Sunday, September 04, 2005

Saudi Arabia Exposed Inside a Kingdom in Crisis by John R. Bradley

The title is a bit misleading: you'll find no dramatic secrets exposed here (unless you've paid no attention whatever for the past dozen years). The whole world knows how corrupt and vicious and hypocritical the Saudi rule is.

That's not Bradley's beat, though he mentions it. He spent over two years working as a reporter for the Saudi Arab News in Saudi Arabia, with unprecedented access to the country. And he got to see parts of the country that I'd only heard tiny hints of, and some parts I'd never heard of at all.

Maybe the title of the first chapter will tell you something: Liberal Voices of the Hijaz. Arabia has a history as a great trading center, and traders aren't famous for insularity or religious intolerance (it cuts down on trade). It may not surprise you to find that he seems to like this region best.

Arabia is also (to this day) a land of strong tribal connections. Bradley thinks these connections to be very strong, stronger than any sense of nationhood. The proof is in the pudding, though. When (not if) the Saudi regime implodes, we will find out how strong the tribal forces are. A large fraction of the 9-11 terrorists came from a single tribe, for instance. We cannot look to the tribes for liberalizing forces, though.

It is also common knowledge that the citizens have come to look on manual labor as demeaning, and a share in the oil wealth as their birthright. The result is, of course, that almost all real work is done by foreigners, most of them fellow Muslims from Bangladesh or the Phillipines or similar places. These poor laborers have legal rights and safeguards, which are generally ignored and unenforceable. They are often best described as indentured servants, though in many cases they never see their pay. A revolution or even merely a general strike among the foreigners would rapidly destroy the country.

The Wahhabis are the ruling religion, and viciously suppress Shia and Sufi sects. This provides a kind of legitimacy for the Saudi princes ("We're more Muslim than you are!") but at the cost of antagonizing the population who happen to live in the oil fields! And the miserable state of women in the country is well known.

The Saudis have been quite good at manipulating the media and keeping their political secrets. So little is known that:

At the Jeddah-based Arab News, the newspaper I worked for, sub editors were often amused to see columns of Middle East "experts"--Thomas Friedman, Daniel Pipes, and the like--quoting the newspaper's anonymous editorials because they seemingly reflected "a change in the Arab mindset." In fact, they were written by me, a British chap who lives in the south of France, and--when we were not available--by another British chap, who lives in the north of England.

Bradley gives some details about the various princes, which I won't try to summarize. I'm not perfectly convinced that even he has a clear handle on who's doing what why.

Bradley met radicalized youth, bin Laden family members racing cars among the dunes, and poor foreigners. At the end of it all, he concludes that outsiders have very little chance of influencing events or attitudes within the kingdom, though he puts his faith in "subtler" approaches such as language schools and cultural projects and exchange programs. Of course, this has already been done--and has caused some of the problem. The West provides not just the liberal ideas, but also the pornography and the booze and the skepticism that shock the Islamists so much. He has little hope for the regime--I have none.

Go read it.

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