Among the less visible casualties of the recent Aitken libel case was the possibility of improving the quality of discussion about Saudi Arabia, an anomalous state with which, whatever a humanrights oriented Government may intend, Britain will continue to have close relations for many years. The standard negative images of the Kingdom were easy enough to find in the Aitken saga, and have been amply reinforced by coverage of the trial of two expatriate British nurses accused of murdering a colleague. The stereotypes of Saudi Arabia may be accurate, but they are hardly peculiar to that country. On the side of Aitken and his associates there is, of course, the opposite tendency, an oleaginous deference and a habit of euphemism, backed by widespread Saudi influence in the West’s media, and by an almost total information blackout on the country – Western journalists wait for months to get visas to enter Saudi Arabia.

Middle East press coverage of the Aitken trial shows the extent to which the Arab world, too, is split into two camps. The Saudifunded newspapers, al-Sharq al-Awsat and al-Hayat, both published in London, carried stonewalling accounts of the trial. Aitken had had dealings with ‘Arab businessmen’: there was no mention of Prince Muhammad bin Fahd, Governor of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, and Aitken’s main associate, whom he allegedly met on his fateful Paris trip. The trial was, however, given prominent coverage in al-Quds al-Arabi, a daily also published in London and popular among those opposed to Saudi Arabia in Yemen Qatar, among Palestinians and, more recently, in Syria. On 24 June it ran the story of Aitken interfering with witnesses alongside the Guardian cartoon by Austin showing two Gulf Arabs holding a sword marked ‘Truth’, and the caption, ‘They’re for Sale from the British.’ Between such extremes there is little room for informed discussion of Saudi Arabia. A recent visit did little to dispel my own sense of unease – one which is shared, it would seem, by many inhabitants of the Kingdom itself.

This is not a country where it’s easy to come by reliable information. There are no firm statistics on the most important economic indicators, oil output or revenue. Few independent observers believe the official population figure of around 15 million. No one seems to know how many Saudi princes there are, each entitled to a khususia, or annual allowance of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and to perks, including free air travel. Currently, the rulers, and owners, of the Kingdom give the impression of having some, short-term, reasons for feeling a little more at ease. The price of oil (which costs the locals 50p a gallon) rose in late 1996 by 35 per cent, adding an estimated $12 billion to an income from oil of around $42 billion. In the tense context of the Gulf, the two main sources of unease, Iraq and Iran, appear to be in defensive mood. Within the country, the salafiin, the conservative and in some ways fundamentalist critics of the regime, have been less in evidence, as repression, exile and money take their toll. The men ‘with long beards and short thaub (Arab dress)’ are, for the moment, in retreat.

In other respects unease continues. In Riyadh’s ‘Thirty Street’ – where men thrust their visiting-cards through the windows of cars with women passengers – the site of a bomb explosion in November 1995, which destroyed a US-Saudi military training centre and killed several people, still stands empty. A later bomb, in Dhahran, which killed 17 Americans and wounded over 300, remains unexplained. There are rumours that those involved in the first explosion, for which four men were executed after a secret trial, were associated with the mutawwa’in, the Islamic vigilantes attached to the Ministry of the Interior, who tour the city in brown jeeps, harassing inadequately covered women and anyone who fails to observe the hours of prayer. Investigations into the second bomb remain even more obscure: there have been many arrests in areas suspected of fundamentalist influence, both Sunni and Sh’ia. But some Saudis suggest that there is a high-up connection, possibly with some prince or military commander, whose disclosure would embarrass the regime.

The Saudi state has longer-term problems for which there are no easy solutions. The first is paralysis at the top: there is more than a hint of late Brezhnevite Moscow about Riyadh, of an Islamic variant of ‘stagnation’. The three key people in the country are Fahd, the King; Abdullah, the Crown Prince and commander of the National Guard; and Sultan, the Minister of Defence. The King is 74, in poor health, and has assumed power again after a temporary regency under Abdullah. The other leading princes, all sons of the founder of the regime Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, who died in 1953, defer to him. Major policy issues, not least concerning economic change and the slow pace of Constitutional reform, remain unsettled. Abdullah is believed to be more sympathetic to Arab nationalism, and to want stronger checks on princely corruption. At a reception earlier this year for guests at al-Jinadiria, the national Festival for Culture and Heritage, he appeared in energetic mood, striding into his vast reception hall preceded by a servant bearing a vase of smoking incense.

