Saudi Arabia: Current state of affairs

Posted in Broader Middle East | 18-Aug-06 | Author: Ioannis Michaletos

Saudi Arabia is a country of almost 25 million people that possesses 25% of world’s oil reserves-See map 1- and it is most certainly a force to be reckoned with when is to examine the wider Middle Eastern balance of powers and history. Moreover there are also another two notable facts to be accounted for, in order to getter a better understanding of this important state.

Firstly the current population growth of Saudi Arabia reaches 3.1% and polygamy is still adhered by the religious leaders that interpret “shari’a” strictly.

Secondly 15 out 19 suicide terrorists that were onboard the planes in the 9/11 Twin Tower attacks; were Saudi Arabian subjects almost all coming from the tribe Ghamdi of the Asir area of the state –See map 2-.

In today’s turbulent Middle East Saudi’s Arabia developments will play a significant role towards establishing a safer and certainly peaceful era for the region. The country is an integral part of the worldwide economic system both as the largest producer of hydrocarbon and as a significant investor in bonds and real estate virtually globally. Thus the country played its part in assisting the West in the pullout of Syrian troops from Lebanon, is actively pressing for its acceptance in the World Trade Organization and most importantly tries to enact a peaceful reform process that will deal with the radical elements like the “Salafi”i movement that spread its wings especially the past two decades.

Saudi Arabia despite its oil riches had during the 90’s decade to cope with a high drop in oil prices in parallel with a high population growth that resulted in a significant drop of its GDP and an increase of its public lending .The explosive mixture of a large youth population and unemployment has radicalized segments of the country In the education sector already 15% to 35% of the curriculum is devoted in religious studies and the more worrying fact is that numerous tutors follow their own militant agenda by incinerating hatred amongst the youth on foreign powers of foreign moral values in generalii.

For the aforementioned developments the Saudi Arabian administration has in early 2005-10/02/2005- organized the first statewide municipal elections in its history where the population –Excluding women- elected half of their respective Councilors whilst the rest was appointed. In a country that no political parties are operational and the ministerial appointments are made solemnly by the Crown it is a major reformative initiative, and the future will tell how successful it was in order to achieve a kind of a wider popular participation in internal politics.

The issue of female participation is still open in the country where women do not have any rights apart from the one associated with their patriarchal figures in their individual families. A woman cannot travel freely without male companionship from her family –Mahram-. The religious police –“Mutawa’een”- strictly enforce the Sari’a and there are at times various reports for women being arrested even tortured for not adhering to their community religious roles. Despite all that there are some sighs of change coming from the higher level in the country. The then Prince Saud Faisal in an interview in Washington Post in 2005iii stated that he is willing to assist for the wider female participation in his country a social change that will take years until it is being accomplished. He also added that by 2005 the first women would be able to be accepted for employment in the ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Another significant issue that the country is facing is the relations with the West especially after the 9/11 attacks. Saudi Arabia has also suffered from domestic terrorism with wide scale attacks like the one in 12/05/2003 and regularly the state security captures Al Qaeda operatives that monitor Western would be targets. One should never forget that the country is the birthplace of the Muslim religion and every confrontation that relates with Muslim interests worldwide is regarded quite seriously. In combination with the social strains that have appeared recently it would be unwise not to expect radicalization to be the major problem for the country. A safer Middle East is ultimately a safer world, and that means that the world powers should pay increased attention as to how to ease grievances in the region and at the same time draw realistic plans that would benefit mutual the West and the East.

i The “Salafi” interpretation of Islam is rooted into the most puritanical aspects of the Islamic religion and is assumed to be widely connected to the extremist zealot forms of militant Islam, that to an extent are being connected with terrorist attacks. The “Salafists” are not per se terrorists; their preaching though can be connected with the increased radicalization of Muslim youth worldwide against the “morally corrupted” Western values.
ii Gilles Kepel “Fitna Guerre au Coeur de l’Islam”, Paris, Gallimard, 2004.
iii Washington Post, Sunday, February 27, 2005, Page BO.

Ioannis Michaletos is WSN Editor South East Europe.