The camera avoids faces, except those of the plainclothes police. The black-and-white images are hazy, jumpy. They evoke the antiquated style of negatives that have escaped the censor and customs searches. “This could be any country,” says the commentator — Chile under Gen. Pinochet, or Burma under the military. But here the men who gather wear long white robes and checkered headdresses, held in place by an ‘iqal, a black silk tress. The women remain invisible.

We are in Saudi Arabia, the peninsula that is the birthplace of Islam and site of a quarter of the planet’s crude oil reserves. For the first time, a militant has been able to film one of the demonstrations in the kingdom that have managed to express only stifled cries of revolt. It is September 10, 1994, the end of the day. Hundreds of cars escort Sheikh Salman al-‘Awda, who is returning to the capital, Riyadh, in order to avoid arrest or “disappearance.” The procession leads him through the town of Burayda, a city of a hundred thousand and capital of the province of Qasim. The next day, his house is surrounded by police, but many followers are on guard. They accompany the young sheikh (he is in his thirties) when he is summoned to the governor’s residence to renounce his activities — in vain. On September 13, the camera shows him at the mosque, addressing a crowd of men. Sheikh al-‘Awda cites the words of a Saudi Arabian poet:

They forbid writing and speech.
Shut up! And injustice remains.
If the tongue is mute, it will burn in the fire like a butterfly.
Because opinions became rubbish hidden and thrown in the trash.
The word became a crime. Beware the instigator of discussion.

At dawn the following day, the police stop and incarcerate him and one of his many followers. The camera follows the demonstrators who spread out across the city. Over the next several weeks, the confrontations continue, especially near mosques.

One year after the “insurrection of Burayda,” Sheikh al-‘Awda is still behind bars. The monarchy had decided to strike. The Islamist dissent it had hoped to contain has continued to gain ground. [2] In September 1992, 107 prominent men addressed a 45-page memorandum to Sheikh ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin Baz, the highest religious official in the kingdom. The signatories did not attack the king directly, but put forward some revolutionary demands: equality before the law (based on shari‘a), official accountability, elimination of corruption and usury, redistribution of wealth, reinforcement of the army and national independence, restricted powers for the police. These demands were mixed with others that bore the stamp of Islamist militancy: reinforcement of religion courses in the universities, banning the teaching of “Western doctrines,” censorship of television and foreign programs, and so forth.

Gulf War Trauma

It is the origin of the signatories more than their platform which bothers the authorities: 72 percent are originally from the Najd region, and half of them are clergy. [3] Since its inception, the state has been based on the alliance between the Sa‘ud family (whose tribal base is in the Najd) and the ‘ulama’, the guardians of Islamic doctrine who in Saudi Arabia are adherents of Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s puritanical version of Islam.

In the 1950s and 1960s, opposition movements based on socialist or Arab nationalist ideas found support among the Shi‘i minority or in peripheral provinces. The regime defeated them, relying on the loyalty of the population of the Najd and brandishing the banner of Islam. Today, the strongest discontent is expressed among the ‘ulama’ in the name of a purified Islam and it is among Najdis that this discontent finds its greatest echo.

A recent public dispute in Saudi Arabia radicalized the confrontation between the authorities and the rebels. On May 3, 1993, six prominent religious and intellectual figures launched an unprecedented challenge to King Fahd. In a country where all political activity is banned, they publicly announced the formation of the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR) in order to “abolish injustice, to support the oppressed and to defend the rights which have been given to man by the shari‘a.” (The Arabic name specifies “the defense of shari‘a rights.”) Their action, they explained, was dictated by a desire to “stop the gears of regression which are pushing society toward chaos. Only a reformist course towards a balanced and moderate plan can replace the methods of violence.”

Despite this profession of moderation and invocation of shari‘a, in the days that followed organizers were dismissed from their public posts, interrogated and arrested. Some months later, CDLR spokesperson Muhammad al-Masra‘i secretly crossed into Yemen and then left for London, where he arrived in April 1994 and asked for political asylum. Neither pressure from Riyadh nor the maneuvering of John Major’s Conservative government has yet succeeded in expelling him.

In a three-story building in the north of London, al-Masra‘i, a physics professor with a black beard and a charming smile, welcomes journalists and sympathizers. Here the communiques of the CDLR — on “repression and the depravity of the royal family and its submission to foreign dictates’ — are drafted and then sent to Saudi Arabia in vast numbers by fax or the Internet.

