The Saudi royal family was beset by internal and external tensions during 2001. The increasing unpopularity of its alliance with the United States exacerbated public frustration with declining living standards, increasing unemployment, official corruption, fiscal mismanagement, and the denial of basic civil and political rights. Saudi-U.S. relations were strained in light of the Palestinian uprising and Saudi reluctance to cooperate with U.S. investigations in high-profile terrorism cases, but tensions escalated in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
King Abd al-Aziz al-Saud consolidated the Nejd and Hejaz regions of the Arabian peninsula into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. His son, Fahd bin Abd al-Aziz al- Saud, ascended the throne in 1982 after a series of successions within the family. The king rules by decree and serves as prime minister as well as supreme religious leader.
The overwhelming majority of Saudis belong to the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam. In 1992, King Fahd appointed a 60-member consultative council, or majlis al-shura. The majlis plays only an advisory role and is not regarded as a significant political force. Majlis committees, set up to address financial, Islamic, social, and other affairs, debate and issue recommendations on topics selected by the king. The king expanded the majlis to 90 members in 1997, and to 120 members in May 2001.
King Fahd’s poor health has raised serious concerns about succession. The system of fraternal succession adopted by King Abd-al-Aziz to prevent fratricide among his 44 sons presents the possibility that a series of aging, sickly rulers will leave Saudi Arabia with no direction at a time when strong leadership is required.
Although Crown Prince Abdullah, 77, has effectively ruled since Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995, the succession after Abdullah is unclear. A 1994 decree gives the king the unilateral right to name his successor, but philosophical and ideological rifts within the ruling family and varying degrees of power and spheres of influence among potential heirs will make any choice problematic. Of Abd al-Aziz’s 25 living sons, many regard themselves as contenders, while others advocate passing power to the next generation.
Saudis have sacrificed civic freedom and political participation for material wealth, modernity, education, and a heavily subsidized welfare state in a social contract that has been the main source of legitimacy for the government. But economic mismanagement, combined with lavish spending by members of the royal family has endangered that contract.
Unemployment is estimated at up to 35 percent and is expected to rise as the slow-growing job market provides one job for every two people entering the workforce each year. Per capita income, more than $28,000 in the early 1980s, has dropped below $7,000, while the population has doubled.
Billions of dollars have disappeared in unbudgeted expenditures by royals, who keep some 300 palaces in Jeddah alone. Meanwhile, ordinary Saudis must struggle with rolling blackouts and water rationing. While dissent has not seriously threatened the regime, there is concern over the decreased ability of the government to placate citizens. Some within the royal family have advocated political reform, including some form of popular participation in the political process.
Observers note that Saudi Arabia appears to have abandoned efforts at privatization, structural reform, and diversification aimed at alleviating the kingdom’s economic problems. Many measures taken to address economic concerns and attract foreign investment are incomplete, vague, or insufficient in meeting investors’ concerns.
A plan for U.S.-based SBC Communications to invest in the Saudi Telecommunications Company fell through in December 2000 because the Saudi company refused to meet SBC’s demands for transparency in its accounting procedures.
Meanwhile, the government has issued an extensive “negative list” of industries closed to foreign investment, including the military, publishing, education, insurance, transportation, fishing, real estate, employment services, and poison control. In addition, Islamic law forbids interest, insurance, and income tax; is randomly applied; and allows for no means of redress for economic grievances.
The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has become another source of domestic discontent. As the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank continued, Saudi media carried unprecedented criticism of the United States’ perceived pro-Israel bias. Saudis also blamed the United States for maintaining a sanctions policy against Iraq that is viewed as catastrophic for the Iraqi people.
Following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Saudi-born terrorist-in-exile Osama bin Laden blasted the Saudi government as “godless” for allowing American troops in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the prophet Mohammed and home of Mecca, Islam’s holiest site. He also warned that the United States would not enjoy security “before we can see it as a reality in Palestine and before all the infidel armies leave the land of Mohammed.” Bin Laden’s message resonates with Saudis, who privately donate to Islamic charities used as fronts to support bin Laden’s network. It also chips away at the government’s claim to religious legitimacy as the defender of Islamic faith and law.
The Saudi regime has attempted to downplay its ties to Washington, and relations between the two were increasingly strained. Crown Prince Abdullah had so far refused to meet with President George W. Bush.
Following the September 11 attacks, the Saudi government cut ties with Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, which harbors and sympathizes with bin Laden, and froze the assets of some groups and individuals suspected of having terrorist links after Bush warned that countries refusing to act against terrorists would be barred from doing business with American companies. Otherwise, Saudi Arabia was reluctant to cooperate with Washington.
It criticized the U.S. policy of support for Israel and spirited a number of Saudis out of the United States before it could be determined whether or not they had information about the terrorists, at least ten of whom were Saudis. Saudi Arabia has been uncooperative in other high-level terror cases as well; it announced in June 2001 that 13 Saudis indicted by a U.S. federal grand jury in connection with the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, which killed 19 American servicemen, would go to trial in Saudi courts.
The FBI complained that Saudi authorities restricted its access to the suspects and evidence in the case. Tensions increased in October when U.S.-led airstrikes on Afghanistan drew harsh criticism from the Muslim clerics whose support gives the Saudi ruling family its legitimacy.