The story of the emergence of Saudi Arabia as a modern nation-state still remains to be written. But even now it is possible to single out a number of salient events and the few key personalities that have shaped the kingdom as it is today.
The unification of the country under King Abdul Aziz, the slow but steady creation of the infrastructure of a modern state under King Saud, and the shaping of Saudi Arabia as a regional power under King Faisal and King Khaled are some of the developments that, taken together constitute the backbone of the kingdom’s story in the current century.
To these must no doubt be added the reign of King Fahd Ibn Abdel-Aziz which marked the transformation of Saudi Arabia from a predominantly rural society into a modern urban one with a major role in regional and international politics.
King Fahd became a key player in Saudi politics from his youngest days, first serving as an adviser to his father, and later occupying key posts in the Cabinet as Minister of Education and then Minister of the Interior. By the early 1970s Prince Fahd, as he then was, had become known as the closest associate of his brother King Faisal Ibn Abdul-Aziz and, to a large extent, the architect of Saudi domestic and foreign policies. Whenever a sensitive mission was needed it was Prince Fahd who was put in charge by King Faisal. That enabled the prince to acquire a first hand knowledge of how world politics worked, and an intimate understanding of the men who shaped it. In the late 1960s and early 1970s Fahd played a decisive role shaping Saudi policy in the Gulf before and immediately after the end of over a century of British colonial presence in what was then the Trucial Coast plus Bahrain and Qatar.
That role was further emphasised in the crucial period that followed the painful disappearance of King Faisal IN 1975, victim to a dastardly crime. With King Khaled Ibn Abdul-Aziz assuming the leadership of the family and the country, Prince Fahd was confirmed as Crown Prince and Deputy Prime Minister and recognised as the key policymaker in the kingdom.
The years that followed were strenuous ones, full of drama and danger.
There was the 1979 Khomeinist revolution in Iran, still acting as a hurricane without a clear direction. There was the rising power of Iraq’s ambitious but short-sighted leadership under Saddam Hussein. The Cold War was heading for its peak with the two rival superpowers fighting it out in a number of regional conflicts from Afghanistan to the Horn of Africa. The Middle East heartland remained the powder-keg that it had always been. The invasion of Lebanon by Israel and the intensification of radical opposition to the Israeli forces in the Palestinian territories shortened the fuses of conflict.
In almost every case eyes were turned towards Saudi Arabia as a stable power capable of exerting a positive influence on events.
The famous “Fahd Plan” for peace in the Middle East was an initially hard sell to the Arabs which, still afflicted by wanton radicalism, slept in their maximalist beds and dreamed of a victory that was beyond their reach. Eventually, however, The Fahd Plan enabled the Arab states to move back from the edge of diplomatic civil war and adopt a more realistic approach to the issue of the conflict with Israel. Over the years The Fahd Plan, which had also been vehemently rejected by Israel emerged as a fresh dose of realism in a banquet of illusions. It eventually inspired the Madrid Peace conference and the subsequent negotiations that it generated. Even today, virtually all attempts at revivi9ng the peace profess are structured around key elements of the Fahd Plan.
Both as Crown Prince and King Fahd Ibn Abdel-Aziz was a tireless diplomat, criss-crossing the regional and international capitals to foster the cause of peace and stability. He was regarded as the “trouble-shooter” par excellence, capable of cooling down tempers, and fostering compromise where none seemed possible. His intervention was instrumental in preventing many open rifts within the Arab family of nations and in the broader Islamic world.
What history will remember as the ” Fahd era ” still remains to be objectively assessed, a task that may not be possible so soon after it has come to a close. But there is no doubt that this was an exciting era which witnessed dramatic social , economic, and cultural changes of the kind never before experienced by the people of the peninsula. The 1980s saw oil prices skyrocket to levels that even the most sanguine members of the OPEC could not have imagined a decade earlier. Booming world demand combined with a sharp fall in Iranian production, due to the revolution, paved the way for a dramatic increase in Saudi exports. The kingdom’s annual income from oil exports reached the magic figure of $100 billion a year. This in turn fuelled an unprecedented construction, and reconstruction, movement in the kingdom. Virtually every village, town and city was to be transformed. Within the life of a single generation the Saudi urban habitat changed beyond recognition.