“The level of education in Arabia has risen,” asserts al-Masra‘i. “Illiteracy has fallen below 35 percent — less than in Egypt. In each home there is someone who knows how to read; everyone has a radio and listens to foreign stations. People even make a distinction between the BBC, which they criticize as biased, and Dutch radio, which is more objective. You can count between 100,000 and 600,000 parabolic antennas. The law forbidding them is not being applied at the moment. Who can dam up the tide of information?”

For Saudi society, the Gulf war represented an irreparable trauma. The presence of 500,000 foreign soldiers on the “holy land of Islam,” the inability of the kingdom to defend itself despite purchasing billions of dollars of high-tech arms, and the systematic destruction of Iraq by allied armies — all this evoked questions from a very nationalistic, even xenophobic and religious population. “Everywhere you discuss or debate, you get the impression of an awakening,” recalls al-Masra‘i. “But people were afraid of Saddam Hussein. They rallied around the king, even the Islamists. I do not share this point of view.”

There is perceptible nostalgia for the times when the principle of shura (consultation) was practiced. “In the 1960s, professors were regularly consulted by the government,” says al-Masra‘i. “Nearly every week we would receive legislative bills and they would solicit our opinion. We would respond or we wouldn’t, depending on our qualifications and our interest. This practice has disappeared with King Fahd.”

For a long time, people believed in individual steps to ameliorate their situation. Khalid al-Fawwaz, another dissident, is director of the Advice and Reformation Committee, an organization more radical than the CDLR. One of its directors, Osama bin Laden, the scion of a big merchant family, was stripped of his citizenship in February 1994 for his financial support of militant Islamist groups in Egypt and elsewhere. “In the 1970s, it was difficult to organize collectively,” al-Fawwaz says. “The officials, even the king, held weekly public meetings where they received individual grievances. They made promises.”

Since the oil boom of 1973-1974, traditional Saudi Arabian society has been convulsed by structural changes that have shaken the traditional seats of power. In 1970, 26 percent of the population lived in cities; in 1990 it was 73 percent. Infant mortality, 118 per thousand at the beginning of the 1980s, had fallen to 21 per thousand by 1990. Whereas in 1960 only 2 percent of girls attended school, the rate had climbed to 41 percent by 1981 and exceeded 80 percent ten years later. [4] Women now comprise the majority of graduates though they are still excluded from certain fields — engineering, journalism and architecture, for example — and the labor market is practically closed to them. Their confinement to the realm of the family, especially in the Najd region, is unequaled in the Muslim world. In Iran, by contrast, women have access to government and even ministerial positions.

Dissent is by no means limited to the Islamists. Early February 1991 saw the publication of an open letter to King Fahd from 43 liberal personalities — including businessmen and intellectuals. Their demands, formulated with great deference, are extremely moderate: Without questioning either the shari‘a-as-constitution or the monarchy, the signatories called for the creation of consultative councils at the national, provincial and local levels, a “basic order of government” and to bring the “morals police” (mutawwi‘in) under control. These demands, including also one reference to human rights, are considerably milder than those made by the same liberal opposition in the early 1980s and do not represent a challenge to the monarchy.

The liberals got some satisfaction when, in March 1992, the king issued a Basic Law, as well as two texts defining the characteristics of a consultative council and the role of the regions. In August 1993, the king appointed the 60 members of the majlis, for the most part naming “modern elites” with only nominal representation of the ‘ulama’. [5] These appointments confirm that the monarchy had decided to coopt and integrate its Westernized elites, including certain opponents, because they do not represent a danger and are able to help combat the Islamists.

The local bourgeoisie, weak and dependent on the rentier state and the royal family, has total freedom when it comes to commerce and banking but do not constitute a class that can demand any substantial change. This bourgeoisie, paradoxically, is even hostile to an overly rigorous tempo of development. As Giacomo Luciani has noted:

The industrialization could be much more rapid. But it would demand changes in the political economy and above all in the social and cultural realities which would invariably lead to political changes. But there exists in the heart of this solidly established elite a broad resistance to change of any sort, and not only to political change. [6]

Economic Squeeze

Young people — more urbanized, better educated than their parents and less subject to tribal relations — are also cut off from their roots. They believed they would be better off than their elders; that the kingdom’s wealth assured an easy life. Manual labor was handled by Arab and Asian immigrants, so even students from modest families aspired to a well-paying job in higher administration. The high increase in the number of students, boosted by a birth rate that is among the world’s highest, has been accompanied by an appreciable drop in standards and the appearance of “lumpen-students” without real qualifications. [7] The development of Islamic universities in the 1970s led the entry of thousands of ‘ulama’ into the market for religious experts, leaving them more open to new currents in a highly charged Muslim world.

