their territories Saudi Arabia. The founder, In 1936, Ibn Saud had a stroke of luck that only characters in movies have. Oil was discovered. Ten years later, the kingdom had so much money rolling in that the king didn't have to tax his subjects, and could actually take care of them in a manner unheard of in the Middle East.