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14 January 2013

The surprising truth about Saudi Arabia

In the west, our view of Saudi Arabia is of a culture forged in the heat of the desert sun; impervious to the shifting sands of time; unchanging, unbending and utterly unlike our own way of life.

However, in the New York Review of Books, Hugh Eakin shows that this isn’t true – or, at least, it wasn’t always this way: 

  • “The Al Saud did not consolidate power until the third decade of the twentieth century; and important parts of Saudi society were highly developed… In the Hijaz region on the western coast, there was a tradition of civil association going back for centuries. Before the Saudi conquest, the cosmopolitan Red Sea port of Jeddah had sizable populations of Indians and Europeans who together with powerful local merchants traded in spices and other goods; and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina had large corporations that drew revenues from Hajj services. In the 1920s and 1930s, these and other cities in the Hijaz had political parties, elected councils, and a flourishing press.”

Even after the unification of the country under the ruling family the political shape of the country was far from settled:

  • “Indeed, in the early years of oil, the structure of the monarchy itself was open to debate: at the beginning of the 1960s, King Saud, who had succeeded Abdul Aziz in 1953, briefly installed a reform cabinet that included several commoners and set out to establish some form of representative government.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that America wasn’t always the apologist for Saudi absolutism that it is now (and has been for decades):

  • “Up to the early years of the Johnson administration... the State Department assumed that economic and social development was supposed to produce representative government, and put constant pressure on the Al Saud to open up the political system… But all this came to an abrupt end in the mid-1960s…” 
  • “In effect, the US endorsed a state-building strategy that brought American companies such as Chevron, Bechtel, and Lockheed Martin billions of dollars of contracts and investments while giving the monarchy and the religious establishment an ever-growing hold on Saudi society. This was a fateful decision. It fostered years of disregard for human rights and an abysmal record of stirring up violent jihadism, and both continue to this day.”

America’s neo-conservatives have long been wise to this problem. But in the crucial years when their influence in Washington was at its height they focused on Iraq rather than Saudi Arabia and on military rather than non-military solutions. And we know how that turned out.

In the end what we need in foreign policy is not the adventurism of the neo-cons, nor the amoral cynicism of the so-called realists; in the story of the Saudi Arabia and the wider Gulf region, there is more than enough to discredit both schools of thought.

Rather we must seek to engage constructively and respectfully with other cultures, but without betraying what is most admirable about our own.


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