By 1986, persistently lower oil revenues left the state no longer able to assure employment to all graduates. “Saudi Arabia became, briefly, a rich country.” [8] This somber assessment by the Financial Times was confirmed a few months later, when the International Monetary Fund observed that without structural reforms the current deficit would continue to grow and government debt would reach 77 percent of the gross national product by 1998.

The publicity this IMF assessment received, and pressure from domestic and foreign financial institutions, forced the Saudi government to scale back spending on subsidies and purchases of goods and services. Higher oil prices during the latter half of 1994 contributed to a modestly lower budget deficit for that year. Nonetheless, by the end of 1994, Saudi Arabia’s domestic debt had already climbed to 79.8 percent of GDP, beating even the pessimistic IMF projection by 5 years. Budget cuts and flagging private sector confidence depressed domestic economic activity, which led to a further fall in imports and helped stabilize the country’s external accounts.

But the Saudi government faces three structural problems which cannot be resolved by budget tinkering. First, there are few prospects for increasing government revenues. Oil prices will likely remain at current levels, and any increase in demand during the next several years will be met by non-OPEC producers. In fact, Saudi oil revenues will likely fall when Iraq returns to the oil market. As for non-oil revenues, the government has done very little to increase them, except for recent changes in utility charges and a reduction of subsidies on oil products. Imposing income taxes is out of the question, out of fear that this would trigger demands for political representation.

Second, there is little scope for further cuts in expenditures without inviting domestic political repercussions. “Politically neutral” expenditures such as operations and maintenance and capital outlays have been pruned to levels necessary to operate what is essentially a state-run economy. Only a total restructuring, with the private sector as the main engine of growth, would relieve the government of this central role. Remaining expenditures are comprised of salaries, which in 1994 accounted for 51 percent of expenditures and 90 percent of oil revenues, and interest payments on domestic debt, which now account for about 10 percent of expenditures. Both of these are likely to grow. Given that the government is employer of first and last resort for Saudi nationals, and that unemployment among new entrants to the job market is now in the 30-40 percent range, it is politically prudent for the regime to maintain a large government payroll.

Third, financial stability is difficult in a country which devoted a third of 1995’s budget to the army and security. The US and other Western countries, notably France, while preaching austerity, are all anxious to sell weapons that no longer find buyers in a contracting world market. Responding to these pressures, the kingdom continues its massive acquisition of military hardware that, as the Gulf war demonstrated, is of limited utility. The number of aircraft already greatly exceeds the number of qualified pilots available.

These purchases are profitable as well for the royal family, who receive astoundingly high commissions — Jean-Michel Foulquier, a former French diplomat based in Riyadh, claims they can be as high as 30-40 percent on each contract. Foulquier writes that Prince Sultan, the minister of defense, “has managed the fattest part of the budget for 30 years…. He reserved the administration of arms contracts for himself…. From this strategic vantage point, he watches over business — [his family’s] first of all, of course.” [9] His son Khalid, commander of the joint forces during the Gulf war, succeeded during his brief time in the limelight to accumulate $3 billion for his brokering services. The international media rarely lifts a corner of the veil of secrecy that cloaks these scandals, and any efforts to do so are quickly stifled by Western governments. [10]

The state budget must also serve to maintain the luxurious lifestyles of some 5,000 princes and princesses. According to Foulquier, “The king owns, in Arabia, a dozen palaces, among them the extraordinary al-Yamana of Riyadh. Since the Gulf war, the king has constructed a NBC [protection against nuclear, biological and chemical weapons] bunker of more than 14,000 square meters, which includes a surgical unit capable of conducting open-heart surgery.” [11] Then there are his villas in Cannes and one in Geneva, his palace in Spain’s Marbella, his property in the Yvelines and, off the coast of Jidda, an artificial island linked to the mainland by a highway.

Beyond this royal extravagance, what makes it difficult for the regime to reduce state expenditures is the social pact that, since the 1960s, has bound the king to his subjects: in exchange for the means of livelihood, people accept submission. Now the Islamist challenge makes it all the more unlikely that the regime will feel able to decrease entitlements and benefits and thereby risk increasing the number of discontented people.

