Saudi Arabia
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Saudi Arabia

Power, Legitimacy and Survival

Tim Niblock

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Saudi Arabia

Power, Legitimacy and Survival

Tim Niblock

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About This Book

Saudi Arabia provides a clear, concise yet analytical account of the development of the Saudi state. It details the country's historical and religious background, its oil rentier economy and its international role, showing how they interact to create the dynamics of the contemporary Saudi state.

The development of the state is traced through three stages: the formative period prior to 1962; the centralization of the state and the initiation of intensive economic development between 1962 and 1979; and the re-shaping of the state over the years since 1979. Emphasis is placed on the recent period, with chapters devoted to:

  • the economic and foreign policy problems which now confront the state
  • the linkages between Saudi Arabia and Islamic radicalism, with the relationship/conflicts involving Al Qaeda traced through from events in Afghanistan in the 1980s
  • the impact of 9/11 and the 2003 Gulf War
  • the identification of major problems facing the contemporary state and their solutions.

Saudi Arabia provides a unique and comprehensive understanding of this state during a crucial time. This book is essential reading for those with interests in Saudi Arabia and its role in Middle Eastern politics and on the international stage.

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1 Introduction

The contemporary interest

Saudi Arabia stands at the centre of many of the critical issues and crises which are confronting the Middle East, the Islamic world and the wider global order today. Developments within the country will, therefore, be of crucial importance to the pattern of international relations prevailing in the twenty-first century. There is clearly an urgent need for a good understanding of the dynamics which have shaped, and will continue to shape, the development of the country. There are three main strands to the country’s significance: global dependence on Saudi Arabian oil and gas, its critical role on issues of radical Islamism and international terrorism, and its impact on security issues in the Gulf and the wider Middle East. The latter constitute some of the most crucial problems in global security today.

