Saudis break the silence

Helga Graham

Arabian Peninsula

Saudi Arabia – America’s principal ally in the Middle East, the vital link between the West and its oil supplies – appears to be sliding steadily towards disaster. This can’t, of course, be said in Saudi Arabia but a number of Saudis have travelled out of their country in order to be able to speak of it in safety.

There are those who may find this assessment too pessimistic. But the country faces formidable problems – fundamentalism, the family succession, regional tensions, the economy, together with a generalised disenchantment and wish for reform. Since Saudi Arabia is essentially a family company, belonging, though not in equal shares, to the Al Sauds and their Wahhabi fundamentalist partners, the current fundamentalist assault, coinciding with a Saud family quarrel, means that the government is in trouble in a country where the government is everything.

It would, therefore, be wise, as Saudis here urge, for the West, which still has a decisive influence on the area, not to look the other way as it did in the case of Iran and Iraq, but to face up to the situation now, before Saudi Arabia is caught up in a Catherine-wheel of chaos that could well shower combustible sparks on its Muslim neighbours. The seizure of the Grand Mosque by fundamentalists in 1979 was one warning against complacency. So is the fact that the Saud family has squandered 180 billion dollars of reserves since 1983 when, with interest rates around 20 per cent, the royal family was still fabulously wealthy. It may seem astonishing, but Saudi is now entering a new era as a net debtor nation.

Saudis live in a state of tense expectation, fearing that one or other group of fundamentalists will stage a coup or that the Government will use them as a pretext to declare martial law and duck out of political reform. ‘We know the countdown to something very bad has begun,’ one of many necessarily anonymous insiders to whom I spoke told me, ‘but not the timing. Rather than face down minority fundamentalists by opening up the political system, the Government uses them as bogeymen to control the vast majority who hate and fear them. President Sadat tried this tactic and was gunned down by fundamentalists. The Algerians abused it and were swamped.’

Joining a political party is a state crime. So is criticising the Government in public. I spoke to a banker who comes to London to enjoy the rain but is unwilling to risk exile in it. ‘The government public health warning to Saudis,’ he said, ‘unspoken but widely understood, is this: a fundamentalist regime would be infinitely more unpleasant for you than we are, so stick to us. To fundamentalists the King says: if we let the people loose, you will have a hard time. Voice your opposition, if you must, privately.’ In other words, as the banker said, ‘for the majority of Saudis politics is a spectator sport’ – and the fundamentalists are used to make sure things stay that way. Meanwhile their power increases daily, fed by everyday frustrations: overcrowded hospitals, sporadic water supplies, chaotic schools, low salaries, growing unemployment and – since 1982 – recession, despite the recent post-war boom. With no other outlet for public discontent, a minority religious sect is broadening into a political movement.

The fundamentalist foot-soldiers come from religious universities. Their leaders are a new breed of religious intellectual who, unlike the old preachers, are not always in the Government’s pocket and therefore frighten it to death. Some are highly-educated, well-intentioned reformers, but the movement itself is ugly, querulous, quasi-fascist and xenophobic.

Already they are behaving like a state within a state. The talk of the town in Saudi is of the latest party they have crashed, hauling the guests off for drink or dress offences, They swoop down out of the blue: a man who has come to fetch his wife whom he had dropped off at the supermarket finds himself held until midnight explaining how he had gone in alone and come out with a woman. Occasionally some lesser cleric is whipped, but most of what they do goes unpunished. They produce tapes challenging government authority in quadrophonic sound: referring to the King’s favourite son, Abdulaziz, the world’s richest teenager, one tape observes that he hasn’t got the qualifications to be a servant, let alone rule the country. Fundamentalists step in where the state fails: they provide meat for the poor on feast-days, and loans and white wedding-dresses for young people who can’t afford to marry.

They also operate extensively underground, as I was told by a senior Saudi, a member of Fahd’s entourage who is familiar with Saudi intelligence files – he claims, incidentally, that the files are also known to Western intelligence agencies. ‘The fundamentalists have penetrated every single government department without exception, from civil aviation to Saudi Airlines, from prisons to the Ministry of the Interior. Their cells are well-organised and linked to outside groups, even the Army. They have created incidents in the past two years in the National Guard. They want power and they have the arms. Don’t ask where from – arms are just a fact of bedouin life.’

