Dictator of the Month: King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

Saturday, June 18, 2011
Barack Obama bowed down before him and George W. Bush made a point of being photographed in public holding his hand. But if King Abdullah didn’t control the world’s largest oil reserves, U.S. presidents and the vast majority of Americans would have nothing do with him or any other member of the royal family of Saudi Arabia because their values are antithetical to what the United States stands for.
 
In my book Tyrants: The World's 20 Worst Living Dictators, I included a chapter about King Abdullah. Because the history of Saudi Arabia helps us to understand how Americans and others became dependent on one family in the Middle East, I have reproduced here the entire chapter. For those who would rather to go straight to the story of King Abdullah himself and the current Saudi regime, just scroll down to the heading “KING NUMBER SIX: ABDULLAH.”
 
THE NATION—Saudi Arabia occupies two-thirds of the Arabian Peninsula. It is a mostly desolate land with no rivers, no lakes, and no perennial streams. Less than 1% of the land is arable and it is possible that all of the nation’s water may run out in thirty years. In the south of Saudi Arabia lies the Rub’ al-Khali, the Empty Quarter, the world’s largest stretch of sand. Still, the population of Saudi Arabia, which has tripled since 1973, stands at roughly 25 million, one-third of whom are noncitizen foreign workers. It is illegal for a Saudi citizen to follow a religion other than Islam. Ninety percent of Saudis are Sunnis and 10% Shiites. 
 
Contained within the borders of Saudi Arabia are two important elements that have transformed the country into a major player in the world scene. In the western region of Hijaz are the two holiest cities in the Islamic world: Mecca, the site of the Grand Mosque and Mount Arafat, where Mohammad preached his last sermon, and Medina, site of The Prophet’s tomb and shrines to Islamic heroes. One of the duties of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims is to try to visit Mecca at least once in a lifetime. About two million Muslims make this pilgrimage (hajj) every year. In Hasa, in the east of the country, in the region occupied by the Shi’a minority, is the nation’s other great asset: oil. Saudi Arabia contains 25% of the world’s oil reserves and accounts for 11% of the world’s production. The Ghawar field, which provides half of the nation’s output, is the largest oil field in the world.
 
This nation of spiritual and material riches is ruled by the Saud family, a king and several thousand princes whose ruling style is a fusion of medieval feudalism and the Mafia. They follow a rigid, uncompromising version of Islam known to the West as Wahhabism. However, their devotion to ideology is balanced by a keen sense of self-preservation.
 
MUHAMMAD AND THE BIRTH OF ISLAM—Muhammad Ibn Abdullah was born in about 570 in Mecca which, at the time, was a commercial center that contained the Kaaba, a temple that was the destination of an annual pilgrimage. In his youth, Muhammad traveled extensively with his merchant uncle and was exposed to the monotheistic religions of Judaism and Christianity. When he was forty years old, Muhammad was meditating in a cave when he had a vision of the Angel Gabriel, who taught him various verses that were later transcribed and became the Quran. Muhammad gradually developed followers and, by 622, the Muslim community was large enough to be considered a threat to the local authorities. So Muhammad and his followers fled to the nearby oasis of Yathrib, which they renamed Medina. Cut off from their own tribes and without land of their own, Muhammad and his followers began raiding caravans on their way to Mecca. In 623, fighting broke out between the Meccans and the Muslims, but by 630 Muhammad’s forces were so strong that they were able to conquer Mecca without a fight. They destroyed the town’s idols, but kept the black stone of the Kaaba and transformed the annual pilgrimage into a Muslim one. Muhammad died in 632, having spread his faith over all of the Arabian Peninsula. His followers then carried Islam around the world.
 
The Muslim leaders who succeeded Muhammad were known (in English) as caliphs. The fourth caliph, Ali, moved his capital from Medina to Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula reverted to tribalism. The Ottoman Turks took power in Arabia in the sixteenth century, and it was also during this period that the Saudi extended family settled in the area.
 
THE PARTNERSHIP—Sheikh Muhammad bin Saud was just another tribal leader in the central Arabian region of Nejd when, in 1744, he provided shelter for a local preacher and judge named Sheikh Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab. Under the rule of the Ottomans, Islam, having already split into factions, lost its fervor. Wahhab’s message was that Islam needed to be cleansed. Although they are known to much of the world today as Wahhabis, the followers of Wahhab called themselves Unitarians (muwahaddun). Wahhab believed that there should be no distinction between religion and the state, that all conduct, including government, should be based on the original, unadulterated rules set down in the Quran and interpreted by the first three generations after Muhammad.   He taught that all Muslims were equal, regardless of their class, nationality, or ethnic or tribal origin. Nonbelievers, on the other hand, were subject to punishment, and his punishment for adultery exemplified his view of women. The man was reprieved, but the woman was stoned to death.
 
Wahhab’s teachings were not particularly popular, but they did attract Saud, and together they formed a powerful combination of military power and religious proselytizing. To this day, the descendents of Muhammad bin Saud control the government of Saudi Arabia and the descendents of Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab control its religious affairs. It is this same combination of sword and God that has allowed the Saud family to establish kingdoms in Arabia three times.
 
THE FIRST SAUDI KINGDOM (c1744-1819)—Saudi forces captured Mecca and Medina and, eventually, almost one million square miles. While the Ottoman Turks were busy dealing with the Napoleonic Wars, the Wahhabis destroyed all traces of the Turks, including shrines and mosques they had built. In 1811, the Viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, launched the Ottoman counterattack. In 1818, his son, Ibrahim Pasha, conquered Mecca and then continued another 500 miles to Nejd, the center of Wahhabism. His troops also destroyed the Saudi capital of Diriya. Ibrahim Pasha was not a compassionate conqueror. His troops took all the food they could find and they sent the Saudi ruler to Constantinople (Istanbul) where he was beheaded.
 