Riyadh, once a sleepy oasis, became a modern, Western-style metropolis of over three million inhabitants. A series of modern urban agglomerations, notably Dhahran and Dammam, dotted the eastern coasts of the kingdom while towns such as Bureida, Unaizah, and Majmaah, in the heart of the Najd, made a straight move from the medieval times to the modern age. Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two most distinguished cities, became the subjects of the most thorough reconstruction they had experienced in centuries. By the year 1990 the two cities were capable of receiving more than two million pilgrims during the annual Haj season.
The southern fringes of the kingdom were not left out either. Ta’ef and Assir developed into robust provincial centres while Najran was established as the centre of a new zone of economic activity on the edge of the Rub al-Khali.
Physical change, however, was not the sole feature of the “Fahd era”. More important was the changes that took place in Saudi society. Illiteracy was almost completely wiped off while a majority of Saudis of school-age found access to secondary and higher education. The number of school-goers in general increased six-fold while the number of those who went to university in 1998 was four times higher than what it had been in 1980. By the late 1990s Saudi women acquiring higher education, both at home and abroad, accounted for almost 50 per cent of the total. Saudi Arabia that had been a mass importer of trained people began exporting professors and researchers at various levels and to a number of other Arab countries as well as to Europe and the United States.
There was a veritable explosion in the media sector. In 1980 there was not a single newspaper catering for the whole of the kingdom. By 1990 there were at least 12 national dailies plus international publications spearheaded by Asharq Alawsat and Al-Majallah and several pan-Arab television network. The number of books, by title, published in the kingdom showed a tenfold increase between 1980 and 2005. A whole generation of Saudi poets, novelists and journalists began to make its mark while Saudi pop-singers captured a portion of the pan-Arab market. Saudi architects, painters, composers and photographers began finding an international audience, underlying the fact that the kingdom, long an importer of cultural goods, was now capable of making its own contribution to the broader world of culture.
All these, of course, were signs that a new urban middle class was taking shape in the kingdom, creating a dynamic sociological base for the nation’s modernisation.
Support from this new middle class was of crucial importance in such moments of clear and present danger as the war for the liberation of Kuwait. That war, indeed the entire crisis unleashed by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990, may, in hindsight, appear as more sound than fury. At the time, however, no one would have known that Saddam’s army would collapse so quickly like a pack of card. There was no guarantee that the war so callously unleashed would not engulf the entire region. Nor was anyone in a position to offer guarantees that the region’s economies would not collapse under the weight of conflict and war. The new middle class, however, stood its ground in support of the government and gave the kingdom the domestic strength it needed to cope with that moment of historic uncertainty. It became clear that a new Saudi national identity was now a reality and that at its centre stood the new middle class with its aspirations for modernisation and reform.
The emergence of that middle class meant that organising the Saudi society and pooling its resources in support of clear policy objectives now required a greater degree of popular participation. At the same time it also meant that, for the first time, a genuine and large domestic base existed for modernisation. For generations the key object of Saudi policy had been the avoidance of change. That was replaced by a new objective: the management of change.
The announcement of a Basic Law (constitution), the kingdom’s first, and the creation of a Consultative Assembly, were both prompted by a desire to manage the inevitable change within a framework of traditional values and methods. Over the years the newly created Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Assembly) whose members are appointed by the king saw its membership increased and its powers expanded. Having started as a purely advisory body, the Majlis was allowed to develop towards a legislature with steadily growing responsibilities. The process of political reform was to continue and, in the year 2004, led to the introduction of a system of partial elections for municipal elections throughout the kingdom. In the meantime, attempts at broadening the base of the decision-making led to the creation of a number of councils on the initiative of Crown Prince Abdullah Ibn Abdul-Aziz.
Over the years the process of reform has been combined with the appearance at key administrative and economic positions of a new generation of young, well-educated, and disciplined managers seeking advancement on the basis of individual merit rather than family or clan connections. By the start of the new century there were many thousands of Saudis who, thanks to their education and experience, were able to work anywhere in the world but had chosen to work in their homeland speed up the process of modernisation.
A generation ago the Saudi society was a silent one with few people prepared to discuss anything beyond the weather and other anodyne subjects. Today, the Saudi society is a talking one. Even in the remotest villages one finds people who are willing and able to discuss economic, political and social issues of importance to their society. Part of this willingness to discuss and debate is also being gradually reflected in the Saudi media which, although still too cautious for its own good, is beginning to focus on a wider range of issues. Any regular reader of the Saudi press would be impressed by what is a sea-change in its treatment of news and exposition of views.