It would be more difficult to sustain a fundamentalist coup in Saudi Arabia than it was in Iran, but the attempt would be no less dangerous for that. Arabian bedouin are not ‘frightfully religious’, as an old British Saudi hand puts it: their evangelical fervour is only sporadically aroused and even then plunder and paradise tend to merge in their minds. But there is still a huge potential for anarchy in the combination of minority fanaticism, majority disenchantment, royal intrigue and the bedouin liking for a good fight; in possible joint ventures between Saudi fundamentalists and their underground friends in Egypt and Sudan; and, above all, in tactical alliances between fundamentalists and the tribes.

The Government’s unhappy handling of the 1979 fundamentalist crisis casts a long shadow over current events, making the strategy of appeasement seem pretty lunatic. Saudi Arabia was stunned when an extraordinary young man called Juhaiman occupied the Grand Mosque with his heavily-armed followers. Juhaiman’s tribal grandfather was killed by King Abdulaziz, the founder of the kingdom, and his revenge took a messianic form, Juhaiman condemned the Sauds’ decadent lifestyle, bad financial management and autocratic rule, and believed his forces would march on to free Jerusalem. A fortnight later, French special forces cleared the mosque with gas. Two hundred and fifty people emerged, including the wives and children of the defenders. According to a source close to Fahd, the Government decided to execute them all without a court order, but, fearing international outrage, the royal family planned to announce that a mere 63 were to be executed and the rest jailed. The then King Khalid objected: the West, he said, would learn the truth. But two of the most powerful men in Saudi decided otherwise: some were beheaded publicly in small groups while the rest, including the women and children, were shot in front of open graves. The silence as to what really happened has been maintained ever since.

Reticent and laconic, Saudis have always tended to keep criticism to themselves. Now, however, frustration and anger have persuaded leading businessmen, diplomats, technocrats and others within Fahd’s entourage to break their silence. But they have to go abroad to do so: at home, even bedrooms are bugged. The usual price for uttering any criticism is exile and loss of livelihood, but some dissidents are flogged, tortured by being buried in burning sand, or simply disappear. Those who go abroad to do their criticising are sometimes kidnapped in style by private plane.

‘Until about ten years ago, we could express ourselves directly to the King or reasonably openly through the newspapers, provided we abided by two cardinal rules: not to speak loudly against the regime or take up arms against it.’ The Medina doctor looks back fondly to those paradisal times and his son listens as if his father were describing another country Even Fahd himself can be open minded when his interest is caught, but since his accession in 1982 freedom has been pruned back to a stump. According to Amnesty International, there were seven hundred political prisoners in Saudi Arabia in the Eighties.

The Saudis I’ve been talking to believe that constitutional and social reforms, if seriously and urgently applied, could arrest a deteriorating situation. But recently proposed reforms, welcomed as a modest advance in the Western media, are in part a cosmetic exercise designed to appease US opinion and in part a coup by constitutional small print. In March 1992, Fahd announced a ‘constitution’ and a 60-man appointed consultative council, or Shura, which was to meet in the autumn; but there is still no sign of it. If the constitution is enacted, it will have the effect of strengthening the King’s power, even in relation to his own many-tentacled family. It will also muzzle the anti-fundamentalist majority who are desperate to take on the fanatics. Finally, it has set King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah, half-brothers in their early seventies, against each other as a new ambiguity hangs over the Crown Prince’s succession.

Prince Abdullah has lived too long to have an unblotted political copybook; and as a nationalist, his relations with the Bush Administration were tense. But as President of the National Guard and a fine horseman, he is popular with the tribes, and with the population at large, including the liberals, because ‘he is not a spendthrift’. The fact that both the liberals and the tribes – the core of the Armed Forces – support him means that Abdullah may represent the best hope for internal stability, even if he is not an enthusiastic backer of some perceived ‘Western interests’, such as arms sales. Despite an intermittent speech impediment, Abdullah can express himself forcibly and he clearly intends to clean up Saudi finances. He is shrewd and humorous, still physically robust – and a fighter. He may have to be.