Global dependence on Saudi Arabian oil and gas

Saudi Arabia’s production of these hydrocarbon fuels is critical to the international political economy. The level of production and pricing of oil and gas exerts an influence on every aspect of the global economy. No country exerts a stronger impact on the production and pricing of these fuels than Saudi Arabia. Living conditions throughout the world will be critically affected by the ability of the Kingdom to continue a high level of oil production. This, in turn, is dependent on the existence of political stability within the Kingdom and on the strategy which the Saudi government chooses to pursue with regard to pricing, marketing and production. All projections of oil availability and pricing over the coming decades are crucially dependent on how the development of Saudi oil exports is evaluated. Domestic Saudi politics, interacting no doubt with international and global factors, will thus be critical in determining the pattern of world oil production and pricing, and through that the pattern and pace of international economic development.
Saudi Arabia currently holds some 25 per cent of the remaining proven oil reserves in the world. Total worldwide proven oil reserves are estimated (2002 figures) at 1,050 billion barrels, of which 65 per cent (686 billion) is situated in the Middle East. Saudi proven reserves are approximately 260 billion. At the 2004 rate of production these reserves would last about 75 years. Above the proven reserves, Saudi Arabia has an estimated 100 billion ‘possible and probable’ reserves, and ‘contingent reserves’ of 240 billion. Oil production in Saudi Arabia, moreover, is cheap relative to elsewhere, increasing its attraction to the global market. Whereas the finding and development costs of oil production in Saudi Arabia come to $0.50 per barrel, the global average is $4–5 per barrel, with the costs in Russia running at $8, in the North Sea at $10.50 and in the US Gulf of Mexico sector at $14.50 (Saudi ARAMCO Dimensions: Summer 2004).
The supply side of the global oil market over the coming decades is not likely to see substantial expansion. Despite recent discoveries of new oil fields in Central Asia, Russia, the Falklands and elsewhere, the Saudi share of remaining global oil reserves has risen over the past quarter-century. In 1978 the proportion of global proven reserves made up by Saudi Arabia came to 17.5 per cent (Stevens 1981: 215), as against the 25 per cent figure today. Globally, then, the discovery of new fields in different parts of the world has not even balanced the increase in the estimates of Saudi Arabia’s own reserves and the exhaustion of existing fields elsewhere. Although global oil production has continued to rise, some analysts have predicted that the level of production reached in 2004 – 82 million barrels a day – may represent a peak, with production declining thereafter (Deffeyes 2001). Others dispute this prediction, but their perspectives are often based on Saudi Arabia being prepared to produce oil up to its capacity (perhaps 50 per cent above its existing level of production). This would shorten the period through to the exhaustion of its supplies. The decline of production in some of the world’s established oil fields, especially those in the North Sea and the United States, will clearly increase further the dependence on the supply of oil from Saudi Arabia. The massive size of the Saudi reserves will thus become of yet greater significance as the twenty-first century progresses.
While the supply side appears to be straining at its limits, the demand side of the global oil market is expanding exponentially. Current estimates are that world energy consumption will rise by 54 per cent over the 2001–2025 period. The main factor here is the rapid industrialisation which China and India have been undergoing, together with that of the wider Asian grouping of developing countries. Developing Asia is expected to grow at an annual rate of 5.1 per cent over the period, as against a global rate of 3.0 per cent. China and India are expected to account for 40 per cent of the increase in world energy consumption. Within the overall energy consumption market, the proportion made up by demand for oil is expected to rise a little, from 38 per cent to 40 per cent, and overall demand for oil is predicted to rise from 77 million barrels a day in 2001 to some 121 billion in 2025. Demand for oil is expected to continue growing after 2025, perhaps reaching some 152 million barrels per day (b/d) per annum in 2050. A portent of the future was the rapid rise in oil prices during 2004 and 2005, with the oil price reaching $60 per barrel for the first time in June 2005. While the price was not expected to remain at that level, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) 2004 World Economic Outlook published in September 2004 predicted that oil prices would remain high over the ten years ahead.
The development of alternative energy supplies will, in due course, reduce the significance of Saudi (and other) oil production. The priority which developed nations give to diversifying their energy sources, spurred on by environmental as well as political concerns, will therefore exert considerable influence on the role and pricing of oil. Energy diversification, however, is a long-term process. The exploitation of energy from renewable sources (wind, wave, sun, hydroelectricity etc.) is developing gradually, and further development can no doubt raise the percentage of energy coming from these sources. In most developed countries, however, these sources currently only account for a small proportion of energy supplies, and change can only come slowly. The United States is the largest consumer of energy in the world (about 33 per cent of the total), and only 7 per cent of US energy consumption comes from this sector, about half of which is from hydroelectric sources (Heinberg 2003: 140). Nuclear energy could be increased significantly, but environmental concerns have in recent years restrained such an increase. Technologies of nuclear fusion and the possibility of cold fusion promise limitless quantities of cheap and environmentally friendly energy, but the horizon when such a development becomes scientifically feasible and practically deliverable tends to recede into the future. The estimated time-line today stands at around 30 years, just as it was 30 years ago. Even when alternative sources of energy become available, moreover, the demand for hydrocarbon fuels will not disappear overnight. Conversion of existing equipment to alternative energy sources will take time. When hydrocarbons are no longer needed for energy, moreover, there will remain a need for them in the production of petrochemicals.
It is probable, therefore, that Saudi oil will be of increasing importance to the global economy in the first half of the twenty-first century, and that no major collapse in the price of oil will occur.

