Kingdom of the terrified

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is fraught with contradictions foisted upon it by modernism.

The oil boom of the 1970s availed Saudi Arabia the resources and the will to deploy influence regionally [GALLO/GETTY]

Berkeley, CA – In 1973, the ageing Faisal bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud won the hearts of Muslims around the world by throwing Saudi Arabia’s weight behind the oil embargo, the aim of which was to dissuade the United States and its Western allies from their all-out support of Israel during the October War.

Interpretations of the Saudi role in the embargo vary, but this is of no particular consequence: for the Islamic world, the custodian of the Holy Mosques became the champion of Palestinian rights and the instrument of self-assertion against Israel and the West. In the quotidian historical memory of Muslims, religious authority, worldly power and justice were united, for the first time in recent history. Things have come a long way since then.

Faisal bin Abdul Aziz was a man of few words, but Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was more outspoken. In addition to instructing a BBC reporter on the merits of the embargo, which, Reza Shah argued, would make lazy British citizens improve themselves by working harder, he had another message: “As far as we are concerned,” he announced to the National Press Club, Washington, DC in 1973, “we are not the toys of any country, including the United States”.

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In 2012, this synchronicity of action by two of the United States’ “pillars of stability” in the Middle East is worth reflecting upon. For, since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, US and Saudi foreign policy has been almost single-mindedly dedicated to destabilising Iran.

Indeed, there is a way to understand the post-1979 political history of the region stretching from Pakistan to the Red Sea as permutations of an ongoing and devastating battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The export of the battle keeps expanding: sectarian violence has become ubiquitous in countries where it had been non-existent.

Colonial powers may have engineered sectarian strife into the geography of countries like Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, but what of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and even Bahrain? The expanding battle field tells us something about shifts in Saudi ambitions, and the anxieties that shape them. The Kingdom that exports terrorism is also the Kingdom of the terrified.

The Arab Cold War

Before walking out of the “Friends of Syria” conference in Tunis, citing a “lack of resolve” on the part of other attendees, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, opined that arming the Syrian opposition “… is an excellent idea”. High-end shopping for military equipment is not a new thing for the Kingdom, but there seems to be a new urgency to consume.

Fortification has become the governing idiom of Saudi foreign policy: It spends over 10 per cent of GDP on defence, more than double the proportion spent by the United States. In 2011 alone, the Kingdom bought weapons to the tune of $30bn from American suppliers.

In light of the fact that the US has habitually taken down heavily armed Muslim countries that, by virtue of bad luck, are located anywhere near Israel, the spending seems senseless. 

“As the embarrassing flight from Al Khafji… demonstrated, the Saudi army is not capable of managing even a scrimmage.”

Like Israel, Saudi Arabia has long perceived itself as being surrounded by hostile powers. Encircled and besieged, first by the “radical” “Pan-Arab” regimes of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and then by Iran and its Shia offshoots in the Arab world and beyond, Saudi Arabia’s weapons have never been used for wars it has waged itself. 

Saudi Arabia has never fought a war. In fact, as the embarrassing flight from Al Khafji well ahead of a badly battered Iraqi brigade demonstrated, the Saudi army is not capable of managing even a scrimmage. However, the government has been engaged in proxy wars more or less continuously since 1962. 

The oil boom of the 1970s availed Saudi Arabia the resources and the will to deploy influence regionally. Following the Iranian Revolution and the simultaneous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a vastly more aggressive global policy evolved, notably, the initiation of the Iraq-Iran war (eight years) and Afghan War I (10 years). The list goes on.

Saudi Arabia’s relationship with its Arab neighbours during the “Arab Cold War” was a complex affair undertaken at several levels. It was, at base, a contest between two visions of the Arab future, and Saudi Arabia was forced to pay heed to Nasserite and Baathist claims of progressive, participatory modernisation.

When US troops were allowed to station in Al-Hassa in 1991, Saudi Arabia’s connection with the Arab world came unglued in a new way that is illustrated in one of the few public statements made by the soft-spoken King Faisal. Following his pre-embargo statement after his 1973 meeting with Kissinger in Washington, King Faisal expressed his “deep concern” about how continuing American support for Israel would place Saudi Arabia in an “untenable position in the Arab world”.

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With Desert Storm, that version of the “Arab World” ceased to exist for Saudi Arabia: No more rhetorical sparring was needed; there was no need to continue to apologise for its good fortune through “Riyal politics”.

Desert Storm signalled that henceforth, the Gulf Arabs were under the American military umbrella and no longer needed to justify themselves to their less affluent brethren. Unfortunately, the same act of liberation dissolved any vestiges of religious authority that the Al Saud had at home, and earned them the contempt of many in the Muslim world.

