Saturday, April 22, 2000


Library of Congress Country Studies
Section 1 of 1

Saudi Arabia
Upon Abd al Aziz's death in 1953 he was succeeded by his son, Saud. Saud had been designated crown prince some years before in a political act that went back to the days of Muhammad ibn Saud and Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab. The new King Saud did not prove to be a leader equal to the challenges of the next two decades. He was a spendthrift even before he became king, and this became a more crucial issue when he controlled the kingdom's purse strings. Saud paid huge sums to maintain tribal acquiescence to his rule in return for recruits for an immense palace guard, the White Army, so-called because they wore traditional Arab dress rather than military uniforms. Revenues could not match Saud's expenditures for the tribes, subsidies to various foreign groups, and his personal follies. By 1958 the riyal (for value of the riyal, see Glossary) had to be devalued nearly 80 percent, despite annual oil revenues in excess of US$300 million.

Dissatisfaction grew over wasteful expenditures, the lack of development of public projects and educational institutions, and the low wages of the growing labor force. Citizens were becoming aware of the dual culture emerging in Saudi Arabia. Privileged classes had been unknown in the early days of Abd al Aziz's reign; his first palace was made of the same sun-dried mud bricks that the peasants used, shaykhs and beduin herdsmen called each other by their first names, and the clothing of rich and poor was quite similar.

Dissatisfaction came from many sources, chief of which were a few of the more liberal princes and the sons of the rising middle class educated abroad. In an effort to discourage the formation of critical attitudes, college students abroad were forbidden to major in law, political science, or related areas. In 1956 Aramco Saudi workers called a second strike, the first having occurred in 1953. Saud issued a royal decree in June 1956 forbidding further strikes under penalty of dismissal.

In foreign relations Saud followed the inclinations of his father and promoted Arab unity by demanding, in cooperation with Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt, the liberation of Palestine. Saudi Arabia's ties with Egypt had been strengthened by a mutual defense pact in October 1955. Together Nasser and Saud assisted in financing an effort to discourage Jordan from joining the Western-sponsored Baghdad Pact. When French, British, and Israeli forces invaded Egypt in 1956 as a result of Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal, Saud granted the equivalent of US$10 million to Egypt, severed diplomatic relations with Britain and France, and placed an embargo on oil shipments to both countries.

United States-Saudi relations also declined during the early years of Saud's reign. Nationalists criticized the leasing of the Dhahran air base to the United States, calling it a concession to American imperialism. In 1954 the United States Point Four mission was dismissed.

A major reorientation of Saudi policy was initiated in 1957 after Saud's successful visit to the United States. In a conference with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Saud gave support to the Eisenhower Doctrine and agreed to a five-year renewal of the lease of the Dhahran air base.

But as Western relations improved, those with Egypt worsened. Egypt and Saudi Arabia had been drawn together because of their mutual interest in obtaining Arab independence from non-Arab foreign intervention. Beyond that point all similarity of objectives vanished. Nasser had deposed a king in Egypt and was encouraging revolutionary attitudes in other Arab countries. His notions of Arab unity and economic socialism were abhorrent to Saud and to many Saudis who wished to preserve an independent and capitalistically oriented kingdom. Furthermore, the Egyptians trafficked with the Soviet Union, from whom the Saudis had declined an arms offer and to whom they denied diplomatic recognition because of their fear of communism. The presence of large numbers of Egyptian military attach├ęs and teachers in Saudi Arabia caused concern among the Saudis that, at the very least, unacceptable views would circulate. Saudi officials were aghast when Syria and Egypt merged in 1958 to form the United Arab Republic. Yet the shock generated by news of the union paled before the subsequent disclosures of an alleged conspiracy by Saud to subvert the venture and to assassinate Nasser.

The embarrassed senior members of the royal family had also become increasingly unhappy over Saud's tendency to appoint his inexperienced young sons to major government positions rather than older, more seasoned family members. They feared that such appointments indicated a plan to transfer the succession to his offspring as opposed to the traditional practice of selecting the most senior and experienced family member as leader. These fears, combined with their concern over Saud's profligate spending and the alleged assassination plot, increased family dissatisfaction to the point that senior members of Al Saud urged Saud to relinquish power to Faisal.

On March 24, 1958, Saud issued a royal decree giving Faisal executive powers in foreign and internal affairs, including fiscal planning. As a result of Faisal's initiation of an austerity program in 1959 that included a reduction of subsidies to the royal family, the budget had been balanced, currency stabilized, and embarrassing national debts resolved.

