Thursday, February 10, 2005

Frontline's 'House of Saud' - 1980 to Today

This is the third and final post critiquing the Frontline episode House of Saud. The first detailed Saudi history prior to 1932. The second covered 1964-1979.

Frontline covered the jihad in Afghanistan and mentioned, though not in any detail, the Saudi funding of Saddam during the Iraq-Iran War (which from the Saudi prespective was a Sunni-Shia war). But the show glossed over important domestic developments in the 1980s, notably changes in the Kingdom's economy and demographics.

Economics: The Saudi's started the 1980s flush with cash from years of high oil prices. However, prices were so high that oil fields in other countries, which had previously been unprofitable, came on line. The price of oil dropped and remained stagnant throughout the decade and beyond. This eroded the logic of the Saudi state. Today's NYT, in an article on the so-called Saudi elections, summarizes the problem.

Saudi Arabia's vast oil wealth was used to forge a distinctive social contract. The ruling princes agreed to share the wealth via a cradle-to-grave welfare system - free medical care, education and virtually free housing - while in exchange Saudis would not question how they were ruled. In the 1980's as oil revenues tumbled, those guarantees started to crumble, too. The wait for
interest-free housing loans stretched to a decade, for example, and cushy government jobs were no longer handed to all college graduates.
Standards of living started dropping and have not stopped. What looked like a great social deal in 1978, everything was free, no one worked hard but no one had a voice in government, increasingly seemed like a scam or worse, heresy. Robert Baer writes, "Per capita income over the last twenty years has fallen by more than 60 percent." This wouldn't matter so much to the older generation, who still remembered the harsh poverty of the desert tribes before oil was discovered. But that generation was aging and, more importantly, in an ever-shrinking minority. Which brings us to the second development that Frontline overlooked, population growth.

Demographics: Saudi Arabia has one of the highest birth rates in the world. Over the past two decades this has created a wave of young Saudis who only remember the Kingdom after the oil boom. The CIA Factbook says that 38% of the population is under 14. Another source puts it at 43% under age 15. The birth rate at nearly 30 per 1000. The population growth rate is 2.44%. That's almost 6 children per woman. The population in the mid-1970s was 7 million. Today it is 25 million. By 2025 it will be 41 million. This is not something to be glossed over or ignored. This is a nightmare. (Yemen is actually worse. Half the country is under 14. The growth rate is 3.4% and the birth rate is a staggering 43 per thousand. That's over 7 children per woman.)

The combination of a declining standard of living and a young population makes the country a textbook case for the J-Curve theory of revolution. One of the earliest posts on this blog explains it in more detail. Basically, it's a theory of relative deprivation. People who have always been poor don't revolt. Poor people who have known greater prosperity in the recent past do. And who is always on the front line of any revolution, manning the barracades, storming the palaces: young men. Saudi Arabia has a surplus of young, relatively deprived young men.

Frontline mentioned the strict moral codes of Wahhadism but I don't think this was given enough emphasis in light of the large number of young Saudis. Baer writes, "It's easier for a young Saudi man to hitchhike to Afghanistan than to hook up with a young Saudi girl." The repression is extreme. No movie theaters. Music is outlawed so there are no concerts, much less dance clubs. Unemplyment figures are hard to come by but estimates range from 25-40%. Certainly for the young it is at the high end of the estimates. The only acceptable social outlet is the mosque. Or they stay at home and watch al-Jazeera.

Frontline covered the 1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the social shockwave of basing hundreds of thousands of infidel American troops of Saudi soil. This story has been repeated often in a variety of formats. But Frontline, like almost everyone who tells this familiar tale, failed to ask the key question: Why couldn't the Saudis defend themselves?

They had spent easily a hundered billion dollars since 1970 buying the best US equipment and training. Saudi Arabia spends more per capita on defense than any country in the world and has done so for years.

