New Internationalist 326 August 2000
The House of Saud
When Ibn Saud was consolidating the current royal family's power over the Arabian peninsula back during World War One, British agent Harry St John Philby referred to him as 'the greatest Arab since the Prophet Muhammad'. This despite Ibn's proclivity for roaring with laughter as he beat his servants with a stick in front of his guests, his dependence on a full-time interpreter of his dreams and his taste (also shared by his 'modern' relatives) for public amputations and beheadings.
It was a point in history when the British were more concerned with undercutting Turkish influence than by the niceties of royal conduct. Ibn, who hailed from the Wahhabi Sunni subsect of Islam, gave the newly minted royal dynasty a healthy kick-start with an impressive number of progeny from his hundred-odd wives.
The reasons have changed but the policy remains the same. Despite much official ballyhoo about democracy and human rights, the 'permissive' attitude of the West towards the House of Saud continues. While other regional dictators like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qadhafi are punished for arbitrary imprisonment, mistreatment of minorities and elimination of any opposition, the House of Saud is commended as a bulwark of regional stability. The reasons are clear enough - religion and oil. Saudi Arabia is home to the holy places of Mecca and the House of Saud champions a regressive form of Islam that the US State Department sees as an alternative to radical fundamentalism.
Saudi Arabia also sits on 25 per cent of the world's known oil reserves and plays a moderating role in OPEC by manipulating supply to keep prices down. So the West's addiction to oil makes the House of Saud subject to only mild tut-tutting on questions of human rights. While addictions to Burmese heroin or Colombian cocaine are treated as national disasters, the addiction to 'black gold' is never questioned.
The current House of Saud is nominally ruled by King Fahd but his poor health has left the actual reins of power in the hands of his half-brother, Prince Abdullah. Both are in their seventies. Other princes, mostly Fahd's brothers, hold down such key positions as Minister of Defense and Minister of the Interior. The powerful Interior Minister Prince Nayef (one of the King's brothers) recently pronounced that 'we have no intention of allowing women to drive'. The Saudi female population continues to be harassed by The Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice if they defy 'Islamic norms'. A mostly behind-the-scenes struggle for a long-term successor continues amongst the various princes of the next generation.
The only concession to democracy is the tame Majlis Al-Shura - a consultative council appointed by the royal family.
The House of Saud is not small. There are 3,000 to 4,000 Saudi princes (some 30 to 40 new males are born every month) who each receive an annual stipend of $500,000 plus various other perks including 'grace-and-favour' tickets on the national airline and favourable access to appropriated land to enhance their real-estate portfolios. In the meantime the income of the average Saudi citizen fell from $14,600 in 1982 to $6,526 in 1998. The Saudi state has run budget deficits for 17 straight years. It now has a public debt of 120 per cent of annual income - roughly equivalent to that of Lebanon with its legacy of war. Virtually every part of the Saudi budget has been cut with the exception of the royal family's upkeep and the military budget. The Saudis are one of the West's most lucrative customers for modern weapons-systems with a military force numbering more than 150,000.
The Saudi royal family is well known for its ostentatious and profligate displays of wealth. King Fahd is said to owe billions to Saudi banks - $1.5 billion to the National Commercial Bank alone. In the 1980s Saudi royalty were accused of selling oil on the spot market, taking advantage of price differentials to divert billions from the public treasury.
On the spending side rumour inevitably outweighs fact - the muzzled Saudi press is careful not to step on royal toes. But disparities are becoming glaringly obvious with the royals owning Cadillacs, satellite dishes and plush houses replete with servants while even the middle class sees its living standards tumble.
Prince Abdelaziz (one of Fahd's sons) is today building himself a grandiose replica of Spain's Alhambra palace in Riyadh. Expensive partying also soaks up the cash. A combination of arrogance and hypocrisy makes the House of Saud the object of bitter resentment amongst the poor of the region and increasingly amongst its own subjects.
Sources: The Economist, Middle East Report, Human Rights Watch, World Press Review and The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of the House of Saud, by Said K Aburish, St. Martin's Press, New York, New York 1996.
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