THE SECOND SAUDI KINGDOM (1824-1891)—The grandson of Muhammad bin Saud, Turki, and his son Faisal established a new Saudi capital at Riyadh and set about reconquering the lands they had lost and reconverting the populace to Wahhabism. Their efforts received a setback in 1871 when the Turks occupied the eastern Arabian province of Hasa and gave their support not to the Saudis, but to a rival family, the Rashid. The loss of Hasa was a heavy blow to the Saud family because it was the source of the dates and pearls that they used to bribe the tribes of central Arabia. The Rashidis gained control of all of the Saudi domains and the Saud family were reduced to figurehead leaders with no power. In January 1891, the Saudis, led by Abdul Rahman, abandoned Riyadh and went into exile. After two years on the road, they sheltered in Qatar and then settled in Kuwait, from which they began to launch raids against the Rashidis. When Muhammad bin Rashid died in 1897, clan infighting broke out, opening a window of opportunity for the Saudis.
 
THE FOUNDERS—Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, the son of Abdul Rahman, was ten years old when his family fled Riyadh. When he married for the second time at age eighteen (his first wife had died), the Sauds were too poor to pay for the wedding and a local merchant had to fund the festivities. But the family had not forgotten their past glory and had not given up the hope of rising again.
 
The 1902 recapture of Riyadh has been raised to such a mythic level in Saudi Arabia that it is difficult to sort out the facts from the legend. It appears that in late September of 1901, Abdul Aziz left Kuwait with a fighting force of forty men. Their numbers grew to about 200, but many drifted away as it became clear that the opportunities for plunder were slim. Armed with daggers, swords, pistols, rifles, and short-shafted spears, there were fifty or sixty warriors left when they reached the outskirts of Riyadh in January 1902. Scaling the walls of the Masmak battlements in the middle of the night, they waited until morning. When the governor, Rashid Ibn Ajlan, emerged from prayers, Abdul Aziz and his men launched their attack. A melee ensued and Abdul Aziz’s cousin killed Ajlan. Abdul Aziz appeared on top of the battlements holding Ajlan’s head and then threw it down to the anxious crowd below. When the Saud family returned to Riyadh, Abdul Aziz tried to hand over control of the city to his father, but Abdul Rahman, following tribal tradition, handed authority back to his son because he was deemed more fit for the job. Only twenty-one years old, Abdul Aziz, who came to be known internationally as Ibn Saud, was the leader of a family that had twice controlled most of Arabia.
 
While in Kuwait, Ibn Saud had been impressed by the way the nation’s leader, Sheikh Mubarak, had escaped Turkish control by cultivating the British and he tried to do the same. However, whereas Kuwait had a harbor, Riyadh had nothing that the British wanted. In fact, the Western powers had so little interest in the region that their cartographers did not even know the latitude and longitude of Riyadh. Left to his own devices, Ibn Saud and his warriors managed to fight off a counterattack by the Rashidis, but their resources were so depleted by their effort that in February 1905, Ibn Saud, in exchange for control of Nejd, had to accept the official role of district commissioner for the Ottoman Turks. The Saudis needed another four or five years to completely eliminate the Rashidi threat.
 
THE HASHEMITES—The Saudis also faced another regional challenger, the Hashemites, who would later rule modern Syria and Iraq and who still rule Jordan. The House of Hashim had ruled Mecca since 1073. In December 1908, the Turks appointed Sharif Hussein, the leader of the Hashemites, the emir of Hijaz. In 1910, Sharif Hussein captured Ibn Saud’s brother and kept him hostage until the Saudis paid a ransom. At this point the British decided to foment an Arab revolt against the Turks and looked for a leader among the Arabs. Given the choice between Ibn Saud and Sharif Hussein, the British chose Hussein because he had lived in Turkey and was familiar with modern politics, because he was a descendant of Muhammad, and because his home base, Hijaz, was more important than Ibn Saud’s home base of Nejd. In addition, Wahhabism was not popular outside of Nejd.
 
Nonetheless, Ibn Saud was still fighting for territory. In 1913, Saudi forces invaded Hasa on the Persian Gulf. Enlisting the aid of the local Bedouin, they defeated the Turks. This victory gave the Saudis date palms and access to the sea. It also earned them vast stretches of sand under which, unbeknownst to them at the time, was something that would prove far more valuable: oil.
 
Soon the Turks and the British were engaged in a chess match, searching for the right Arab allies to serve as surrogate armies in their larger struggle. For their part, Ibn Saud and Sharif Hussein sought protection from these stronger powers in their local battle against each other. In the spring of 1914, Ibn Saud accepted the Turkish title of wali (governor). Two years later, when British troops captured Basra in Iraq, they discovered a secret treaty in which the Saudis had promised the Turks not to grant concessions to the British. On December 26, 1915, however, Ibn Saud signed a ten-year treaty with the British in which he would be recognized as the ruler of Nejd and its dependencies under British protection. In exchange, he agreed to not attack any neighboring sheikhs. In fact, this was what he had asked of the British back in 1902.
 
In June 1916, Sharif Hussein also made a deal with the British, who gave him arms to fight the Turks. Sharif Hussein also convinced the nobles of Mecca to proclaim him “King of the Arabs,” a presumption that did not sit well with the vast majority of Arabs. Finally, the Ottoman Turks lost control of the Arabian Peninsula forever.
 
Ibn Saud soon learned that he had to be careful aligning himself with the British. In November 1917, the Bolsheviks, having taken power in Russia, published the Sykes-Picot Agreement which revealed that Great Britain and France had promised independence to the Arabs only to create an Arab revolt against the Turks, and that they had no intention of allowing the Arabs to keep control of any land beyond the peninsula. In addition, a letter from Arthur Balfour, the British foreign secretary, to Lord Rothschild, the president of the British Zionist Federation, gave approval for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The British hoped that the Jews would help protect the Suez Canal. Many British leaders also wanted to rid Europe of the Jews, whom they viewed as dangerously revolutionary.
 
When the Saudis defeated the Hashemites at the Battle of Turabah in May 1919, the British switched their main Arab allegiance to Ibn Saud. Two months later they invited Ibn Saud to visit Great Britain. The Saudi leader declined the invitation, but instead sent his fourteen-year-old son, Faisal, who thus became the first member of the House of Saud to visit Europe.
 