The new constitution allows the King to choose and dismiss the Crown Prince ‘like any public employee’, Saudis say disgustedly, ‘as if the Queen had the power to dismiss Prince Charles.’ Previously succession was by age, modified by family consensus and oiled by big money: when Prince Mohammad was by-passed because he was a drunk, he had to be paid off on a royal scale. The succession procedure probably needs up-dating – but not in such a way as to accentuate autocracy. Although Abdullah’s position has not yet been overtly challenged, Saudis know it has been subtly undermined. The Crown Prince now has no public function except by the King’s order; and that rider was added only when one of his supporters, Abdulaziz Twaigerie, astutely advised the King not to tie his own hands. Fahd thus declared that Abdullah should remain President of the National Guard – thereby implying he had power to decide otherwise. Insiders say that on the very first day of his succession Fahd attempted to snatch the National Guard from Abdullah, who reacted furiously – as he still does if his title of President of the Guard is not joined to that of Crown Prince, What makes the tension that surrounds the succession so acute is that Fahd and Abdullah control different sections of the Armed Forces. Abdullah’s National Guard numbers around 24,000, Fahd and his clique of full brothers, including Defence Minister Sultan, have the Army and Air Force, which are considerably smaller than the official figures indicate. ‘There are 60,000 troops on the military payroll, but only 19,000 of them exist. We wonder who picks up their pay,’ a senior officer remarked ironically. As long as the National Guard remains one of the few power centres beyond Fahd’s immediate control, he cannot prise the succession from Abdullah. Insiders believe they are now trying to win over individual officers with cash, as they have done in the past, which could cause a dangerous split in their ranks.

The constitution is now apparently the subject of serious debate even within the Saud family. What, one may ask, are the King’s real motives? King Abdulaziz had seven sons by one of his tribal wives, the formidable Hassa Sudairi, and these full brothers of King Fahd, the Sudairi Seven – including the Ministers of the Interior and Defence, the Governors of Riyadh and the Eastern Province, the commander of the key base of Tabuk – have around 70 per cent of the power in Saudi Arabia. Beyond Abdullah glimmer lesser and greater princely galaxies such as the sons of the late King Feisal, who are allied to him. All are affected by Fahd’s grab for power. This continuously-spawning pool of princelings, avid for status and cash, all sons and grandsons of King Abdulaziz, legitimately by his wives and illegitimately by his concubines, number around five thousand. Their ambitions and rivalries are byzantine – but have so far been contained.

Prince Abdullah himself has praised the constitution. ‘Ah. That is how we do things,’ says one of the inner circle, smiling at his teacup. ‘The royal family is a unique entity – an inside-out porcupine, bristles facing inwards, fighting internally, uniting in public.’ Many princes do not trust the Sudairis and support the Crown Prince. Others, especially the sons of the concubines, several of whom were Syrian slaves, are worrisome loose cannon. There are rumours that King Fahd may have recently had to pay off the head of a rival branch of Sauds in order to curb the ambitions of his line. It is hard to judge Abdullah’s current standing in all this. But he is famous for being a financial killjoy – ‘We’ll all suffer with Abdullah.’ the princes say, ominously.

As well as control over the Crown Prince, Fahd has other handy new powers. After King Saud bankrupted the country in the late Fifties, the monarch, no longer able to legislate alone, held only a power of veto in a Council of Ministers. Major decisions required a family consensus. Now the Shura law and the Basic law cannot be amended except by Royal Order. The King can declare a state of emergency and decide whether it is to be continued – an interesting, perhaps significant innovation – and he appoints military officers. He also appoints deputies to the consultative council – and can dismiss them along with the Council of Ministers, which he nominates and has sole right to liquidate. Fahd insisted that he be named head of the legislature, executive and judiciary. Contrary to the claims that have been made for it, the judiciary, without a legal code or a constitutional court, is not independent. The Sharia, or Islamic law underlying the constitution, is administered by senior Wahhabi scholars, advisers to the King, who has final authority. A further problem is that the Shia in the east and the Hejazis in the west recognise the Wahhabis’ power but not their authority.