The second problem is jobs. Saudi Arabia is becoming a more ‘normal’ country. Over the past decade, per capita income has fallen by as much as two-thirds, to around $6000 a year, and more and more young people are looking for work. Attempts to ‘Saudianise’ the economy meet with resistance even from Saudi employers. Graduates of the Islamic universities, set up by King Feisal in an attempt to channel Islamist sentiment, are particularly unemployable. The discontent over jobs and money is accentuated by something never far below the surface in the Kingdom: namely, regional differences. In the more cosmopolitan, western region, the Hijaz, there is resentment of the beduin tribesmen who overran them in the Twenties and who take a disproportionate amount of the oil revenue. Prominent Hijazis, close to the top of the regime, openly scorn the claim that their country is not ready for a more democratic system. ‘We had newspapers, and elections, before the Saudis conquered us,’ one of them told me during my stay. In the eastern, Sh’ia regions, where the oil fields are, a partial relaxation in the early Nineties has now gone into reverse, and university teachers openly denounce Sh’ia as un-Islamic.

The third problem is the country’s reliance on the US. Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait came as a big shock to Saudi Arabia: it showed that there were real threats to the country, and also exposed the hollowness of the warrior ethos, on which the ruling family had hitherto based its legitimacy. Attempts by the princes to emphasise the achievements of their troops in the conflict seem to have convinced nobody. Yet many Saudis resent the US military presence, seeing it in terms of non-Muslim troops despoiling sacred territory – a fatuous argument for opponents of the Saudi regime to use, since it is only the Saudi state that claims the whole territory, Mecca and Medina apart, to be sacred. Resentment against the US was reinforced when Washington blocked the Security Council’s vote to condemn Netanyahu’s policies in Israel. The regime is, however, caught: after the bomb blasts it moved US forces out of the cities, but they are never out of mind.

Indeed, nationalist sentiment is growing in Saudi Arabia; it is levelled against the West, and at other, allegedly money-grubbing, Arab countries, laced with suggestions of an international conspiracy. There is a vogue for books on al-istishraq, or ‘Orientalism’, i.e. the study of the Arab world seen as victim of an imperialist plot. In the opulent bookshops the section on Orientalism is found next to that on espionage and Western or Zionist conspiracies. Many Saudis believe that articles questioning Saudi financial reserves in the Wall Street Journal and other US papers over the past two years were officially inspired.

Saudi Arabia is a country obsessed with control: no political parties or independent publications are allowed. Yet this obsession, as in other strict Muslim countries, only rebounds. Whisky (for years imported on a weekly flight from Manchester by a now deceased elder brother of the King) flows freely at closed social gatherings, even if some at least of the imbibers break off for prayer. Hifi shops are illegal, as supposedly violating Islamic precepts, yet videos, cassettes and journals of all kind circulate underground. Conversation switches easily from the exalted to the most basic anatomical issues – Saudi males of an older generation seem especially interested in the facilities offered in London for reinvigorating their genitals: there are plenty of jokes about transplants.

A growing social unease on the part of men is mirrored in two striking changes. One is the growing pressure from women. They are almost entirely absent from the public space in Saudi Arabia, fleetingly glimpsed in black cloaks at shopping malls, or being driven around town by male drivers and relatives. At universities, women students have to follow lectures over video linkups, and conduct tutorials by telephone. Yet levels of education among Saudi women are high – higher in many cases than among men. It is believed that 65 per cent of the graduates from Riyadh University last year were women. Certain areas of economic activity, notably the banking sector, have divisions entirely staffed by women. And there is a large network of social organisations in which women are active. Many Saudi women have travelled abroad, and have daily access to foreign media. Books on gender relations range from assertions of the orthodox Islamic position to studies of ‘women and discourse’, replete with quotes from Julia Kristeva, Marilyn French and Laura Mulvey.