THE IKHWAN—The Ikhwan (Brotherhood) were desert evangelicals who took the Quran as the literal Word of God and wanted to revive the severe restrictions of Wahhabism. They punished Muslims who did not attend mosque services and they threatened Christians. They opposed anything that smacked of affectation, including silk, gold, long mustaches, and trimmed beards. They also opposed anything that did not exist during the time of Muhammad 1,300 years earlier, including tobacco, telephones, and telegraphs. But they did allow one exception: rifles. Ibn Saud made an alliance with the Ikhwan, and together, in 1921, they defeated the remaining forces of the House of Rashid, one of whose leaders, Saud, died in battle, leaving behind three widows. Ibn Saud gave one Rashidi widow to his brother, one to his own son, Saud, and kept the third one, Fahda bint Asi Al Shuraim, for himself. In 1924, Fahda gave birth to Abdullah, the current king of Saudi Arabia.
 
The Rashidis were no longer a threat to Ibn Saud, but he still had to contend with the Hashemites and their increasingly bizarre leader, Sharif Hussein. As a result of the Uqair Conference in November 1922, Ibn Saud gained a disputed strip of land claimed by Kuwait, but lost other land to Iraq. With British support, the Hashemites created Transjordan (present-day Jordan) to the north and assumed the throne of Iraq, which meant that Ibn Saud was practically surrounded by Hashemites. Sharif Hussein, desperate for money, doubled the price of entrance for pilgrims to Mecca. In late 1924 he banned the Ikhwan from participating in the hajj. The Ikhwan responded by attacking Mecca and overthrowing Hussein. His forces surrendered Medina the following year and, thanks to the military prowess of the Ikhwan, Ibn Saud was declared King of Hejaz.
 
Although Ibn Saud already controlled his home territory of Nejd, as well as Hasa, the former domain of the Rashidis, it was his takeover of Hejaz and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina that transformed him from a local tribal leader to a ruler of international importance. He put an end to 850 years of Hashemite rule of the holy cities and was now in charge of the hajj.
 
But Ibn Saud still had to deal with the Ikhwan, who were also supported by the Bedouin nomads. In 1927, he held a conference with 3,000 Ikhwan, who voiced their complaints to him: they did not approve of the introduction of telegraph lines; they did approve of young Faisal’s visit to England; they wanted him to punish the Shiites for their interpretation of Islam; and they wanted the Muslim “infidels” from Iraq and Transjordan to stop using Saudi grazing land. As sympathetic as Ibn Saud was to many of the positions of the Ikhwan, he recognized that they were a threat to his personal power. As he formed a new government, he drastically centralized authority and he filled almost all of the most important government posts with members of his own family. The Ikhwan revolted, but, with the help of the British, who now looked to Ibn Saud as their man in the region, he defeated them.   Over the next four years, Ibn Saud’s forces put down a series of revolts and successfully consolidated his rule.
 
THE KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA—On September 18, 1932, Ibn Saud, at the age of fifty-two, declared himself the King of Saudi Arabia. Actually, the concept of a king had never been accepted in central Arabia, where tribal tradition supported less centralized leadership, but Ibn Saud was inspired by European royalty and so a king he would be. He ran his new country like the Mafia. Cousins by marriage became lieutenants, half-brothers were given areas to rule, and non-Saudis, if they proved their loyalty, were treated like adjuncts to the family.
 
Pursuing Wahhabist doctrine, Ibn Saud took the position that there should not be a division between religion and the state. He claimed that his absolute authority was sanctioned by Allah and that disobedience to him was heresy. He used the ulema (religious leaders) to issue fatwas (written judgments) to justify his policies. He tried to expand his kingdom by invading Yemen, but the Yemenis successfully resisted and Ibn Saud had to settle for a peace treaty. Internationally, he flirted with the Soviets, who loaned him oil, and with the Nazis, who gave him German-made rifles and built him an arms factory in Riyadh. Basically though, Ibn Saud leaned toward Great Britain through most of World War II. On February 14, 1945, after the Yalta Conference, Ibn Saud met for the first time with a non-Muslim leader: the president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt, who died two months later, agreed to help the Jewish people only in ways that were not hostile to the Arabs. Ibn Saud also met with Winston Churchill, who irritated him by smoking. By the end of the war, Saudi Arabia had turned away from Great Britain and embraced the United States. Ibn Saud also managed to declare war on Germany in time to be invited to join the United Nations.
 
ALLAH’S GIFT—Oil was discovered in southern Persia (Iran) in 1908. The following year the British formed the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. By the time of World War I the British navy had switched from coal to oil. The British government bought 51% of Anglo-Persian in 1914, eventually changing its name to Anglo-Iranian in 1935 and British Petroleum in 1954. In Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud granted his first drilling concession in 1923 to a New Zealander named Major Frank Holmes. Nothing came of the deal. In 1928 the world’s five leading oil companies, Standard Oil of New Jersey (now Exxon), Standard Oil of New York (now Mobil), Anglo-Persian (now BP), Royal Dutch Shell, and Compagnie Francaise des Petroles, concluded five years of negotiations by divvying up the old Ottoman Empire. Left out of the deal, Standard Oil of California went directly to Ibn Saud and, in exchange for $175,000 in gold and a couple of loans, obtained the exploration rights to 360,000 square miles in Saudi Arabia. It finally struck oil in Hasa on March 20, 1938. Exploitation of the find was delayed by World War II.
 
After the war, the Saudis renegotiated their oil contracts. Although they lost quite a bit of money to American accounting practices, what was left made Ibn Saud an extremely wealthy man. Despite the severe restrictions of Wahhabism, he managed to father more than sixty children, and a common joke was that the only way that Ibn Saud united the Arab people was in bed.
 
PASSING THE TORCH—As early as 1933, Ibn Saud designated his eldest surviving son, Saud, crown prince, meaning that he was the successor to the throne. Ibn Saud also groomed his second-eldest son, Faisal, as a successor. By 1950 the founder’s health was deteriorating and he handed over authority to Crown Prince Saud. Saud and Faisal were very different, and the tension between them would color the politics of Saudi Arabia for the next fourteen years. Faisal was well-educated, well-traveled, and sophisticated, while Saud was a man of the desert who spoke no foreign languages and who preferred remaining in the Saudi home base of Nejd. Saud strengthened various religious prohibitions and expanded the reach of the religious enforcers, the Society for the Encouragement of Good and the Prevention of Evil. His strict Wahhabist beliefs made him unpopular in Hejaz. Faisal, on the other hand, gained popularity by legalizing football (soccer) in 1951, which had previously been banned because men exposed their thighs in public and because the ulema considered football a cover for subversive activity. Ibn Saud died, at one of Faisal’s palaces, on November 9, 1953. The fifty-one-year-old Saud became Saudi Arabia’s second king and Faisal moved up to crown prince.
 