The new law concerning the provinces offers nothing by way of decentralisation. Saudi provincial governors – the progeny of King Abdulaziz – who previously had a large measure of autonomy, have been downgraded to become employees of the Ministry of the Interior. One has already resigned in consequence. Recently King Fahd announced the establishment of local councils for 14 new regions, each with between twelve and twenty appointed members. Saudis fear this innovation will create additional divisions within the country, which falls naturally into four or five regions. But a regional solution would probably encourage moves towards the federalism that Fahd fears above everything else.

Originally, the constitution contained a provision for free speech. But Fahd eventually ruled against it: ‘The ... media should express itself in a good manner and abide by the regulations of the stale and contribute to teach the nation and refrain from anything which might lead to the disintegration of its unity or public security or dignity of the human being.’

The Shura is not just without teeth but, curiously, without politics. It cannot legislate, but only Study legislation, and has no jurisdiction over either the national or its own budget, accounts and procedures. All are regulated by royal decree. Press reports have claimed that the new constitution safeguards Saudi citizens against royal whim. But the truth is that there is no greater safeguard against extra-judicial arrest, torture and killings today than there was before.

The cracks now showing in the House of God need structural attention, not repair. The nation-building exercise of the Thirties is severely strained. If these strains are not attended to, Saudi Arabia may revert to the state of chaos that prevailed seventy years ago. One alarming factor is the renewed rivalry between the Nejd and Hejaz regions, and in particular the Government seizure of Hejazi property. The Nejd is the tribal heartland of the House of Saud, who only in the Twenties conquered the western seaboard, which contains the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and the majority of the country’s population. According to a businessman from a leading Hejazi family, the King formed the Mecca Company for Construction and Development some four or five years ago, intending to develop property for his own entourage. But people living close to the mosque in Medina refused to sell. Some were coerced; others went to court. After a ruling that the owners’ rights were inviolable, the properties were forcibly expropriated without compensation. A couple of years ago the Government again took over houses around the mosque in Medina for Nejdi princes. This time compensation was paid of between five thousand and ten thousand riyals a square metre. When some of the land was later auctioned, it made between sixty thousand and a hundred and thirty thousand riyals a square metre. The Government did not just pocket the difference: it has not yet paid all of the initial compensation. There have been other outrages. When a Meccan Hejazi was killed by Nejdi fundamentalists as he collected his young brothers from school, the King chose to close the file on the case. ‘We are a Nejdi colony,’ the Hejazi businessman said bitterly.

The Hejaz is one of the world’s most ancient trading centres, the place where the great medieval Muslim empire began. Nowadays it is a flourishing business enterprise, managing an influx of more than a million pilgrims every year. Culturally, the Hejaz to the Nejd is as Mayfair to the Isle of Mull. But the Nejdi minority rule there. They govern even Hejazi villages, hog the best jobs and the biggest loans – or so Hejazis believe – and control the Armed Forces. Crucially, they impose their ultra-puritan fundamentalist Wahhabism – curiously like the Wee Free theology of the Western Isles – on a population to whom it is profoundly repugnant. When Nejdis took possession of the Holy Places in the Twenties, the whole of Islam regarded them as heretics.

The Hejazis are largely de-tribalised and have intermarried with other Muslims from as far afield as Java and Syria. They love music and dancing, perfume, poetry and food – unlike the Nejdis, who prohibit all of life’s small comforts. When the Nejdis initially came to the Hejaz, the Hejazis evolved an elaborate system of signalling the arrival of the religious police so that they would have time to hide their musical instruments in the wells. The police would then find the Hejazis bent over the boarded wells, praying. Hejazi religion is serious, but moral rather than formal (it doesn’t, as Saudis sometimes joke, require you to urinate in the right direction). The Hejaz, in short, is tolerant of pretty well everything except the Nejd.