Radical Islamism and the issue of international terrorism

The second dimension to Saudi Arabia’s significance relates to its impact and influence on international Islam. Holding the two most holy sites in Islam, attracting many millions of pilgrims every year, Saudi Arabia will always occupy a special position of influence in the Islamic world. Any government of the country, whatever its complexion, would have to emphasise its role as protector of the holy sites, guaranteeing the wellbeing of pilgrims and perhaps claiming on this ground some right to global Islamic leadership.
The role of Saudi Arabia in international Islam, however, goes beyond this simple reality. The brand of Islam with which the House of Su‘ud has always identified itself, and has promoted internationally, carries with it a missionary militancy framed around its puritanical ‘return to the foundations’ ideology. The call for a return to the foundational texts and to the practices of the salaf al-salih (the ‘pious forefathers’, comprising the prophet’s companions and the first three generations of leaders of the Muslim ummah [community]) is not in itself a basis either for conservative social practices or for extremism. On the contrary, some of the great Islamic reformers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, who were seeking to re-fashion Islamic ideas to respond to the impact of the West, adopted this approach. Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashid Rida both saw themselves as salafi s, returning to the foundations of Islam to seek a source for the re-invigoration of Islam – and downplaying the traditions which had built up around Islamic practice over the intervening centuries. Salafism (the term now applied to the religious trends which call for such a return to the foundations), therefore, can be a channel through which the Islamic basis is re-interpreted so as to make clear its relevance to and compatibility with modern conditions. Some of the intellectuals who adopt that approach today are clearly pursuing this agenda. Nonetheless, there has been a prolonged tendency for Saudi Salafism both to be regressive socially and to inspire forms of political Islam which do not co-exist easily with established regimes and with the norms of civil society as perceived in the Western world.
To understand the dynamic of the problem posed by Saudi Salafism it is not sufficient simply to point to the religious ideas on which it is founded – the Islamic interpretations of Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, the religious leader who set the framework of Saudi Salafism in the mideighteenth century. As will be shown in Chapter 2, ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s thoughts may not have been as narrow and dogmatic as they have often been portrayed. The form taken by Saudi Salafism, and the exceptional dynamism which has characterised it, has stemmed from the interaction between the religious basis, the relationship which Saudi salafis have had with the state, and the social and economic context in which it has operated (including in recent times access to funding for spreading its message internationally). The interaction has thrown up dynamics which have both provided the crucial underpinning of the Saudi state and its global influence, and have at times created trends which have challenged Saudi policy internationally and threatened the stability of the state domestically. At a number of times in history, which includes the contemporary period, salafis have challenged the House of Saud, deeming the royal family to have failed to establish or practice the puritanical norms which they believe to be warranted.
It has, however, been the international level which has, not unnaturally, attracted the most attention and has appeared to constitute the greatest threat to global stability. ‘Usama bin Ladin was born a Saudi citizen and his ideas and those of his al-Qa’ida associates developed within the ambit of extremist trends in Saudi Salafism. As has been widely observed, 15 of the 19 hijackers who took part in the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington were Saudi citizens. Even those of the hijackers who were not Saudi citizens, moreover, adhered to a radical Islamist approach associated with extremist Saudi Salafism. This could be said, for example, of the Egyptian leader of the group, Muhammad al-Atta. The dividing line between the official Salafism promoted by the Saudi state and the extremist elements spawned by the movement, moreover, has not always been clear-cut. The trend towards Muslims taking more rigorous interpretations of the requirements of the Islamic shari‘ah, rejecting the compromises which many Muslims have made to integrate into societies which are not exclusively Muslim in custom or practice, has certainly been given strength and backing from the religious hierarchy in Saudi Arabia.
Developments within Saudi Arabia, therefore, will be crucial in influencing how the Islamic world relates to the wider world and in particular how the forces of radical Islamism are controlled or accommodated within the global system. The Saudi government’s ability to develop its own domestic political arena in an effective way, satisfying the interests of key groups and preventing extremists from using Saudi territory and economic resources as their home base, will greatly affect the resolution of the international terrorism dilemma. Much depends on whether the Saudi political leadership can regain the ideological initiative, defusing the radicalism which has been spawned within the country and re-directing it into channels which are less threatening to the stability of the international system. Saudi Arabia is, therefore, key to what President George Bush refers to as the ‘war on terrorism’.