Immobility and Gerontocracy

In these potentially perilous circumstances, the king has developed a multilayered strategy. He has invoked, alongside Western governments, the specter of the “Islamic menace” in order to appear as the indispensable bastion of civilization. [12] Internally he has reinforced political control over the clergy. In November 1992, he reorganized the council of major ‘ulama’, seven members of whom were expelled for refusing to condemn the dissidents’ communique that September. He then created, in October 1994, a Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, presided over by Prince Sultan. [13]

He has also initiated overtures toward certain dissidents. In the fall of 1993, the regime reached a compromise with the moderate Shi‘i opposition. One such group, based in London and publishing an excellent journal, al-Jazira al-‘Arabiyya, suspended its activities and several of its members have returned to the country. But the Shi‘a — around 10 percent of the population — are still profoundly alienated. Even if material conditions are improved in the east, where the principal oil resources are also concentrated, the Shi‘a would remain second-class citizens. Numerous posts, especially in the army, are barred to them. They cannot practice their faith in complete freedom. There is only one Shi‘i among the 60-member Consultative Council nominated in 1993.

All those who, like Sheikh al-‘Awda, refuse to fall into line meet a single response: repression. “Rivers flow into the sea, monarchies deteriorate into despotisms,” observed Montesquieu. They also seize up, becoming immobile. On April 10, 1995, a dispatch from the Saudi press agency crossed the teletypes: “King Fahd bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, Custodian of the Two Holy Places, telephoned his royal highness ‘Abdallah bin “Abd al-‘Aziz, the crown prince and commander of the National Guard, last Sunday to inquire about his health following a slight incapacity due to a cold.” In a country where the closely controlled media took several days to announce the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and the health of top officials is a state secret, such a dispatch — by no means uncommon — can only feed rumors of instability and succession.

More than internal quarrels, it is the age of the leaders that threatens the stability of the monarchy. Officially, King Fahd, 74 years old, will be replaced upon his death by his half-brother, Prince ‘Abdallah, commander of the National Guard, who is 72 years old. Third in the line is Prince Sultan, 71 years old. Numerous signs indicate a sordid personal and political rivalry between Prince ‘Abdallah and those of the “clan of seven,” the seven Sudayri sons of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Ibn Sa‘ud who were born of the same mother. These include King Fahd, and princes Sultan, Nayif (minister of interior) and Salman (governor of Riyadh). Barring an accident of health, the order of succession seems difficult to modify. The opposition avoids attacking ‘Abdallah, whom they consider to be less attached to the US, and concentrate their criticisms on the Sudayri clan. But in the end “Abdallah, too, would have Washington’s blessings. [14]

It took the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979 to provoke a serious discussion in Washington concerning the massive US aid given to that country over the previous decades. It took the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 for France to question the unconditional support given to Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. When will the debate finally open on the policy toward the Saudi royal family? After which revolution? After which war?

Jean-Michel Foulquier insists that, “This immobility, especially if it continues to be accompanied by a financial crisis, is not reassuring …. ‘The party is over!’ The problem is that the master of the house does not seem to realize it. The United States and, if it has the power, Europe, would be well advised to push the country toward the path of reform. When nothing budges, everything budges.”

Why the silence of the West? Foulquier writes of a “tacit contract” whereby “Arabia shares its treasures and guarantees a policy of reasonable oil prices…. In return, it benefits from the protection of the West and its understanding in matters of human rights.” This analysis has been confirmed by James Schlesinger, the former US secretary of defense: “Do we seriously want to change the institutions in Saudi Arabia?” he asked several years ago in Foreign Affairs. “The answer is no. Over the years, we looked to preserve these institutions, sometimes preferring them to more democratic forces in the region. King Fahd unambiguously affirmed that democratic institutions are not appropriate for his society. What is interesting is that we do not seem to be in disagreement with him.” [15]

Will this cynicism pay off? An American financial counselor to the monarchy seems to doubt it. “People think that we have a gold mine in Saudi Arabia, that we can sell them military equipment in order to create jobs, help the economy, aid the transition of defense industries after the Cold War, ameliorate our balance of payments and make Saudi Arabia safer,” he told the New York Times in the summer of 1993. “I do not believe that the American government knows what it is doing when it crams arms down the throats of the Saudis. It forgets that we are thus creating instability.” [16]

Two events in August 1995 encapsulate the crisis in which the Saudi regime is enmeshed. On August 2, the king announced the most important cabinet reshuffle in 20 years, in which 15 new members joined the council of ministers. Still, the turnover represents, as The Economist noted, only “the illusion of change.” [17] Indeed, even if this reshuffling confirmed the desire to associate the “technocrats” in economic decisions from now on, all the sensitive political posts remain in the hands of the royal family: Prince Sultan, for instance, minister of defense for 30 years, kept that role. Likewise in the economic realm there appears to be little likelihood that the royal family’s complete control of financial resources, notably in the oil sector, will be questioned.