KING NUMBER TWO: SAUD—Saud ibn Abdul Aziz was born the day that his father captured Riyadh in 1902. Outdoing Ibn Saud, he would eventually father fifty-two sons and fifty-five daughters. Saud’s reign was characterized by widespread corruption, conflict within the royal family, and the necessity of dealing with the populist, antimonarchist rise of Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser, who led the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952. Saud also outlawed strikes and the teaching of political science.
 
Nasser preached an appealing line: the Ottoman Turks had oppressed the Arab people and then the Western powers had divided them. Now it was time for all Arabs to unite and take control of their own destiny. At first Saud the king and Nasser the nationalist formed an odd couple, brought together by their opposition to the pro-British Hashemite monarchies in Jordan and Iraq. Saud gave money to Nasser to help him spread his message. But soon he came to view the Egyptian as a threat. When Nasser visited Saudi Arabia in 1956 to ask for oil, he was so popular that he was greeted by the largest demonstration in the nation’s history. In July of that year, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, and he did so without consulting Saud. As angry as that made Saud, it was nothing compared to his reaction when Great Britain, France, and Israel attacked Egypt in October. Saud broke relations with the British and the French and halted oil shipments to both countries. It was Saudi Arabia’s first oil embargo, but it would not be the last. Saudi oil revenue fell by 40%, but there was a silver lining in the uproar: U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower, immersed in a Cold War anti-Communist crusade, decided to make Saud his representative in the Arab world.
 
Not all Americans were so enthusiastic about supporting the House of Saud. When King Saud visited New York in January 1957, the city’s Catholic mayor, Robert Wagner, refused to welcome him. Wagner cited Saud’s anti-Semitic remarks, his refusal to allow Jewish soldiers to participate in the U.S. Training Mission in Saudi Arabia, his banning of Christian ceremonies, and the fact that Saudi Arabia still practiced slavery. Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon put the case bluntly. “Here we are …pouring by way of gifts to that totalitarian state, Saudi Arabia, millions of dollars of the taxpayers’ money to maintain the military forces of a dictatorship. We ought to have our heads examined.” None of this mattered to Eisenhower, who increased U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia by $180 million in exchange for five-year use of the Dhahran military base.
 
The following year, the nine leading brothers in the Saudi royal family, increasingly concerned about King Saud’s overspending and alcoholism, asked Crown Prince Faisal to return from the United States, where he was recovering from surgery. Faisal cracked down on corruption using tactics such as giving each family member a personal allowance and banning the import of private automobiles. By 1962, he had cleared the national debt. Saud tried to return to power in December 1960, forming an unlikely alliance with a group of liberal half-brothers led by Finance Minister Prince Talal. Talal ventured the radical proposal that Saudi Arabia should have a constitution. However, the ulema declared that the nation already had a constitution: Islamic Shari’a law. Saud dismissed Talal and revoked his passport.
 
Meanwhile, the Saudi conflict with Nasser was continuing to fester. Nasser and Saud traded assassination attempts (both officially denied). In 1958, Egypt and Syria merged to form the United Arab Republic, but three years later Saud managed to convince the Syrians to withdraw from the union by slipping $12 million to the Syrian royal family. Nasser’s popularity was growing throughout the Arab world, but then he made a fatal mistake. On September 26, 1962, revolutionaries overthrew the royal family of Yemen. The House of Saud was naturally alarmed to see a royal family right across its border lose all their power, particularly when the Egyptian army arrived in Yemen to help the new government. Furthermore, the new U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, did not buy the argument that the Saudi royal family was a legitimate bastion against Communism. But he did agree to give the Saudis military exercises if they would initiate reforms. So in November 1962, Faisal announced a ten-point reform program that included the abolition of slavery. At the time there were about 30,000 slaves in Saudi Arabia; the government bought 4,000 of them.
 
Faisal shared responsibilities with three of his younger brothers. He put future King Fahd in charge of reforms; he put future king Abdullah in command of the mostly tribal National Guard, which was responsible for domestic security and political repression; and he gave command of the Yemeni war against Egypt to future crown prince Sultan. Of course, it was necessary for the brothers to coordinate their activities. For example, when Fahd opened schools for girls, Abdullah’s National Guard had to be called out to enforce the decision.
 
In the spring of 1963, the republican revolutionaries in Yemen announced their intention to reclaim the province of Asir, which the Saudis had taken in 1920. The Egyptian military, using Soviet arms, bombed three southern towns in Saudi Arabia, killing many people including thirty-six patients in a hospital. President Kennedy sent fighter jets over Saudi cities to draw the line on Nasser’s aggression.
 
In December 1963, Saud again demanded that he be given power and he retired to his palace along with 1,500 troops. Three months later, seventy princes of the House of Saud met in what they called a Council of Those Who Bind and Loose. King Saud told the princes, “I am not Queen Elizabeth. Arabian kings are kings or nothing.” The princes agreed. The ulema declared Saud unfit to rule and the princes gave the kingdom to Faisal.
 
KING NUMBER THREE: FAISAL—Faisal ibn Abdul Aziz was proclaimed king November 2, 1964, and his brother Khalid was promoted to crown prince. By this time Gamal Abdul Nasser was increasingly preoccupied with his conflict with Israel, and the war in Yemen was draining the Egyptian coffers. In June 1967, Israel crushed the Egyptian-led Arab forces in the Six-Day War and doubled its size by conquering land that belonged to Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Nasser could not continue the war in Yemen. He met with King Faisal and agreed to withdraw Egyptian troops from the country. After five years, Faisal had emerged victorious over Nasser.
 
The Six-Day War destroyed Arab illusions about their power. But for Saudi Arabia it had a positive aspect because it left the Saudis as the strongest Arab nation. It also increased Faisal’s hatred of Israel, which now controlled Jerusalem, Islam’s third-holiest city behind Mecca and Medina. He blamed a “Zionist-Bolshevik” conspiracy.
 
