Stability and the House of Saud: coping in Arabia's shifting sands

Even in a time of global oil surplus, it's a question that can send a shiver through the board rooms and diplomatic salons of the West: How stable is Saudi Arabia?

No matter what the current market price of oil, Saudi Arabia still sits atop the world's largest known petroleum reserves. This oil is vital to the West's energy needs and will be pumped from the ground long after the oil resources of countries such as Mexico and Britain have been depleted.

The answer to that troubling question, according to Saudis, Western diplomats , military specialists, and businessmen interviewed by the Monitor, is that Saudi Arabia is surprisingly strong in most ways - though vulnerable in several.

That vulnerability was illustrated in November 1979 when a group of armed Muslim fundamentalists took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca for two weeks, calling for an uprising against the Saudi royal family. The uprising never materialized and Saudi troops eventually retook the Grand Mosque, but the questions about Saudi stability remain.

Today, the greatest vulnerability from within might be from military ranks, though there has not been an outstanding example of disloyalty lately.

From without, the threat is Iran. But Iran's military weakness plus Saudi readiness to retaliate - United States readiness, too - is serving as deterrents.

One of the kingdom's greatest strengths has been its wealth and its well-instituted system of patronage. Even before oil was discovered in the kingdom, tribes were given handouts to ensure their allegiance. Since oil wealth came, and especially since the quadrupling of oil prices in the 1970s, efforts have been made to channel money throughout the society.

Most conceivable interest groups are cut in on the wealth in the form of grants (students), zero-interest loans (farmers), municipal job-creation projects (villagers), and mosque and Islamic educational development (fundamentalists). But this largess already is becoming more restrained as the government tightens its budget to reflect lower oil revenues. However, the cuts are being made gradually, economists say, eased by injections of Saudi financial reserves (estimated at $150 billion). Eventually there may be an overall call from King Fahd for austerity, a diplomat in Riyadh says.

The kingdom has been going through abrupt social change as it has leaped, in less than a generation, from a predominantly nomadic, oasis-dweller existence to world financial power and potential world industrial power in the oil-product and chemical field. A number of Saudis, including Commerce Minister Sulaiman al-Solaim, see a short period of economic slowdown as being ''essentially healthy'' for the country.

Even with the great leap forward, the Saudi royal family has been careful to appease and even strengthen the religious establishment. Saudi tradition has been maintained. The sexes are strictly separated. Dress is modest. Alcohol is banned. No other religions are allowed to hold services in the kingdom. If rich Saudis, including those in the royal family, occasionally bend the moral code, they do so behind closed doors or outside the country.

Moral strictness, a Western diplomat notes, has also minimized the possibility of trouble the Saudis might experience with the 2 to 3 million expatriates, the majority of whom are manual laborers.

King Fahd is considered Western-oriented and liberal, but he has so far made no radical social changes.

A diplomat on his second tour here observes: ''In his younger days, Fahd had a reputation for bending rules. Because of that, the religious establishment has its eyes on him and he knows it. Khaled (the previous king who passed on in 1982 ), however, was known for his religious convictions and had standing to dispute the clergy. So Fahd is actually less likely than Khaled to take on the clergy.''

One source of concern to the government is the Shiite minority in the Eastern Province. They are less well-to-do than the Sunni majority and have come under suspicion for their potential as a fifth column for Shiite Iran. In 1979, during the Shiite mourning day of al-Ashoura, Shiites rioted.

But Saudis and Western businessmen in the Eastern Province note that the number of Shiites is small, and they have a financial stake in the kingdom, small as the stake might be: Many work in the oil fields, at refineries, and at the new industrial city of Jubail. A conversation with a Saudi official in the Eastern Province indicated that Shiites would be confronted more forcefully if another major disturbance occurred.

There have also been periodic worries about the military, and this does seem to be where the government is most vulnerable. But knowing this, the government has long used precaution in dealing with the military: Officers and soldiers receive lucrative pay and privileges. The military is being outfitted with the latest, most prestigious American and European equipment.

This goes equally for the National Guard, which is a mirror image of the Army. The guard is drawn from the 11 most loyal tribes in the country, all of which are related to the royal family. An American military specialist working with the guard describes it as efficient, staffed with strict Muslims, and extremely loyal.

If all or part of one branch of the military were to move against the government, this would prompt an immediate reaction from the other. Given the size of the kingdom, a coup would have to be extremely well organized and would have to have widespread support. Still, in the remote event that the Saudi royal family missteps itself religiously or politically - such as by doing a disservice to Islam or perhaps by acting too conciliatory toward Israel - the military is the institution to watch.

Externally, the kingdom's greatest threat, as Saudis and Westerners see it, is from Iran.

An American working at Jubail on the Gulf coast expresses the concern this way: ''It's only five minutes flying time from Iran, coming in low over the water, to the oil terminals at Ras Tanura.''

An oil economist notes the damage to Saudi oil facilities could quickly tighten the world oil surplus and drive up prices again. But the kingdom now has begun operations at a second major lifting port at Yanbu, on the more secure Red Sea coast. Connected to the east coast oil fields by a 1,215-kilometer pipeline, Yanbu can export almost 2 million barrels of oil per day and can be expanded rapidly in a crisis.

The short answer, then, to the question of Saudi stability is that, like any other country, it has its weaknesses. Because of its oil reserves, the weaknesses are much more worrisome to the West. But for the kingdom to be seen as unstable is to overstate the case.

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