In 1989 its expenditures of US$14.7 billion ranked eleventh among countries of the world. Nonetheless, this level of spending reflected a declining trend from a peak of US$24.8 billion reached in 1983. ... The share of gross national product (GNP) originally earmarked for defense in 1990 was 16.9 percent, materially below the peak of 22 percent reached in 1983 but still about twice as high as the Middle East as a whole. Defense outlays constituted 35.5 percent of central government expenditures in 1989.
Even today the Saudis spend more on defense than South Korea. The amount of American-made military hardware sold to the Saudis is stunning. They had the best hardware that the US, Britian and France could sell them. Given all this, why couldn't the Saudi army fortify its border with Kuwait and grind down Saddam's army?

There are two answers, one general and one specific. The general answer is that the Saudi can't defend themselves because the Saudis can't do anything. Foreign labor performs all the real work in the Kingdom, from wasking clothes and picking up garbage, to construction, to the oil industry. Why should defense be any different? The specific answer is that a lot of the defense spending is wasted in corruption and graft. A lot of it is spend on the Saudi Arabia Nation Guard whose job is to protect the royal family from internal rebellion. But I think that isn't the real story. The true answer is that dispite all the equipment and training over decades, the Saudis simply do not know how to use what they have. Their culture does not create or support the kind of soldier required to use the complex tools at their disposal, nor does it promote indenpendent thinking or problem solving. The equipment is useless without strategy and tactics.

Everything must stop five times a day for prayer. Shops close. Traffic halts. Do you think that the clerics exempt military training from this schedule? Since women are not allowed to drive, soldiers whose families are too poor to afford a chauffer, must leave the bases before sundown to drive around their mothers and sisters.

It is a hierarchical society, one of deference and obedience, as Frontline showed with commoners paying homage to the prince. The values of this culture are not the values of a modern fighting force. This is a weakness common to all Arab armies but particularly so in the case of Saudi Arabia. Non-Commissioned Officers corp is based on longevity rather than professionalism or leadership. For example, "there does not seem to be an understanding of what we would consider to be basic logistical standards, like fuel testing, or spare parts management."

Finally I think Frontline gave scant attention to the current political situation in the Kingdom. The show mentioned King Fahd's stroke in 1996. He is still the head of state on paper but politically the nation is adrift. I think it is too simple to claim, as Frontline did, that Crown Prince Abdullah is now the country's de facto ruler.

Abdullah, the King's half-brother, is engaged in power struggle with the other "Sudayri Seven," Fahd's full brothers by a woman of the Sudayri tribe. They hold powerful positions in the Kingdom and often contradict Abdullah. The three most powerful brothers, Nayef, Sultan, and Salman, are the Interior Minister, the Defense Minister, and the governor of the Riyadh region, respectively. The other players in the power struggle are Fahd's favorite wife, Jawhara al-Ibrahim and her son Abd-al-Aziz, named for his grandfather, the founded of the Kingdom.

Notice that Fahd is still King despite being virtually brain-dead. When he dies, the power struggle will come to a head with each of these players asserting their right to rule. That, however, is not the worst case scenario. Abdullah is 83. All of the Sudayri Seven are in their 70s. For all their faults they grew up in the desert and spent their lives in the government. Fahd wasn't King until he was 61. By contrast his son Abd-al-Aziz, known as Azouzi ('deary'), is about 30. He can afford to wait out his old uncles. Then what? How could a spoiled, thirtysomething prince rule a nation of 25 million people, most half his age, raised on Wahhabism, al-Jazeera and frustration? He can't.

The inevitable death of Fahd will be a huge political blow to the fragile dynamics of the Kingdom's leadership. Whether Azouzi succeeds him or not, in the near future Saudi Arabia will be lead by the 3rd generation of the royal family, a generation that did not know Ibn Saud, with no memory of life before oil, who have only known wealthy and privilege. Their illiterate grandparents lived in tents and ate locust for the protein. They drive Mercedes sedans and travel in private jets. Do they really understand the people they are supposed to govern? Can they possibly appreciate their precarious situation? Or are they as soft and decadent as I imagine, overripe fruit ready for the Islamist revolution to pluck?
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