An ancient region finds that petroleum equals power

Suspended between the continents of Africa and Asia, straddling international trade routes since the days of Alexander the Great, the Arabian Peninsula is today the seat of international power greater than any it has known since the Prophet Muhammad issued his call to his followers here 1,400 years ago.

Today, that power is pumped, in the form of crude oil, from the sands of the peninsula's eastern regions. But the L-shaped peninsula, 1,000 miles wide at its base and nearly 1,000 miles long up its western coast, is far from being all storybook desert sands and camels.

Near the peninsula's two base points, in Yemen and Oman, rain-fed mountains support skilled and ancient agricultural populations, as do the date-gardens of inland Riyadh. From the many natural anchorages of the Arabian (Persian) Gulf coast, large communities of Arab seafarers have frequently dominated trade routes in the area, and far beyond -- from the East Indies, to East Africa, and around to the Mediterranean. And the sandy bed of the Gulf itself was the source of one local occupation that at times almost eclipsed the rest -- pearl diving.

But if the coast was always well in touch with the outside world, the interior of the peninsula has until recently been dominated by the powerful confederations of camel-herding tribes who used their mobility in the uncharted desert to exert a powerful influence on the settled communities, including those of the coast.

Coexisting with the camel-herders were the merchant camel-trains plying the great overland trade routes -- along the Western (Hijaz) side of the peninsula, up to Damascus and other ancient cities, across the peninsula from the Gulf to the Great Hijaz trade centers.

It was in the Hijaz entrepot of Mecca that a man called Muhammad (blessed of God) grew first to local, then regional, fame as a divine prophet.

Finally, he was able to unite all the tribes, the townsfolk, and traders of Arabia into a single explosive force that cleaved its way up the divide between the decaying Byzantine and Persian empires to the north, reducing both to chaos.

Successive waves of Arab, then Arab-led, armies fanned out along North Africa to Spain, up the Levant to the gates of Vienna and to the eastern marches of the old Persian empire.

That explosion of intertribal unity, carried out in the name of the forceful idea of Islam (submission to the one God), remains a powerful memory throughout the peninsula to this day. The original Islamic empires may have been rent by schism and political factionalism, but Islam as a belief-system remains, and nowhere else is it as powerful as here, in its cradle.

Two major attempts have been made in the peninsula in recent times to repeat the Prophet's triumph of tribal unification. In 1744, tribal leader Mohammad bin Saud (son of Saud), from near present-day Riyadh, entered an alliance with fundamentalist preacher Muhammad bin Abdul-Wahhab, in the name of whose teachings he was able to conquer large tracts of the peninsula. The Ottoman Empire was able to strike back at, and eventually overcome, the early Saudi-Wahhabi regime in 1818. But the alliance between the two families, the one exercising political power, the other spiritual power, continued -- and continues to this day.

Muhammad bin Saud's great-great-great-grandson Abdul-Aziz (Ibn Saud) retook Riyadh for the Saud family in 1901. From there forces spread out almost throughout the peninsula until, in 1926, he was proclaimed king of the Hijaz, and a year later king of Najd and its dependencies -- a name that was later changed to al-Mamlaka al-Arabiya as-Saudiya, the Saudi Arab Kingdom.

The only challenges to Abdul-Aziz's power came from two sources: the mountain regions of Yemen and Oman, which were easy to defend against his desert troops; and the European powers, which limited his expansion to the north, and -- in the case of Britain -- extended their protection to the city-states of the Gulf.

Thus, with only these exceptions, the peninsula is today dominted by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Its founding united for the first time in more than a millenium such diverse regions as the fertile mountains of Asir, where gaily dressed women toil in the fields alongside their men; the great trading cities of Jiddah and Mecca, now able to process a million Muslim pilgrims from all parts of the globe for every year's great hajj; the capital, Riyadh, in Najd region, its date-gardens still bounded by desert, but nowadays locked centrally into the existing world order; and the great oil-cities of the east coast.

The advent of oil earnings in recent decaces has not proved an unmixed blessing, for Saudi Arabia or any of its neighbors similarly endowed. Citizens of nations struggling to meet soaring oil-import bills may doubt it, but in the Arabian Peninsula mounting petrodollar receipts have imposed huge and sudden strains on social systems previously little changed since the days of the Prophet.

These strains have not yet proved too great for the peninsula societies to bear -- as they have done in Iran. But the emergence of new materialistic priorities and new inequalities and the influx of new petromigrants nonetheless pose continual problems for the governments and citizens of the region.

A despairing group of nationals of the United Arab Emirates (per capita income: $17,000) describes the past 15 years as "Waqt at-takhreeb," the period of destruction -- of the entire indigenous social system obtaining in the region hitherto. Oil riches, they charge, as they struggle to bridge the information gap between the Emirates' new rich [word illigible] remaining poor, have turned the whole society into a class of rentiers, totally divorced from any productive work.

Nevertheless, it says much for the flexibility of the traditional Arabian mode of single-family-dominated government that all the peninsula's regimes -- with the notable exception of the Yemens -- have thus far been able to deal with the problems brought by the explosion of oil wealth, and to remain in power.

How they have achieved this, and the extent to which they have learned to live with the challenges to their system emanating from Yemen and elsewhere -- will be addressed in subsequent articles.

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