Ideology by proxy

The new freedom from the myth of Arab brotherhood reshaped the form that Saudi Arabia’s proxy wars took. The Afghan-Soviet war became the template for the future. Most striking in the new doctrine is its preferred organisational form, namely, indoctrinating, arming and funding small groups of disgruntled, impoverished, largely underage young men and then setting them free to form their own networks, appropriate to their cultural codes, circumstances and idiosyncratic goals.

Auto-deploying themselves globally, making their own connections and contacts, these groups morphed (and continue to mutate) into organisations that are no longer (and cannot be) controlled by Saudi Arabia or, for that matter, anyone else. The prime example of such a metamorphosis, of course, is the progression that went from the Afghan refugees in Pakistan, to the pan-Islamic Mujahideen, to the regional Taliban, to al-Qaeda (and then to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), back to Iraq, now Syria, and so on. 

It is a sweet fiction, believed only by audiences of American network television, that there are definable “terrorists” who are permanent “enemies”, destined to be defeated by the innate superiority of American “values”. Not only in the past, but right now, the Saudi government, dozens of Saudi waqfs, “NGOs”, private individuals, clerics and princes create and fund their own clients, whose goals and instructions are often at odds with each other. 

“The Pan-Arab leaders taught the Kingdom that militaries, like politics, are dangerous; and military politics were a certain recipe for disaster.”

The myriad agencies of the US military cluster are doing the same thing. The US army sometimes shares goals with the Saudis, or some of their sponsors, but it has itself become a radically fragmented, rudderless organisation that is host to any number of private firms, mercenaries and security agencies. Saudi policy is doomed to backfire – repeatedly. Sometimes, however, the US and Saudi Arabia collaborate effectively.

The Af-Pak arena is a case in point. Here, the destabilisation of Iran, the prevention of Pakistani-Iranian co-operation in the field of energy, the support of Baloch separatism and the stabilisation of Afghanistan are common goals. But these common goals are not permanent. 

And the armed “insurgents” have goals of their own, ultimately at odds with those of any of the states involved. Put bluntly, these are insurgencies that cannot be controlled but by creating new insurgents to fight the ones that already exist. Sadly, this logic is built into the strategy – or the “non-strategy”. 

On the face of it, the Kingdom’s self-defeating foreign policy could be a mismanaged effort to achieve some form of ideological hegemony in the Muslim world – the fantasy ascent of a worldwide Wahhabi Islam, presided over by Saudi Arabia. If this is the goal, someone else is going to have to do the fighting. 

The Saudi military was engineered not to be a fighting army. The Pan-Arab leaders taught the Kingdom that militaries, like politics, are dangerous; and military politics were a certain recipe for disaster. As such, the prolonged sense of encirclement and insecurity found an outlet in proxy wars that could only be passively aggressive – a behind the scenes idiom that, ultimately, fails to satisfy an all-out will to power. 

As Saudi Arabia celebrates its 80th anniversary, it seems right to reflect on what drove it to this idiom of engaging with the world. What is the lineage of Saudi political culture and socio-psychological history that called forth this trajectory and stabilised it for so long? 

The problem of nationalism

At home, the creation of “Saudi-ness” is a dance of contradictions born of a fundamental sense of insecurity concerning what, exactly, “Saudi-ness” is. On the face of it, Saudis should be the less ambivalent about their national identity than any other Arab country, save Palestine. 

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The territories that became a kingdom were never colonised. When it was forged, Ibn Saud’s new kingdom was epiphenomenal to the point of being nothing but a petty irritation and a small expense to the colonial powers that held sway in India, Syria, Iraq and Trans-Jordan.

The British did not create Ibn Saud or his kingdom, as some late-comers to colonial theory believe. The Kingdom was won by blood, guile and diplomacy, practiced in its local mode and with the utmost skill and ingenuity.

Far more than the Trucial States and the successor states of the Mandate territories, the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was an organic affair. However, three aspects of this unusual birth set the stage for a lingering sense of artificiality.

First, the notion of “kingship” is not just a culturally disembodied notion, but a form of “rule” that is utterly alien to, and in fundamental tension with, traditional forms of political authority.

Second, the lack of a colonial legacy, and therefore of a collective definition of national self-hood through struggle, meant that questions of identity were never directly broached – in fact, they were deliberately subverted to pan-Muslim leadership. This has been a high-wire act for a country that proposes to envelope the world in a very minor (and widely despised) branch of fundamentalist Islam.

Third, the Kingdom’s initially wobbly identity as a global religio-political authority was thrust into foreign affairs at the climax of Nasser’s Pan-Arab moment which, for a moment in time, was vibrant and powerful enough to find supporters inside the Royal family itself. As a result, a striking situation emerged in which avoiding nationalism was a conscious state project

This was not the only possible outcome, as Israel’s successful merging of religion and nationalism demonstrates. There were other options, illustrated, for example, by the fact that all the Republican Arabs (and others, like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) were practicing “Islamic Socialism”.  

“When Abdul Aziz bin Saud announced the birth of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, his treasury was empty.”

To summarise, by definition and by design, Saudi Arabia was not a territorial nation-state in the conventional sense of the word. Thus, while ruling a deeply political space, the Al Saud consciously emptied the Kingdom of the rhetorical and discursive deployment of the politics of conflict. No political party was ever founded in Saudi Arabian history. 

The covert, behind-the-scenes style of foreign policy, in brief, had a domestic analogue. Saudi dissidents, whether the “Free Princes” of the 1950s or returning war-hardened Mujahideen/Taliban/al-Qaeda operatives who no longer (to put it mildly) “fit in”, are not punished. They are bought out and then socially “rehabilitated” in formal state institutions that de-educate them of their radicalism and remind them of the virtues of the placid life in a safe place as detailed in a “true” reading of the peaceful teachings of the Quran.

It is a startling fact that the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait marked Saudi Arabia’s first genuinely national moment; the first open incidence of brute external conflict that forced a recognition of a common national purpose, and led to demand for political participation and social rights. Paradoxically, this national “birth” was also the beginning of a completely subservient relationship with the United States: a birth, if you will, into a new womb.

An additional example of the contradictory aspects of citizenship and nationalism has to do with the fundamental conflict between Islamic “equality” and tribal blood-lineage on one hand, and the way these conflicting identities worked out in the formal institutions of the distributive oil state.

When Abdul Aziz bin Saud announced the birth of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, his treasury was empty. Before he eliminated them, the fanatical Ikhwan that had composed his conquering army had demolished hundreds of tombs, monuments and graves that embodied the diversity of the global Muslim community. Mecca was violently denuded of the fundamentally ecumenical ethos of Islam. 

In more practical matters, Ibn Saud confronted the prospect of negotiating with the powerful guilds and merchants of the Hijaz, upon whom he relied financially. Disdained by the soon-to-be-financially dominant Nejdis as “left-overs of the Hajj”, (and therefore devoid of tribal blood-lineage) the merchants and the guilds were one of the most cosmopolitan populations imaginable, in world historical terms. They were the leftovers from the Hajj, which is a multi-cultural, multi-century global happening. 

Wealth and society

With oil wealth, the dual and contradictory insistence on the a priori superiority of both blood-lineage and the singularity of Wahhabi Islam set social status and political culture on a track where Saudi-ness involved trumping racial, linguistic and cultural differences (characteristic of Mecca, Medina and Jeddah) with ascriptive belonging (lineage) that defined how things worked on the ground. With the advent of boom-time revenues and the massive influx of foreign workers, this self-definition of Saudi-ness acquired a new meaning.

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Add to this, the fact that while lineage is one among the two claims to authority bandied about by the Al Saud, they are not among the ‘asil (noble tribes, or “people of the camel”); more embarrassing still, they are not bedouin, but urban dwellers. In other words, they are not even tribal in the strict sense. 

And those among the citizens who have not been thoroughly brainwashed on this issue, know this. The modern, formal institutions of the state funneled resources into society based on principles of blood-lineage that were utterly fictitious.    

Oil exploration, exploitation, export and the influx of oil money thus began in a nebulous ethos of self-ambivalence where everything was a surprise. The romance of the Saudi rags-to-riches story is familiar, as are the standard uncharitable remarks about rampant corruption, women’s rights and the interminable “succession debates”. These are well-worn stories that need no repeating any more than the routine litany of the Kingdom’s developmental failures requires rehearsal.

Less remarked upon is the genuine disorientation and decidedly unromantic social vertigo that attended the sudden advent of unthinkable wealth. In one generation, Nejdi oasis dwellers’ annual migrations to Bahrain to work as pearl divers gave way to kinship-based trucking businesses. 

In short time, Rolex watches became a common accessory for the truckers. Sartorial standardisation gained pace: The colourful hand-stitched veils, adorned with Maria Theresa thalers, Indian rupees, and Ottoman silver were replaced with the full black veil. 