A recent conversation between three wealthy Saudi businessmen – two Hejazis and a Nejdi – relaxing amid the chintz of a London hotel-suite and listening to Hejazi music of eight hundred years ago: ‘He’s our only Nejdi friend,’ said the two Hejazis of their companion. The Nejdi objected, half-seriously: ‘I’m really a Hejazi now’ one of the Hejazis observed: ‘I married a Nejdi. My mother likes her, but still keeps repeating: “Mas Allah curse the day that brought these Nejdis to us.”’ Nejdis look down on Hejazis in much the same way. Proud of their lineage and warrior qualities, they see the Hejazis as cowardly half-caste merchants with decadent tastes and a tendency to religious laxity. Indeed, the Hejaz put up little fight against the Nejd in the Twenties, but often threw away their weapons at the first sight of Abdulaziz’s ‘savages’. In the normal course of events the two communities can live together quite peacefully, but the difficulty is that the power system on which half a century of stability was constructed is gradually breaking down.

Abdulaziz built his kingdom on an inspired, if idiosyncratic base. Saud family power in the remote central Nejd derived historically from an astute alliance with Wahhabi leaders, whose strict puritanism proved a convenient handle against anarchic tribes who were easier to control once they had been evangelised. Abdulaziz didn’t leave it at that, but endlessly married into unruly Nejdi tribes. With their help, he conquered the Hejaz and later bought its consent to his rule by giving, not only the dominant merchant class, but the population as a whole, a share of the new oil prosperity. The policy worked admirably – so long as the big money continued to flow, and the Wahhabis could be restrained from interfering with Hejazis or Hejazi trade.

In Wahhabism, however. Abdulaziz found he had a tiger by the tail. The alliance provided the Sauds with religious legitimacy and military back-up, but it also involved a constant struggle for power, the balance being 75 to 25 in favour of the Sauds. When the king is weak the religious preachers, the ulema, try to correct the imbalance. Even Abdulaziz had on occasion to take up arms against the Wahhabis – and it’s always possible that the situation will recur.

The old Wahhabi constituency now has three overlapping components. First, the professional ulema: preachers and lawyers, who are on the government payroll and are headed by the very ancient Sheikh Bin Baz. They are aided by the religious police, who are employed by the Ministry of the Interior but not always controlled by it. ‘The ulema devote 75 per cent of their tune to acting against women,’ observes a Jeddah academic. ‘Women have to be completely veiled in black, never the custom in the Hejaz in the old days Ten per cent of their time is spent ruling on formalities: length of beard etc. The rest of the time they spend intoning the familiar Wahhabi chant about worshipping God alone, returning to the old way of life and attacking the Shia. No problem there for the Government.’

The second group consists of the mass of young graduates, around seven thousand a year, emerging from the religious universities: the Imam Bin Saud University in Riyadh; a branch of the Umm al Quraa in Mecca; the Islamic University in Medina. The labour market cannot absorb most of these graduates – there is a reservoir of about 150,000 of them – who are either unemployed or part-employed, and embittered. Many live on hand-outs from wealthy merchants from the Qassim area of the Nejd, who are not always as loyal to the Sauds as might be expected. ‘Their heads are full of strange, unreal ideas,’ said a senior Saudi who has long had contact with the religious students, ‘and then aims are violent.’

Most alarming to the Government are the third group of new religious intellectuals. Among the better-known of these are Dr Safir al Hawaii, Sheikh Salman Auda and Ayedh al Qarni They are youngish, often highly educated, with Saudi or foreign doctorates, and are powerful speakers who have a licence to criticise the Government in ways that would not be tolerated from the non-Wahhabi opposition. On inflammable issues such as the huge purchases of arms that don’t even enable the Saudis to defend themselves, they have been able to capture some of the nationalist high-ground, especially among the young. Like the ulema, the new Wahhabi intelligentsia are out to win over the disaffected religious graduates. They are in contact with Islamic fundamentalist circles in Sudan, Algeria, Egypt and Pakistan, whose attitude to secularism and sexual laxity they share. Unlike the old ulema, who never even wanted a consultative shura, they are insistent in their demand for political participation and social justice. They even appear to have persuaded the old ulema to back their famous manifesto of May 1991, calling for radical social and political reform. ‘The old ulema could never have written it,’ explains a Saudi writer. ‘Their books have rambling, never-ending sentences that go on for paragraphs, untouched by grammar and crammed with scholarship. This had full-stops and points 1 to 5. Usually the ulema are very corporate-minded, and don’t give a damn about others, but this made no demands on their own behalf. So either the intellectuals and ulema worked together, or the former wrote it and made the latter sign.’ The intellectuals have even – outrageously – called for the punishment of those responsible for corruption – ‘whoever they are’.

