Saudi Arabia: ties with tribal regions maybe frajing

Saudi Arabia: The name itself has acquired a mystique, and the figures behind it are staggering. Every second of every hour of every day, just over $3,500 flows into the kingdom's budget from oil revenues. More than $304 million every day; more than $100 billionm every year.

Even with the most extensive development plan ever unveiled anywhere, experts estimate the kingdom will be unable to spend much more than $60 billion of this annually over the next five years -- mcuh of it on armaments.

The rest, the Saudis will reluctantly have to add to their foreign capital reserves, which already stand at well over $100 billion. Reluctantly, because that oil would be a better investment left in the ground.

But the Saudis are in a bitter Catch-22: Their domination of th eworld oil trade is such that if they cut back production to what would be economic for them, prices would soar again, bringing them back that persistent revenue surplus. . . .

Who are the people having to deal with such problems? They are, primarily, the heirs of the Saudi Kingdom's redoubtable founder, King Abdul-Aziz (Ibn Saud).

Abdul-Aziz was not only a master of desert warfare, who, within a mere quarter-century, took his family's forces from ignominious exile in Kuwait to ruling a vast and powerful kingdom. He also had the political ability to weld the diverse parts of his nation together, bequeathing to his son Saud in 1953 a finely tuned political instrument capable of withstanding the shocks of the oil era.

King Abdul-Aziz's principal methods were those of traditional Arabian Peninsula rulers: accessibility to the least of his (male) people; and the skillful use of tribal marriage to cement his kingdom together.

King Abdul-Aziz had 43 sons, by a variety of wives from different tribes and parts of his kingdom. For the most part, the wives would remain with their families, elevated by the honor of raising, in their father's houses, a Saudi prince. The princes thus provided key links between the central Saudi family decisionmaking councils and the various tribes and regions.

These days, most of ABdul-Aziz's sons are old men, or, like his first two successors to the monarchy, have already passed on. But the influence of the 30 or so survivors among them remains enourmous: Khalid bin Abdul-Aziz is the present King, his half-brother Fahd the Crown Prince. Three others, along with a grandson, the late King Faisal's son Saud, serve in the kingdom's Council of Ministers. A total of at least 30 of King Abdul-Aziz's direct descendants serve in some way in government service.

And along with other princely descendants of the original Muhammad bin Saud, these Sauds constitutethe powerful family councils that rule the kingdom created in the family name.

Key allies in Saudi control of the kingdom are the Wahhabi ulamam (plural of alim,m a sage). Many of the ulamam are descendants of the original Muhammad Abdul-Wahhab, 18th-century founder of this movement for Sunni fundamentalism -- mroe particularly, of a renowned descendant of his called simply The Sheikh.

The group of Wahhabist ulamam provide a vital theological sanction and guidance that the Sauds have always considered an essential backing to their own earthly rule. When Abdul-Aziz sought to introduce radio into his kingdom, he first made sure the ulamam would bless the project as an additional means of spreading God's word. Every subsequent step toward modernization has had to have their sanction.

The ulamam also act as a channel between the Saud family and the even more fundamentalist of its subjects. Internal opposition to Saudi rule can spring from many sources as the society goes through all the strains of modernization, but one of the main forms of expression it takes is extreme religious fundamentalism.

Such was the movement that rocked the kingdom in November 1979 by occupying the Grand Mosque in Mecca. After that episode, the Saud family strengthened the role of the ulama,m and more conservative counselors came to dominate in Saud family decisionmaking. But importantly, the system had shown itself flexible enough to survive.

Donald P. Cole, professor of anthropology at the American University of Cairo has identified some elements of the social disequilibrium brought to the kingdom by the oil wealth.

At a time when Saudi decisionmakers are desperately trying to keep their immigrant labor force from exceeding its present level of 1.7 million, he quotes a World bank study projecting an unemployment figure of 8 percent among the native 1.5 million-strong Saudi labor force. These unemployed are the unskilled , many of them migrants to the booming cities of the central east-west "corridor of development" having come from the nomadic and agricultural communities outside it.

Of key importance, for a regime brought to power by a confederation of Bedouin tribes, is the pitiful state of the estimated 25 percent of Saudis still leading a basically nomadic pastora life.

Cash subsidies have brought the Bedouin trucks and water-tankers to help them move and increase their flocks. But Professor Cole reports that this has been insufficient to tie them into the modern, meat-hungry economy of the cities.

The fundamentalists' influence continues to grow, in Saudi Arabia as in all the city-states of the Gulf. But it is not the only brake increasingly being applied on the previous rush toward Western technological development. Another factor, alarming for all the oil-rich regimes, has been the explosive growth of their foreign labor force, which now outnumbers the native population in some peninsula city-states on the fringe of Saudi Arabia.

Although it has slowed, the development rush nonetheless continues. And already, fears have been expressed that it will weaken traditional Saudi modes of government. "Today's royal children are raised by English nannies in Riyadh palaces," says one Arab sociologist. "The old links with the mother's tribal region are being eroded."

And it is what is happening to those tribal regions, away from the central corridor of development, that may yet prove decisive.

Next: striking a balance between the old and the sudden arrival of the new.m

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