Wednesday, October 3, 2012

'On the brink'

"...A timely new book, On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines and Future by Karen Elliot House, presents an ominous picture of a country seething with internal tensions and anger.Sixty percent of Saudis are 20 or younger, most of whom have no hope of a job. Seventy percent of Saudis can not afford to own a home. Forty percent live below the poverty line.
The royals, 25,000 princes and princesses, own most of the valuable land and benefit from a system that gives each a stipend and some a fortune.  Foreign workers make the Kingdom work; the 19 million Saudi citizens share the Kingdom with 8.5 million guest workers.
Other fault lines are getting deeper and more explosive.  According to House, regional differences and even “regional racism” between parts of the country are “a daily fact of Saudi life.”  Hejazis in the West and Shiites in the East resent the strict Wahhabi lifestyle imposed by the Quran belt in the Nejd central desert.  Gender discrimination, essential to the Wahhabi world view, is a growing problem as more and more women become well educated with no prospect of a job. Sixty percent of Saudi college graduates are women but they are only twelve percent of the work force. You can hear some of their angry voices in this book.
Since the start of the revolutions in the Arab world in early 2011 the most important question has been will they spread to the Kingdom? The stakes are huge, since one in four barrels of oil sold in the world are Saudi produced.
The American alliance with Saudi Arabia is the oldest alliance Washington has with any country in the Middle East dating to 1945 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with the founder of the modern Saudi state, Abdul Aziz bin al Saud, and fashioned an oil-for-security bargain.
Today the United States needs Saudi Arabia more than ever.  Our oil imports are up from the kingdom. The alliance with Egypt is in doubt. Iraq is tilting toward Iran.   .... Yet the kingdom is also a source of anxiety. European intelligence sources say the kingdom’s rich are still the No. 1 source of finances for extremist Islamic groups including the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan’s Lashkar-e Tayyiba. And the kingdom has all but annexed its small neighbor Bahrain to squash a democratic revolution on the island that hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet....  
Revolution in Saudi Arabia is no longer unthinkable.  Ironically, the more successfully the revolutions in other Arab states develop, the more likely Saudis will also want a government that is modern, accountable and chosen by the people.  But revolution in the Kingdom may come from angry extremists outraged by the Kingdom’s alliance with America.  Ms. House usefully reminds us that al-Qaeda remains a strong force under the surface despite a vigorous and so far successful counter terrorist effort by the Saudis (with American help). ..."

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