The new fundamentalism is in part a product of education. But its rise in the Eighties under Fahd is the result less of its own strength than of his weakness. Under Feisal in the Seventies, it was firmly sat upon. Feisal hated fanaticism, and as a genuinely religious man, had a natural authority over the Wahhabis, though he was always ready to crack down on them if he needed to. But Fahd’s gloriously dissolute lifestyle, in particular the goings-on in his private plane in his younger days (carefully recorded by foreign intelligence services), have lessened his personal and political authority. So, too, have the scandals surrounding the Tornado and AWAC deals. Although the House of Commons Report, not wishing to embarrass an ally, didn’t say so openly, it is known that the Tornado deal, the biggest arms deal in history, earned members of the Saud family commissions of between 15 and 30 per cent. It is strongly rumoured locally that because the multi-billion payment to Washington for AWACs was made available in advance to the Saudi Embassy there, although only payable in instalments, the resulting hundreds of millions of dollars of interest sloshing around have supplemented Republican Party campaign funds.

King Feisal, in contrast, had an independent foreign policy and was never seen to be in the pocket of Western governments. A reformer, who straightened things out after his predecessor Saud had emptied the exchequer, he had strong support and no need to propitiate fanatics in order to control the rest, liberals especially. Where Fahd regularly damages the position of Saudi women to appease the fundamentalists – swathing air hostesses in yet more material or forbidding women to drive – Feisal improved the status of Saudi women. Fahd’s problem is that neither he nor his over-indulged family is virtuous enough to take the wind out of the fundamentalists’ sails. Yet the alternative – an accommodation with the majority of the population – would entail something worse than the poisoned embrace of the Wahhabis; it would mean renouncing the family’s unfettered control of the nation’s oil resources.

In a situation where both elements in Fahd’s Nejdi constituency – the fundamentalists and the tribes – are disaffected, the need for real change is pressing. The tribes have grasped that they play a crucial role in maintaining Saud family control thanks to the high proportion of their members in the Armed Forces and in consequence want a great deal more power – principally ministries and money. ‘Tribes spell trouble,’ a leading Jeddah merchant remarks gloomily. ‘Now when you go for a job, you are asked what tribe you come from.’

Many Hejazi businessmen believe that the Government is also losing the loyalty of Hejazi cities. Bogged down in recession since the early Eighties, the commercial class resents the scale of corruption under Fahd, is discouraged by the prospect of growing budget deficits and feels that business has been impeded unnecessarily: ‘Instead of borrowing money to spend on services, the Government prefers to put money in its pocket,’ a businessman complains. The educated classes, especially the technocrats, are frustrated by their exclusion from power. ‘A director of a ministry hopes to find himself deputy minister,’ says a Western educated official. ‘Instead he sees a prince of inferior education skip many stages in a few years and overtake him. Obviously, he resents it.’ The fact that the Hejazis retain some sympathy for the Hashemite dynasty in Jordan, displaced by the Sauds from the Hejaz, is another factor that ought to give the Government pause.

In the recent past, the consensus between the Nejd and Hejazi merchants made up the Saud power-base. The Shias on the eastern seaboard, although geographically located on Saudi’s main oilfields, remained a neglected and under-privileged minority. But here, too, there is now change. Traditionally non-political and quietist, the Shia became politicised in the Sixties, when they initiated strikes in the oilfields. Later on, they supported Khomeni until, in reaction to Shia lack of success in Iran, they renewed their interest in politics at home: the Shia now want in, not out. Their demands are moderate: higher living standards, religious freedom, political representation and an end to educational discrimination. ‘A couple of Shia deputy ministers in government would allow people to feel they had a stake in the system,’ says a Saudi Shia. But here again the fundamentalists are deployed for the Government’s purposes: in 1991 when the fundamentalists issued a ruling that all Shia deserve to be killed, the Government did not react.