The official Saudi obsession with control produces visible tensions. An example is the restriction on representation of the human form in the media. It has no Koranic authority, but, in Saudi Arabia and, in an even more extreme form, in Afghanistan, it has become part of public morality. Thus on the advertising billboards around Riyadh no human faces are visible: an ad for car seat-belts shows a headless midriff, one for a four-wheel drive shows a male, his head covered in a head-dress. In government offices, however, or on postage stamps, portraits of the Saudi kings and princes are prominent. Similar gradations operate in the press. In the Arabic-language Saudi press, no photographs of women are allowed on the front pages, and only those of pre-adolescent girls are allowed inside; in the English-language press, women, suitably covered, are permitted; in the Saudi-funded Arabic press, printed outside the country but easily available in the Kingdom, unveiled, adult women are portrayed freely. On television, sitcoms containing unveiled women are allowed, but only in domestic settings and without any males being present.

Other signs of these undercurrents are to be found in literature. Perhaps the greatest surprise for visitors to Saudi Arabia is the size of the bookshops. The pre-Islamic poetry of Arabia is the original source of the Arabic language. Traditionally, Saudi literature was entirely in verse, which still has an important place in contemporary life. But so, now, do the novel and the short story, as in the work of the exiled Abd al-Rayman Munif, whose Pillars of Salt portrays the corruption of dynastic rule in a thinly disguised Saudi Arabia. Ghazi al-Ghoseibi, a former minister and now the ambassador to London, has seen two of his novels, An Apartment Called Freedom and The Madhouse, banned in his own country. They provide a fascinating insight into the world of the nationalist intelligentsia. The former is set in Cairo during the Fifties, while the latter follows the trail of an Arab who goes to America, falls in love and ends up in a Lebanese asylum. Women writers tend to publish short stories, focusing on themes such as alcoholism, arranged marriages, male privilege in all its forms and the denial of individual freedom by family, society and state.

Faced by all these pressures, the regime has tried to accommodate change without giving up its privileges. A consultative assembly, along with a set of provincial assemblies, was set up in 1992. The regime has also tried to refashion its ideology. In the past it presented itself as an alliance of the tribal élite, the Al Saud, and their religious counterparts, the Al Shaikh, but nowadays little or no mention is made officially of the religious origins of the regime in the 18th-century revivalism of Abd al-Wahhab. It has sought instead to give itself a new, more conventional national identity: thus in 1986 the King took the title of Servant of the Two Holy Places (i.e. Mecca and Medina; the third, Jerusalem, is more a bone of contention, given the claims to it of King Hussein, whose family the Saudis ousted from the Hijaz in the Twenties).

There are clear limits, however, to this process of change. Neither the King nor any possible successor seems able to tackle the abuse of financial and other power by the princes of the royal family. US Embassy officials talk resignedly of the $14 billion or so of revenue, about a third of the total, that is ‘off budget’, i.e. unaccounted for, and stories circulate about commissions, or nisbat, specially allocated tanker cargoes and arbitrary land seizures by princes. One prince has cornered the market in courier services, another in car sales, others declare themselves to be the owners of land where building-work is about to begin. As social and economic pressures mount, this issue of funds unaccounted for will become paramount.

Any further process of liberalisation will encounter resistance both from the malaki, or royal élite, and from the ahli, the popular constituency below. ‘Seventy per cent of the people in this country are not living in the 20th century,’ one exasperated Arab resident commented to me. Those who have attended the almost weekly carnivals associated with public executions in Riyadh report no lack of public enthusiasm for them, while opposition to any increased freedom for women comes as much from men who feel threatened by their competence and growing assertiveness as it does from the princes at the top.

It is easy to foresee a dramatic future for this world of uncertainty, rumour and amazing oligarchic wealth. There are certainly those who would like to see some form of upheaval, whether initiated by the militant salafiin within, or by Saddam, or the Iranians. An estimated 15,000 Saudis went, with official and US blessing, to fight in Afghanistan; they now form a discontented and experienced nucleus, represented in extreme form by Ossam a bin Ladin, from a wealthy family, who is threatening terrorist actions from a hideout near Jalalabad. In 1979, a group of armed tribesmen seized the holy mosque in Mecca and held it for two weeks.

Yet there could also be another future, one in which the power and greed of the princely caste is gradually but firmly brought under control thanks to far greater co-operation between the princes and the rest of society, both male and female. There are impressive assets on which to build – enormous wealth in the ground, an increasingly educated society, a substantial public service sector, and a significant, if not majoritarian, liberal middle class. The Saudi family business cannot go on for ever, and if it does not change it will court ruin.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences