As the budding blossoms of the Arab Spring of 2011 wither in the fall of 2013, Saudi Arabia’s fragile stability hangs from the shriveled stem of the House of Saud. The threat posed by a region in turmoil to the kingdom’s ruling elite, the strategic interests of the United States, and the health of the world economy is not so much the danger of an explosion of political unrest within the kingdom as an implosion of the country itself.
Although vast expanses now encompassed within its borders were never occupied by a foreign conqueror, Saudi Arabia did not find unity and statehood until 1932, when Abdul Aziz al Saud pulled together under his rule diverse regions containing tribes of the desert and families of the cities. But Abdul Aziz and his descendants over the last eight decades have never attempted to implant an overarching identity beyond the Wahhabi sect of Islam. Instead, Saudi Arabia is a family enterprise ruling over six distinct regions held together by theology, tribal alliances and the largess that flows out of the House of Saud.
Historically, the Hejaz, the western coastal area that is home to Mecca and Medina, always held itself separate and aloof from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. Yet the machinations of the British and the Bedouin soldiers of Abdul Aziz triumphed over the rival Hashemites in the redistribution of power after World War I.
While the Hejaz as a region ranked high in importance because of its religious significance, al Hasa on the eastern coast of the peninsula ranked first in economic importance because of trade within the Persian Gulf and, after 1938, the pools of oil that lay beneath its sands. Enfolded into Abdul Aziz’s kingdom were three other regions—the Asir, the green, mountainous area south of Jeddah, where the ties to Yemen are strong; Jizan on the far southwestern coast that looks toward Africa and hosts Saudis of African descent; and the northern frontier that has always seen itself as more a part of Syria and Iraq than Saudi Arabia. But it is the Nejd, the great heartland of the peninsula that reveres the Bedouin ethos, fiercely protects the Wahhabi sect of Islam, and holds the ancestral home of the al Sauds, which has always controlled Saudi Arabia’s politics, economy and culture. Yet for reasons of history and culture, the Hejaz still disdains all other regions; the Hasa celebrates its cosmopolitanism; and the Nejd regards itself as the soul of Saudi Arabia. And the people of every region remain divided, for every Saudi is first and foremost the member of a family that claims kinship within a tribe defined by blood ties to a real or contrived common ancestor.
What is so remarkable and at the same time distressing about the Saudis today is how little they have changed since I lived there in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when isolated, poverty-stricken, and xenophobic Saudi Arabia was making the swift transition to an oil-rich country forced to engage with the outside world. When I arrived in 1978, central Riyadh still contained many of its old mud-walled structures. Basic telephone service was erratic, at best. And sewage and debris, including the carcass of the occasional donkey, ran down the center of the Batha souk, prompting expatriates to make a run on T-shirts reading “Batha Yacht Club.” In the euphoria of money descending on the kingdom, the wisecracking Westerners failed to grasp the extent to which the Saudis were psychologically engaged in a highly anxious struggle between the physical benefits of modernization and the challenges to traditionalism.
The top leadership of the House of Saud understood the conflict more than is generally recognized. Those of us cognizant of the challenge to the existing political order watched their political machine build an infrastructure that delivered roads, housing, hospitals and schools while at the same time zealously guarding the sanctity of the royal family and the faith. Although this balancing act between modernization and tradition helped the House of Saud pilot its kingdom through the hurricane winds of change in order to protect its own interests, it did nothing to prepare Saudi society for genuine nationhood.
Even if the House of Saud had not protected its own interests by playing one group off against another, using oil wealth to build genuine unity among the Saudis would have proven difficult. Before oil, generation after generation had survived on the desert without protection of any authority outside the family. Thus generation after generation instinctively distrusted anyone outside the kinship group. After they were stitched together by Abdul Aziz and gifted with great wealth, the Saudis continued to live apart. Today, urban areas, in which the majority of the population now resides, are a patchwork of walled villas, family compounds, and apartment developments in which the majority of residents share ties of region and kinship. They continue to live under the strict dictates of a patriarchal society. Above the father of the family is the sheikh of the tribe, who’s expected to provide for the corporate welfare. This is the model under which the House of Saud—the high sheikh, the defender of the faith, the protector of tradition, and the distributor of wealth—has ruled. It has worked in part because the Saudi people are so passive.