Domestically, Faisal put an end to the period of reform in 1965. He initiated a witch hunt, ordering the arrest of anyone who was even remotely pro-Nasser. He put the Grand Mufti, Saudi Arabia’s most respected religious leader, in charge of the nation’s education. He ordered all government officials to join in group prayers. Sex segregation was formally imposed at the age of nine, at which time a girl also had to start wearing a veil. He forbade the installation of direct-dial telephones because men and women might talk together in a lewd manner. Instead, all calls had to go through operators. Faisal also forbade the use of Cadillacs because they were associated with ex-King Saud. He did allow the introduction of television, although it was heavily censored. Even scenes of Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse kissing were excised. After the Grand Mufti died, Faisal created a Ministry of Justice to take control of the religious courts, and he took from the new Grand Mufti the responsibility of interpreting Shari’a law. He also co-opted the ulema by creating a 17-member Council of Senior Ulema which was answerable to his rule. 
 
In 1969, Saudi Arabia’s only Arab allies were other monarchies. But Faisal smoothed relations with more countries, including Egypt after the death of Nasser in 1970. By 1971, Saudi Arabia’s only Arab enemies were Yemen and Iraq. Still, the Saudis were nervous. When Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya and the Ba’athist regime in Iraq nationalized the operations of British Petroleum in January 1972, King Faisal offered the United States unlimited oil in exchange for military protection.
 
On October 6, 1973, during the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria—seeking to recapture the land they lost in 1967—attacked Israel. The U.S. president, Richard Nixon, ignoring pleas from the oil industry, gave $2.2 billion in emergency aid to Israel. Back in 1960, Saudi Arabia, along with Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and Venezuela, had created the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), whose members represented 80% of the world’s oil production. The day after Nixon’s 1973 announcement of support for Israel, OPEC declared that, for the first time, the producers would set the price of oil, and they immediately cut production by 10% and threatened to cut 5% more each month until the Israeli-Palestinian problem was settled. King Faisal announced that a holy war had begun. He stopped all oil shipments to the United States and he vowed to continue the embargo until he could “pray in Jerusalem under an Arab flag.” Unfortunately for Faisal, Saudi Arabia provided only 4% of the American oil supply and Iran, Iraq, and Libya were happy to keep pumping and make up the deficit. Only sixteen days after the beginning of the Yom Kippur War, the United States and the USSR helped negotiate a ceasefire. Faisal’s vow to punish the West until the Arabs controlled Jerusalem fell flat. However, as in 1968, a war against Israel turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Saudi royal family. The world needed more and more oil. Faisal ended the embargo on March 19, 1974, after President Nixon agreed to sell to Saudi Arabia sophisticated fighter aircraft, as well as tanks and naval vessels. As soon as the embargo was lifted, Saudi wealth mushroomed. Between 1973 and 1974, the price of oil more than tripled, from $2.70 a barrel to $9.80 and oil exports skyrocketed from $5.9 billion in 1973 to $32.5 billion in 1974. The Saudis had no problems spending their jackpot. Car imports tripled in a year and real estate prices rose dramatically.
 
FAISAL VS. FAISAL—On March 26, 1975, King Faisal was shot to death by one of his nephews, twenty-six-year-old Faisal ibn Musaid. Saudi security forces interrogated the younger Faisal and then, before three months had passed, they beheaded him. The official Saudi line was that the interrogators could not find any motive for Faisal’s act and that he was on drugs and crazy. In fact, it was not difficult to surmise a motive. Ten years earlier, Faisal’s older brother had taken part in a violent protest against a television station in Riyadh. King Faisal ordered an assault against the protesters and Faisal’s brother was killed. Faisal had studied at the University of California, Berkeley, and had been exposed to the radical politics of the time. His uncle was not only a well-known tyrant, but the king had killed his own brother.
 
KING NUMBER FOUR:  KHALID—Khalid ibn Abdul Aziz was sixty-three years old when he assumed the throne of Saudi Arabia. But Khalid was not an ambitious man and was satisfied with a ceremonial role. The new crown prince, his younger brother Fahd, took charge of the nation’s most important decisions. Still, Khalid’s reign coincided with a tumultuous time in the region’s history. In February 1979, the pro-Western Shah of Iran was overthrown and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini turned Iran into an Islamic Republic run by Shiites. This inspired the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia, and the government used force to put down violent rioting.
 
On November 20, 1979, about 700 armed members of a messianic Wahhabi group seized control of the Grand Mosque, one of the holy sites in Mecca. Their leader, Juhaiman al-Utaibi, demanded the overthrow of the Saud family, the expulsion of all foreigners, and an accounting for the nation’s wealth that the royal family had wasted. It took Saudi troops, with support from Great Britain, France, and Jordan, two weeks to flush out the rebels, by which time almost 300 people had been killed, including twenty-five pilgrims and twenty hostages. Of the 143 rebels who were taken prisoner, sixty-three were publicly beheaded.
 
Three weeks later, Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan. The Saudi regime was shaken by these threats both inside and outside the country. But U.S. president Jimmy Carter pledged to protect the Saudi royals and their oil fields. “Any assault on the Gulf,” he declared, “will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States.”
 
KING NUMBER FIVE:  FAHD—When Khalid died in 1982, Fahd moved up to king and Abdullah, the longtime commander of the National Guard, ascended to crown prince. Back in the 1950s, Fahd had served as Saudi Arabia’s first minister of education, and later, for thirteen years, as King Faisal’s interior minister. Fahd Ibn Abdul Aziz was a high liver in the tradition of his father, Ibn Saud, and his older brother, Saud. He loved food, women, gambling, and luxury. When he visited Monte Carlo and France, paparazzi caught him in front of casinos and brothels. As late as 2003, when he was eighty years old, he brought with him on a vacation in Marbella, Spain, 350 attendants, fifty black Mercedes, and a 234-foot yacht. Fahd’s regime saw a rise in corruption, with kickbacks reportedly going as high as 30% in the armaments and construction industries. Fahd did put some of the nation’s oil profits to good use, providing new highways, free water and a free modern hospital system.
 
The early years of Fahd’s reign marked the beginning of deficit spending, as 25% of the gross national product was spent on defense and Saudi Arabia became the world’s leading importer of advanced weapons. There was also a marked growth in foreign labor, even while Saudi unemployment remained high. Fahd allowed women to take jobs in all-female beauty salons, schools, banks, and services, but this led to an increased presence of the religious police on the lookout for forbidden interaction between the sexes.
 