On August 12, 1995, Prince Nayif, minister of interior, announced the execution of ‘Abdallah al-Hudhayf, convicted of having “attacked a police officer for political reasons.” [18] The government communique holds the CDLR directly responsible. For the first time, the regime acknowledged having carried out a political execution. According to Human Rights Watch, the young man had already been sentenced to 20 years in prison in a first trial, which was reviewed under pressure from the government. This decision confirmed information coming out of Saudi Arabia regarding escalating repression, more frequent use of torture, banishing of opponents and so forth. The government, counseled by the former Egyptian minister of interior, Zaki Badr, is treading a dangerous path which could end in violence. The October 20, 1995 bombing of a mosque in the village of Quba, an act of personal vengeance, and especially November’s deadly car bomb attack against the Americans training the National Guard, are precursors of violence to come.

The king and his two successors, ‘Abdallah and Sultan, all over 70 years of age, appear to be incapable of responding to the actual challenges. A generation which has reigned without sharing power since the death of King Sa‘ud in 1953 sees its rule at an end. General discontent, escalating repression, paralysis of the regime in the face of any serious reform — all of the elements of crisis are present. Nobody can say today what will happen from here on out.

Translated from the French by Jon Van Camp


[1] The author, ‘Abdallah Hamid al-Hamid, is an assistant lecturer at the University of Riyadh. He was arrested and released in 1993, according to Amnesty International, “after having committed himself to withdraw from all political activity considered hostile to the kingdom.” His poem is entitled “They Have Forbidden Speech.”
[2] On the development of the Islamic opposition after the Gulf war, see Alain Gresh, “Les nouveaux visages de la contestation islamique en Arabie saoudite,” Le Monde Diplomatique (August 1992).
[3] Fifty percent of them also have doctorates. See R. Hrair Dekmejian, “The Rise of Political Islamism in Saudi Arabia,” Middle East Journal 48/4 (1994).
[4] Federal Research Division, Saudi Arabia: A Country Study (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1993).
[5] Dekmejian, op cit., and Human Rights Watch, Empty Reforms: Saudi Arabia’s New Basic Laws (New York, 1992).
[6] Giacomo Luciani, “Arabie Saoudite: L’Industrialisation d’un Etat Allocataire,” Magreb-Machrek (July 1990).
[7] See Mordechai Abir, Saudi Arabia: Government, Society and the Gulf Crisis (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 15-23.
[8] Financial Times, December 22, 1993.
[9] Jean-Michel Foulquier, Arabie saoudite, la dictature protegee (Paris: Editions Albin Michel, 1995), p. 41.
[10] Thus, an official British commission — created in 1989 to investigate the commissions received by the Saudi royal family for the multi-billion pound sterling contract for armaments signed in September 1985 by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — decided not to publish their report. The press estimated that 30 percent of the total was given as commissions. See, for example, The Independent, March 13, 1992.
[11] Foulquier, pp. 35-36.
[12] In September 1994, after the arrest of Sheikh al-‘Awda, a communique of the Battalions of the Faithful threatened Western institutions and regime officials. On April 10, 1995, another unknown organization, the Islamic Movement for Change, warned Western forces to leave the region by June 28. Neither of these two communiques resulted in any action prior to the November 13 bombing in Riyadh.
[13] “Religion and Finance,” Issues 11 (1994). The king also decided that all funds collected to sustain foreign Muslim groups will be administered by a committee headed by Prince Salman, his brother and the governor of Riyadh. See Guardian, May 5, 1993.
[14] Prince ‘Abdallah has a reputation, which he cultivates, as an Arab nationalist. He was silent in the face of the massive Western intervention during the Gulf war. He has been responsible for relations with the Syrian regime. The National Guard, which he commands, a veritable Praetorian and tribal guard for the regime, has been modernized since the 1980s by the US and the number of American advisers has continued to grow.
[15] “Quest for a Post-Cold World Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs 27/1 (1992-1993).
[16] New York Times, August 23, 1993, cited by William D. Hartung, “Nixon’s Children, Bill Clinton and the Permanent Arms Bazaar,” World Policy Journal 12/2 (1995).
[17] Economist, August 12, 1995.
[18] Summary of World Broadcasts, BBC, August 14, 1995.

How to cite this article:

Alain Gresh "The Most Obscure Dictatorship," Middle East Report 197 (November/December 1995).

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