Security in the Gulf and the wider Middle East

The third dimension is Saudi Arabia’s strategic position and influence on regional issues in the Gulf and the wider Middle Eastern and Indian Ocean regions. The Gulf has been the site of the three major inter-state wars which have occurred in the course of the last quarter-century. The wider Middle East has witnessed a continuing array of smaller conflicts and problem-areas, most notably in Palestine-Israel. Given that there are so many issues of development, identity, external penetration, political oppression and military occupation which remain live and unresolved, the likelihood is that the Middle East will in the coming decade (and perhaps more) continue to experience upheaval and unrest. Outside of the core Middle East, moreover, a new ‘arc of crisis’ has been forming, at least in the minds of US policy-makers, with developments from Afghanistan, through Iran, Central Asia and the Caucusus to North Africa, posing a challenge to the US-dominated global order. Whereas the Soviet Union was seen as the pivot orchestrating the arc of crisis of the late 1970s, putting it in a position where it could threaten Western oil supplies, now the challenge comes from movements and governments associated with – or reacting to – radical Islam.
Many of the strategic security issues link in with the two previouslymentioned dimensions, played out on the regional stage. Saudi Arabia’s involvement in these regional issues clearly stems in part from it sharing with the wider region the same dilemmas posed by radical Islamism and the socio-economic and strategic impact of oil production. The political and strategic weight of the Kingdom, moreover, gives it a natural influence on developments in the region. The country’s geographical contiguity or propinquity to the flashpoints of the region – in particular Iraq, Iran and Palestine/Israel – adds a further strand to the inevitable intertwining of Saudi interests with the outcome of regional struggles for power, liberation and ideological hegemony.
While Iraq, Iran and Palestine/Israel have in recent times constituted the foci of Middle Eastern political struggles, future conflict may not be restricted to these areas. The structural impact of oil production (even on non-oil producing countries), the direct access of populations to the international media through satellite television and the internet, the spread of Western cultural norms and tastes among elites, global Islam, pressures for democratisation, and external penetration of political systems, exert an influence on all countries in the region. The ability of governments to cope with the problems facing them is coming under increasing strain. Yemen, on Saudi Arabia’s south-western borders, and Sudan and Egypt on the other side of the Red Sea, confront the problems acutely. The governments concerned are seeking to achieve economic and political development while confronting acute social tensions, keen to put forward an appearance of democracy while unwilling to risk their futures to electoral processes. If these issues are not well-handled, whether through the failures of political elites or ill-considered intervention by external powers or movements, the Red Sea region could become an area of conflict.
Population growth, moreover, is likely to change the balances of power and influence in the region. Yemen in 2002 had the highest population growth rate in the world, in excess of 4 per cent per annum, and the US-based Population Reference Bureau’s estimates were that its population would reach some 71 million by 2050 (as against 20 million in 2004). The Bureau estimated that Egypt would have a population of 127.5 million (as against 73.5 million in 2004), and Sudan a population of 84 million (as against 39 million in 2004). The population of Saudi Arabia was expected to reach 55 million (as against 25 million in 2004). The changing balance comes out clearly through comparing the Saudi and Yemeni populations. Yemen’s population is currently less than that of Saudi Arabia, but by 2050 will be approximately equal to the population of the rest of the Arabian peninsula combined. Among the non-Arab countries of the Red Sea, population increase in Ethiopia is expected to be particularly prominent, rising from 62.5 million in 2000 to 121 million in 2050 (all figures from the Population Reference Bureau). The population distribution around the Red Sea region, therefore, will be substantially different from what it is today, and Saudi Arabia’s response to the resulting security and strategic problems is likely to be critical to the stability of the region.
There can be little doubt, therefore, that developments in Saudi Arabia will have a substantial impact on the shaping of the regional and global orders over the coming decades. Whether the impact will be positive or negative depends on the character of those developments. To create a positive impact the Saudi regime will need to pursue patterns of economic and political development which satisfy the needs and wishes of its own population and feed stabilising influences into the regional and international systems. Economic development needs to cover not only adequate economic growth but also a substantial measure of equity and justice in the division of wealth. Political development must enable the populations to determine their own futures, within a framework which coheres with their values.

The need for a new approach: devising an explanatory model of the dynamics of Saudi Arabian politics

There has in recent...

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