In 1986, Fahd gave himself the title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, but it was this role that brought him into conflict with the supporters of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Iranian-inspired rioting left 400 dead during the 1987 hajj. Fahd approved the reduction of Iran’s pilgrim quota from 150,000 to 40,000, whereupon Iran boycotted the hajj.
 
King Fahd also used his nation’s oil largesse to fund foreign wars, but two of these projects would come back to haunt him. He had given major support to the mujahedin fighting the Soviet invaders in Afghanistan, and he had encouraged and paid young Saudi men to go there and fight. When the Soviet troops finally left Afghanistan in 1989, the Saudi mujahedin returned home to an economy that was short on jobs. But now they were militant Islamists and they were well-trained military fighters. In the years to come, these returning mujahedin, and younger men to whom they would pass on their ideology, would become a dangerous threat to the Saudi royal family.
 
During the 1980-1988 war between Iraq and Iran, the Saudi government gave $25.7 billion in aid to Saddam Hussein on the assumption that he was the lesser of two evils. Having spent massively to upgrade its own military, the Saudi royal family exuded confidence. On April 27, 1990, Defense Minister Prince Sultan boasted, “There are no foreign troops in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This is because the Kingdom’s policy is to rely on Allah and the arms of its sons in defending itself and its holy places.” Three months later, Iraq invaded Kuwait and easily overran the country. Fearful that the Iraqis would cross the border into Saudi Arabia, King Fahd panicked. Osama bin Laden proposed to use the battle-hardened mujahedin to defend the country, but Fahd viewed bin Laden as a threat to his own power. Instead, Fahd, without consulting Crown Prince Abdullah or other members of the family, decided to accept U.S. president George H.W.Bush’s offer to defend the kingdom. More than 500,000 American troops poured into Saudi Arabia along with more than 200,000 troops from other, mostly Arab nations. The presence of the Americans was humiliating to many citizens of Saudi Arabia, who were disgusted at being protected by “Jews and women.” Saddam Hussein’s forces, although numerous, were weak, poorly trained, and easily defeated. When this became clear, it exposed the weakness of the Saudi regime, which had wasted billions of dollars on its military and yet was unable to defend itself. (Actually, it has never been proved that Saddam Hussein ever intended to invade Saudi Arabia.) The war was over by the end of February 1991, but King Fahd and the royal family still had a heavy price to pay, both literally and figuratively. Saudi Arabia reimbursed the United States and other coalition members to the tune of $65 billion, and then laid out another $50 billion to buy more weapons.
 
Discontent with the regime mildly emboldened opponents of the royal family to submit petitions for reform. One such Letter of Demands, signed by hundreds of ulemas, academics, and lawyers, called for an end to privilege for the royal family, a requirement that state officials be competent, an end to usury and taxes, and the safeguarding of individual rights. The royal family rejected the demands, and the Senior Ulema Council ruled that Saudi citizens did not have the right to publicly petition the king. King Fahd did propose in 1992 that Saudi Arabia adopt its first written constitution, and he also appointed a ninety-member consultative council, the Majlis al-Shura, which had no power.
 
Since it was obvious that the royal family had no intention of giving up even a tiny piece of power, it was not surprising that a violent opposition soon developed. Overwhelmingly, the Saudi people believed that the United States had used Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait as an excuse to establish a permanent military presence in their country. There was a civilian insurrection in the town of al-Bureida, followed by hundreds of arrests. On November 13, 1995, a bomb attack on a U.S. military mission in Riyadh killed five people and wounded sixty. Four Saudis were ultimately beheaded for the crime.
 
Two weeks after the Riyadh bombing, Fahd suffered a stroke. Although he continued to be king, his duties were gradually turned over to Crown Prince Abdullah.
 
KING NUMBER SIX: ABDULLAH—Although he did not officially take over as king of Saudi Arabia until Fahd’s death in 2005, Abdullah had been the de facto ruler of the country since Fahd’s stroke ten years earlier. Born Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in Riyadh in 1924, his mother was the eighth wife of Ibn Saud. Like his brothers, Abdullah was educated at the Princes’ School at the royal court. “I train my own children to walk barefoot,” Ibn Saud once said, “to rise two hours before dawn, to eat but little, to ride horses bareback.” Like all of Ibn Saud’s sons, Abdullah spent time at his father’s daily majlis and observed the way he dealt with the problems brought to him by Saudi male citizens. Meeting another requirement, he spent time in the desert with the Bedouins, an experience he apparently took to more comfortably than most of Ibn Saud’s sons.
 
In 1962, Abdullah’s older brother, Faisal, put him in charge of the newly formed National Guard, which was primarily made up of Bedouins, and which was given the responsibility of maintaining security in the cities, a task that became increasingly important as Saudi Arabia transformed into an overwhelmingly urban society. Beginning in the 1970s, Abdullah represented his nation at international conferences and at meetings with world leaders. During his visits to the United States, he met with President Gerald Ford, Vice President George H.W.Bush, President Bill Clinton, and President George W. Bush. Despite his familiarity with U.S. leaders, Abdullah was skeptical of Fahd’s decision to allow U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. After meeting with American officials in 1990, he is said to have remarked, “By God, they will never leave.”
 
Abdullah has four wives, seven sons, and fifteen daughters. He speaks English and three of his sons attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, while another went to England’s Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Abdullah breeds horses and was the founder of the equestrian club in Riyadh. He is also the patron of the annual Crown Prince’s Camel Race. He established libraries in Riyadh and Casablanca, Morocco, and since 1985 he has been chairman of the Jenadriyah National Culture and Heritage Festival.
 
On June 26, 1996, four weeks after the beheading of the men found guilty of the Riyadh bombing, a truck carrying 5,000 pounds of explosives blew up near the barracks of the U.S. Air Force base at Khobar, killing nineteen people and wounding more than 500, most of them Americans. This incident shook the royal family and clouded U.S.-Saudi relations. But it was another terrorist act that really confused the partnership.
 
FIFTEEN SAUDIS ATTACK THE UNITED STATES—The Saudi royal family did not know quite what to make of George W. Bush during the early months of his presidency. They considered his father a good friend and George W. himself had been in the oil business. Yet in August 2001, the new President Bush infuriated Abdullah by publicly stating that the violence between Israel and Palestine was the fault of the Palestinians. Previous presidents had shown at least a little sympathy for the Palestinian plight and had occasionally rebuked the Israelis for one excess or another. Abdullah passed on his displeasure through diplomatic channels, stating in a letter to Bush that because of U.S. support for Israel, “It is time for the United States and Saudi Arabia to look at their separate interests.” Abdullah was delighted when Bush responded with a letter reversing his position.
 