The reform process has also manifested itself in the creation of a series of panels within the broader format of a national dialogue, initiated by Crown Prince Abdullah Ibn Abdul-Aziz, allowing for some of he formerly taboo issues of life in the kingdom to be raised and debated in public.
If the “Fahd era” is judged on purely material grounds one might be tempted to describe it as a roller-coaster.
Average per-head incomes have varied between $6000 and $16000 per annum while budget surpluses of tens of billions of dollars have alternated with equally large deficits. In all that , and as might be expected, much depended on the price of oil which fell to below $10 per barrel for a part of he 1990s only to rise to almost $60 earlier this year. Despite some efforts and even more talk, the grand hope of reducing the kingdom”s massive dependence on oil income remains largely unfulfilled.
The private sector of the economy, despite trebling in size in just a generation, has not yet acquired the leading position it needs in the context of a system of free enterprise. The non-oil industrial sector now represents almost 17 per cent of the GNP, from less than one per cent just two decades ago.
Agriculture has also registered impressive but uneven growth, turning the kingdom into a net exporter of some foodstuff for a while.
In the past four years much has been done to liberalise the economy and a number of privatisation schemes have been launched, some with much fanfare. All in all, however, the economic model has remained centred around a huge public sector on the basis of economic development philosophies initially shaped in the 1960s.
The Saudi kingdom stands at the threshold of a new era with a number of undoubted points of strength. Despite the terrorist campaign that has claimed hundreds of lives in the past four years, the kingdom still enjoys a measure of political stability unusual in one of the world’s most turbulent regions. The system has withstood the test of time in a region that has witnessed six major wars, a revolution, several civil wars, and an almost permanent level of violence during the past three decades. Today, the kingdom , having settled all its border disputes with Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Iraq, is one of the few states of the region with no irredentist problems with its neighbours.
Oil remains the key to the kingdom”s strength. The kingdom probably has some 20 per cent of the world’s oil resources plus huge reserves of natural gas that still remain to be assessed. It also has a young and increasingly well-educated population and, as mentioned above, middle class capable of understanding and working with the contemporary world. The kingdom has also developed a network of alliances inside and outside the Arab world to ensure its long-term security while it also contributes to maintaining peace and stability in the region. Last but not least the common Islamic faith remains a cement of national unity and the moral and cultural backbone of society.
Nevertheless, the kingdom also faces a number of problems and weaknesses. The war on terrorism remains to be conclusively won against nihilistic forces that stop at nothing in pursuit of their diseased dreams. The issue of improving the status of women and enabling them to make a greater contribution to national life cannot be postponed for ever.
Reforming the economic system through a more determined policy of privatisation and the introduction of a modern system of taxation are also key issues as is the whole strategy of "saudisation" in industries and services.
Like many other developing nations Saudi Arabia faces a major demographic challenge. Its success in reducing infant mortality has led to the emergence of an increasingly young population that has altered the traditional patterns of the labour market.
The problem of youth unemployment in the kingdom may not be as grave as some suggest. But there is no doubt that the Saudi economy remains anaemic insofar as job creation is concerned. Creating almost 300,000 new and good quality jobs each year is beyond the capacities of the present economic model.
There is also no doubt that the kingdom”s traditional pattern of alliances has urgent need of review. The 2003 wars that led to regime changes in Afghanistan and Iraq represented the first two major events in the region in which Saudi Arabia and its key traditional ally, the United States did not act side by side. That may have been inevitable, bearing in mind the kingdom”s belief that regime change in both Kabul and Baghdad would have been achieved through means other than full-scale invasion. The upshot, however, is that the very context in which Saudi Arabia and the United States were regional allies is changing with the emergence of new realities in Afghanistan, Iraq and some other Arab states.
For almost a quarter of a century, Fahd Ibn Abdul-Aziz was a father to his nation. Those who new him well appreciated his intelligence, sense of leadership, ability to take tough decisions, and, last but not necessarily least, his moderation. At times , as in the case of choosing war to liberate Kuwait in 1990-91, he knew how to stand alone. At others he knew how to build coalitions, first within his own family and then in the broader Saudi society and, when a foreign policy issue was to be tackled, in the outside world. His sense of humour, his ability to keep his feet on the ground, and his refusal to nurture personal enmities meant that he was a man in peace with himself. And this is, perhaps, why he was able to keep his nation at peace in a region ravaged by civil and foreign wars.