The state used sartorial conventions (men in white, women in black) to uproot all visible signs of the very tribal lineages to which the Al Saud laid claim, creating a uniform costume delineating male from female, Saudi from foreigner. Thus, while gender and nationality were visually fixed, the tribal ethos continued to govern marital choices and the more intimate relations of family life. 

The full veil that so pre-occupies liberal feminists, in this context, was a social necessity. Like the story of the Montagues and the Capulets, “love” is deadly when people governed by blood-kinship relationships or long-standing enmities move into high-rise apartment buildings.

The sense of being under siege in the company of other nations was replicated and reinforced by a lived experience of being surrounded by foreign labourers who were culturally and linguistically alien, in addition to being, in most cases, more educated than the locals. 

“The state used sartorial conventions to uproot all visible signs of the very tribal lineages, creating a uniform costume delineating male from female, Saudi from foreigner.”

Saudi citizens that travelled, accustomed to viewing its huge multi-national labour force as inferior, subordinate ingrates, were themselves first treated like objects of curiosity and then with a resentment reserved for the undeserving rich. 

The pre-existing cultural vertigo of Saudi citizens was inflected, then, with a very visibly organised hierarchical socio-economic order in which the division between labourer and citizen was literally built into the structure of the oil economy, but was inoperative abroad.

More interesting, by far, is the fact that the huge, sudden wealth was of mysterious progeny. The traditional redistributive tribal practices, in the form of ghazu (tribal raiding), was anything but mysterious. On the contrary, ghazu was governed by minutely parsed traditions, quite apart from being a very hands-on process of seizing wealth from other tribes. Before oil, the swath of land that became Saudi Arabia was essentially a martial culture. 

This warrior society, where valour and bravery trumped other claims to leadership was first forced, and then instructed in the ways of peace through the conscious acts of the very state that laid claim to tribal purity. The status symbols that replaced these values were monetary.

Masculinity came to be defined by conformity – to fashion, conspicuous consumption, and so on. A lack of appreciation for achievement by education or toil, not to mention the abysmal state of educational institutions in the Kingdom, meant that there was little else to replace martial masculinity. All this, as the Saudi government entered the global scene, equipped with untold wealth, to promote its claim to domination of the Muslim world.

The expanding, and increasingly militarised global aspiration was contemporaneous with an associational life, assisted by the law, that remained confined to the level of family and kin. The mores, codes and display of martial masculinity had no place in the Kingdom or in the national army – then came Afghanistan, like Venus on the half-shell.

‘The Uncanny’

Sudden prosperity is probably as destabilising as instant penury, but reliance on a finite, mysterious source of wealth produces anxiety of a different dimension. The state’s discourses of modernisation and development sit uncomfortably with the lived reality of knowing that time is running out – not by some process that could be controlled, but because of geology; because of god.

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Saudi society lives in what Freud has described as “the Uncanny” – the sense that the present is a repetition of something that happened either in the past or will happen in the future. For the modernising Saudis, the present was the glittering future of development, slipping inevitably into a future desert of poverty and deprivation that much resembled the past.

There is, then, a very complex relationship between Saudi society and the 80-year-old Saudi state. One part of it is a mimetic isomorphism – two complex structures that, by an undefined causality, begin to resemble each other. The new Saudi proxy wars mimic a tribal network, deployed internationally, but with consequences that are unexpected and largely unwelcome. The other part is vividly agential: the Saudi state’s impulse to centralise, to control, consciously designed ways of shaping society to its purposes as an international player.

Over time, the state built on, accentuated and then magnified paradoxes and contradictions that were birth-given, and then let them reverberate in society, only to recycle back. 

The anxiety of the outside and the comfort of the familiar combine to form a structure that, as amorphous as it is, is strong enough to hold the government in place. This is unfortunate for the fighters of the proxy wars and for those living in the geographical space where they operate.

On account of this symbiosis, and in light of the Kingdom’s capacity to deploy conflict elsewhere while maintaining peace at home, the prospects that the “Arab Spring” will reach the Kingdom are minimal. Why, any reasonable person would ask, would one want to invite a violent attacker into one’s home, when you can send him to centre-city Detroit? 

I, like others, am deeply ambivalent about the sources and potential results of the “Arab Spring”, but it is too early to tell. The hopeful side of missing out on the dubious change of regional weather is anecdotal. Describing the impact of text messaging, a friend giggled: “We are becoming a very funny society.” He was referring to the relentless nationwide distribution of jokes about Al Saud.

Kiren Aziz Chaudhry teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. She is author of The Price of Wealth: Economies and Institutions in the Middle East.