On September 11, 2001, terrorists using hijacked planes attacked New York’s World Trade Center, the symbol of U.S. economic power, the Pentagon, the symbol of U.S. military power, and were thwarted in their attempt to attack the White House, the symbol of U.S. political power. The U.S. government quickly revealed the identities of the nineteen, fifteen of whom were citizens of Saudi Arabia. The mastermind of the attacks, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, was also a Saudi, as was Osama bin Laden, the godfather of al-Qaeda, the organization that oversaw the planning of the attacks. Many Saudis could not accept the fact that their own citizens could have committed such a horrific crime. The Saudi interior minister, Prince Nayef Ibn Abd Al-Aziz, blamed the 9/11 attacks on “Zionists,” and Crown Prince Abdullah himself refused to acknowledge the existence of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia until more than eighteen months later.
 
In the days following 9/11, when all commercial flights were grounded, the Bush administration allowed 140 Saudis, mostly members of the royal family and relatives of Osama bin Laden, to leave the United States without being questioned by the FBI. Although the vast majority of these fortunate Saudis were innocent of any connection to al-Qaeda, there were some who might have provided crucial information about bin Laden’s actions and, particularly, about al-Qaeda’s funding. Later investigators were especially interested in one person who was allowed to leave: Prince Ahmed bin Salman, who died in his sleep ten months later at the age of forty-two. In August 2002, 600 family members of 9/11 victims filed a $1 trillion lawsuit against the House of Saud and other Saudis alleging that they had funded terrorism, either directly or by laundering money through questionable wings of legitimate charities. When the U.S. Congress released its report on the 9/11 attacks in July 2003, the Bush administration blocked the release of twenty-eight pages dealing with Saudi Arabia, claiming that their publication would jeopardize ongoing investigations into terrorist funding. They remain classified today.
 
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Crown Prince Abdullah and his family went to great lengths to smooth over relations with the United States. They paid $17.6 million to lobbyists and public relations firms, most notably Qorois Communication and Patton Boggs, to spread the message of Saudi-U.S. friendship in a campaign that included 1,541 television ads in two weeks. In November 2001, the Saudi government awarded a $140 million contract to develop an oil field to Halliburton, the company formerly run by Vice President Dick Cheney and in which he still held stock options. The Saudi public relations efforts did not sway the American people who, according to polls, overwhelmingly considered Saudi Arabia more of an enemy than an ally. The feeling was mutual. A Zogby International poll showed that 87% of Saudis had an unfavorable opinion of the United States. But if the people of the two countries were mistrustful of each other, their leaders felt just the opposite. President Bush would gush about the “eternal friendship” between the United States and Saudi Arabia. When Abdullah visited Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, in 2002 and again in 2005, the two made a point of kissing and holding hands in front of the cameras. Reports of their meetings have revealed some awkward moments. For example, during the first visit in 2002, Bush took Abdullah’s hands and tried to lead him in a Christian prayer.
 
FOREIGN AID—Like most wealthy families, the House of Saud has used some of its excess funds to help causes it supports. For example, over the years Saudi Arabia has donated money to Idi Amin, the dictator of Uganda; Said Barre, the dictator of Somalia; and Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator of Zaire (Congo). In fact, the Saudis paid Moroccan troops to put down an anti-Mobutu revolt. They were the principal financial supporters of Yassir Arafat in Palestine, Jonas Savimbi and his UNITA rebels in Angola, Muslim rebels in Bosnia and Azerbaijan, and the mujahedin in Afghanistan. They gave $25.7 billion to Saddam Hussein; they supplied oil to the apartheid regime in South Africa to help it survive an international boycott; and they were the leading backers of the terrorist-supporting Taliban in Afghanistan. Members of the Saudi royal family contributed to Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign in 1984 and, when the U.S. Congress made it illegal to give money and weapons to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, the Saudis stepped up and donated $32 million to the Contra cause. They also helped finance U.S covert operations in Lebanon. Good friends with the first President Bush, royal family members gave a $2 million painting to the White House, $1.1 million to the George Bush Presidential Library, and $500,000 to the George Herbert Walker Bush Scholarship Fund at Phillips Academy.
 
The Saudi royal family has also aggressively tried to convert Muslims around the world to Wahhabism, which, because of its austerity and intolerance, has always been a hard sell. Since 1975, the House of Saud has spent more than $70 billion financing mosques and Islamic centers, distributing Qurans, and building Islamic schools, such as the madrasahs in Pakistan and the pesantren in Indonesia. According to a March 2002 article in Ain al-Yaqeen, an official Saudi magazine, the Saudi royal family had fully or partially funded 210 Islamic centers, 1,500 mosques, 202 colleges and 2,000 schools in countries where Muslims are not a majority. This program has included more than $300 million spent in the United States, where the vast majority of Muslims studying religion in Arabic do so using Saudi textbooks. Some of the textbooks that are used in Saudi Arabia contain alarming content. An 8th grade school book claimed that Allah cursed Jews and Christians and turned some of them into apes and pigs. According to a 9th grade text, Judgment Day will not come “until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them.” In the 10th grade, Saudi students could read that Muslims should not befriend non-Muslims and that “it is forbidden to show happiness during the holidays of the infidels.” One text actually included a section on “ways to show hatred to the infidels.” The Saudi government claimed to have deleted this particular chapter after 9/11.
 
ELECTIONS SAUDI STYLE—One of the best ways to understand the depth of repression in Saudi Arabia is to take a look at the “reforms” that the royal family promotes as evidence of their liberalization. In 2005 the Saudis actually held an election. Of course, it was not for a national government, but rather for municipal councils. Not only were women not allowed to run for office, they could not even vote. In fact, only 400,000 men (in a nation of 25 million people) were considered eligible to register.   The election was irrelevant anyway because only half the council seats were up for election. The other half were appointed by Abdullah and the royal family. As King Fahd once said, “If we were to have elections…the winners would be rich businessmen who could buy the votes.”
 