The Saudi regime is clearly avoiding having to bargain politically with a people who, after more than half a century of social change and education, reject a status quo created in and for another era and want more – more power, more money and more status. The Government does not have to balance a minority of liberals against a conservative majority, as is often claimed: all the major social groups want some degree of change. This isn’t to say that all Saudis aspire equally to democracy. The tribes don’t give a damn for it. But it can safely be said that the majority want the rule of law, financial accountability, a say in their own lives and an end to repression.

This isn’t the novelty we might think it is. The truth about Saudi political traditions is rather different from the story told by the regime itself by its many Western apologists (paid or pursuing their own agenda) and by others unfamiliar with peninsular history. A traditional desert sheikh was only first among equals, or at least among other elders. Tribesmen were not necessarily loyal until the sheikh had proved his fitness to rule. They argued with him – as the old Wahhabis did with Abdulaziz, Koran in hand – and have always voted with their feet. Many Koranic texts preach consultation and equality, (‘Whenever kings enter a city, they cause it to be corrupt, turning its honourable people into a humiliated people.’) Mecca and Medina had majority voting in the era of the Prophet. In this century, Hejazi cities had municipal elections until the Sauds phased them out. Abdulaziz, a formidable speaker with a handy habit of bursting into tears, eventually talked an assembly of reluctant preachers, chieftains and tribesmen into accepting his kingship in 1927. His successor, Saud, was not readily accepted as Crown Prince – it was felt that he hadn’t given convincing proof of his ability – and was in stated only grudgingly after an eight-year wait.

The Sauds have been regularly promising a constitution since the Twenties, not because they were anxious to share power, but because they judged it politic to make these promises. In the words of a Mecca academic: ‘Saudi tradition is with free speech and obedience by consent even if the institutions need modernising, and secularism, which is not essential to democracy, is not for tomorrow.’ The aspiration to democracy is not confined to the Western-educated in Saudi. The notion that ‘a broadening of political participation could make Saudi Arabia more fundamentalist,’ as is claimed on the basis of a false analogy with Algeria, is simply incorrect. In Algeria, the Army staged a coup to stop fundamentalists coming to power after they had won a majority (of voters, not of the whole population) in the first round of the general election. In fact, many Algerians voted for fundamentalists in order to punish a corrupt government rather than out of religious fanaticism. In Saudi, the fundamentalists could not win power in an election because the Wahhabis represent not just a religious but a regional minority. Arab leaders tend to hide census figures, but leaked data from a confidential 1974 census set the Saudi population at 7.4 million, two-thirds of them living in the Hejazi west, one-third in the centre and Shia east combined. The Hejaz region thus had almost five million inhabitants, the ruling Nejd well under two million, allowing for the Shia minority. So the Nejdis are a minority and the Wahhabi fundamentalists a minority within a minority.

Senior Saudis argue that both economic reform and constitutional rule are vital in a deteriorating economic climate. ‘The British will receive a great deal of oil in return for the Tornados,’ said a Saudi diplomat. ‘This is deducted from revenue and oil will flood the market, hitting our finances badly. Inflation may rise beyond 100 per cent. Financial accountability and shared power would persuade Saudis to accept economic restraints and taxes more easily.’ Freedom of speech would also allow the majority of those Muslims who are open to the modern world to challenge fundamentalism, in the name not of Western but of Islamic liberalism – a powerful latent force throughout the Arab world. An elected Saudi Arabian parliament would be Islamic in complexion, but the competition between different religious groups and opinions in an elected body would itself generate much more freedom than there is at present. Yet the plan which is currently under consideration in Saudi Arabia would automatically give the Wahhabis a third of the seats in a consultative assembly without any provision for freedom of speech.

In Western ministerial circles, the simmering Saudi crisis is an embarrassing taboo. An American source put it quite simply: ‘They don’t know what to do.’ Constitutional reform in Saudi Arabia would not come cost-free to the West. Probable re-negotiation of defence contracts – in particular, the 26 billion dollars’ worth of arms purchases since the Gulf War – would lose tens of thousands of jobs in the US and UK alone. An elected parliament in Saudi could be relied on to investigate scandals, as the Kuwaitis are now doing following their elections. Saudi would certainly complain at the slow pace of the Middle East peace process. But it would be as well to remember that the same considerations led Western Governments to support Saddam Hussein – until it was too late.