JUSTICE SAUDI STYLE—According to Amnesty International, police in Saudi Arabia routinely use torture to extract “confessions.” The accused are held in incommunicado detention until after they have been interrogated and often until after they have confessed. Even then, they are not allowed to discuss their case with visitors. If, in court, a defendant renounces his confession, he is returned to prison for more sessions of “interrogation.” A noteworthy case from 2004 illustrates Saudi practices. The authorities arrested twelve nonviolent dissidents for holding a public gathering in favor of establishing a constitutional monarchy. All twelve confessed, but in court three of them, university professors Abdullah al-Hamid and Matrouok al-Falih and poet Ali al-Damaini, renounced their confessions. One of their lawyers was imprisoned without charge after he spoke about the case on television. At the beginning, the trial was public, but then the doors were shut and it was held in secret. The defendants were sentenced to six to nine years in prison.
 
FLOGGING AND OTHER PUNISHMENTS—The Saudi authorities have something of an obsession with flogging, which is imposed for a variety of transgressions, including alcohol-related offences and traffic violations. The record for the most lashes imposed on a prisoner is 4,750, for having sex with his wife’s sister. Although it is not known if he survived, his wife’s sister got sixty-five lashes as well, even though she was the one who reported the incident. Teenage boys are publicly flogged for talking to a young woman or whistling at one. There have been incidents of floggings being announced through public address systems at shopping malls to give shoppers a chance to watch. In March 2001, a military officer was given twenty lashes for using a mobile phone during a flight. Flogging victims can be suspended with chains and lashed with a flexible metal cable.
 
As awful as flogging is, it is mild in comparison to Saudi punishments for more serious crimes. A convicted thief can have his right hand cut off, while highway robbers are punished by cross-amputation, the loping off of their right hand and their left foot. Then there is Qisas (retaliation) punishment which means an eye for an eye—literally. In 2000, for example, an Egyptian national was convicted in Medina of throwing acid in the face of another Egyptian and damaging his left eye. The guilty party, Abdel Moti Abdel Rahman Mohammad, was sentenced to forcible removal of his left eye.
 
WOMEN: NOT SEEN, NOT HEARD—In Saudi Arabia, a woman cannot appear in public with a man who is not a relative, cannot travel without a male relative’s
permission, cannot drive and cannot work with men. In court, a woman’s testimony is equal to half that of a man and, whereas a man can divorce his wife by just saying so, it is almost impossible for a woman to divorce her husband. Women are required to completely cover their bodies in public and they must wear veils. Ibn Baz, a famous Grand Mufti, forbid women to wear high heels. “The wearing of high heels,” he decreed, “is impermissible because it may lead the woman to fall…and it shows the stature of the woman and her behind more prominently.”   Some Saudi women have expressed satisfaction with the restrictions in their country. However, from the point of view of human rights, the problem is that those Saudi women who would like to live a freer life have no choice. The strict suppression of women is not voluntary, but obligatory.  
 
Domestic violence against women is deeply rooted in tradition. Ibn Saud, a national hero, was notorious for his physical abuse of slaves, servants, concubines, and wives. The issue finally surfaced publicly in April 2004 when a well-known television presenter, April Rania al-Baz, was beaten by her husband because she answered the telephone. He dumped her unconscious at a hospital, where she was discovered to have thirteen facial fractures. Because she was famous, her husband was imprisoned and she was able to obtain a divorce and retain custody of her two sons. Unfortunately, her case is the exception, and most beaten wives have no choice but to suffer abuse.
 
The Mutawa’een religious police are on constant patrol, watching for transgressions of the rules of sexual segregation. One particularly shocking case occurred in Mecca on March 11, 2002. A fire broke out in a girls’ school. As the girls rushed out the building, the Mutawa’een forced them back inside because they were not wearing headscarves and because they were not accompanied by male relatives. When male bystanders tried to enter the school to save the girls, the Mutawa’een stopped them because they were not relatives.   In the end, fifteen girls died because of the intervention of the religious police.
 
FOREIGN WORKERS—The Saudi royal family has, for decades, imported foreigners to do unpleasant jobs. Yemenis serve as servants and street sweepers; Thai women as nannies; Filipino men as waiters; Korean men as construction workers; and Somalis, Ethiopians, Indians, and Sri Lankans as servants and manual laborers. These foreigners, particularly those women who work inside private homes, are subject to physical abuse and sexual violence. Eighty percent of prison inmates in Saudi Arabia are non-Saudis and about half of those prisoners who are executed are foreign nationals.
 
BASIC FREEDOMS—It almost goes without saying that in Saudi Arabia freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion are nonexistent. All Saudi citizens are required by law to be Muslims. In 2004, Brian O’Connor, a Christian citizen of India, was beaten and deported for owning a Bible and other Christian literature. It is illegal for schools to teach Western philosophy or religion other than Islam, and classrooms are monitored by informers.
 
The Ministry of Information, created in 1982, has the right to license, restrict, and close all newspapers. The Supreme Information Council, created in 1981, monitors books, magazines, movies, and other media. All radio and television stations are owned by the government, and censorship is so extreme that statistics on automobile accidents are kept out of the media because they might be construed as a criticism of the king or the government. Even sermons in mosques are pre-censored. The Saudi royal family would not allow the Internet into the country until 1999, and all web sites are banned until they have been individually approved. All phone calls are recorded and in 2004 the government banned mobile phones with cameras. In September 2004, they passed a law prohibiting public employees from “engaging in dialogue with local and foreign media.”
 
The highlight of Saudi Arabia’s struggle with the issue of human rights took place in October 2003 when the government actually hosted an international human rights conference. Hundreds of Saudis took advantage of this unusual occurrence to stage a public protest. They were all arrested. About eighty of the protestors were held for several months and others were flogged.
 
Ibn Saud kept control of the people he conquered through a combination of force of arms, intermarriage with more than thirty tribes, and the imposition of Wahhabism, which transcended and disempowered tribal hierarchies. He and his successors viewed nepotism and corruption as natural methods of wealth distribution. Later, the Saudi royal family used their oil profits to buy the loyalty of the population by providing free education and health care and subsidized services. When the world demand for oil has stagnated and Saudi profits have dropped, dissent has grown. But with the demand for oil growing, particularly in China, the Saudi royal family has regained the power and influence that their wealth can buy.
-David Wallechinsky
 

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