The reductions in the royal household budget incensed Saud and his circle, and a dispute arising out of Saud's desire to give full control of a Hijaz oil refinery to one of his sons made Faisal's position increasingly precarious. In January 1961, Faisal and his Council of Ministers tendered their resignations.

Saud assumed the post of prime minister and made another brother, the progressive Talal, minister of finance and national economy. A new cabinet was formed composed of many Western- educated commoners. There was much talk of innovative governmental moves, but none materialized. Talal, concluding that Saud had misrepresented his intentions to engage his support, departed for Cairo, taking several air force officers and their airplanes with him. Civil war broke out in Yemen in September 1962, and Egyptian forces arrived to support the revolutionaries against the Saudis, who supported the overthrown royalist government. At that time the destruction of the Saudi monarchy seemed a distinct possibility.

Faisal had been restored as deputy prime minister and foreign minister in March 1962, to substitute for Saud, who was in the United States for medical treatment. In October 1962, Faisal was urged by the ulama and many princes to accept the kingship, but he declined, citing his promise to his father to support Saud. Instead Faisal again became prime minister, named Khalid deputy prime minister, and formed a government. He took command of the armed forces and quickly restored their loyalty and morale.

The following month he announced a ten-point plan for reform. Projected changes in the government included promises to issue a constitution, establish local government, and form an independent judiciary with a supreme judicial council composed of secular and religious members. He pledged to strengthen Islam and to reform the Committee for Encouragement of Virtue and Discouragement of Vice (also known as the Committee for Public Morality). Progress was to be ensured by the regulation of economic and commercial activities, and there was to be a sustained effort to develop the country's resources. Social reforms would include provisions for social security, unemployment compensation, educational scholarships, and the abolition of slavery. Consultations between Faisal and President John F. Kennedy led to promises of United States support of Faisal's plans for reform and of Saudi Arabia's territorial integrity. Diplomatic relations were reestablished with Britain and France, and debts to them were repaid.

Faisal's projects and the budgetary allowance necessary to modernize the armed forces for their engagement in Yemen meant that the king's personal income had to be cut. In March 1964, a royal decree endorsed by the royal family and the ulama reduced Saud's powers and his personal budget. The response from Saud, who had been on an extended and expensive tour of Europe with a large entourage, was outrage. Saud tried to garner support for a return to power, but the royal family and ulama held firm. On November 2, 1964, the ulama issued a final fatwa, or religious decree on the matter. Saud was deposed, and Faisal was declared king. This decision terminated almost a decade of external and internal pressure to depose Saud and to assert the power and integrity of conservative forces within the Al Saudi.

During his reign, Saud had largely cut himself off from the citizenry, relying heavily on his advisers, many of whom were primarily concerned with acquiring personal wealth and power. Faisal, in contrast, despite working long hours on affairs of state, made himself available to the public daily in the traditional majlis, followed by a meal open to anyone. During the times he had acted as prime minister for Saud, Faisal had strengthened the power of the Council of Ministers (see The Council of Ministers , ch. 4) and in 1954 had been primarily responsible for the creation of the ministries of commerce and industry and of health.

When Faisal became king (1964-75), he set himself the task of modernizing the kingdom. His first two official acts were protective, directed toward safeguarding the nation from potential internal and external threats that could thwart development. In the first month of Faisal's reign, Khalid, a half brother, was designated crown prince, thus ensuring that the succession would not be disturbed by the kind of family power politics that had nearly destroyed Saudi hegemony in the past. Sultan, another half brother serving as the minister of defense and aviation, was charged with modernizing the army and establishing an air defense system to protect the nation and its petroleum reserves from potential external and internal threats.

Funds to the King Abd al Aziz University in Jiddah were substantially increased, and the University of Petroleum and Minerals was opened in Dhahran. Faisal felt that, although undesirable, foreign influence was unavoidable as long as the population remained undereducated and unable to assume the country's many demanding positions. Faisal reorganized the Central Planning Organization to develop priorities for economic development. The result was that oil revenues were spent on investments designed to stimulate growth.

Troubled by the spread of republicanism in the Arab world that challenged the legitimacy of the Al Saud, Faisal called an Islamic summit conference in 1965 to reaffirm Islamic principles against the rising tide of modern ideologies. Faisal dedicated to Islamic ideals that he had learned in the house of his maternal grandfather, a direct descendant of Abd al Wahhab, the eighteenth-century initiator of the revival of religious orthodoxy in Arabia (see The Saud Family and Wahhabi Islam, 1500-1850 , this ch.). Faisal was raised in a spartan atmosphere, unlike that of most of his half brothers, and was encouraged by his mother to develop values consonant with tribal leadership. Faisal's religious idealism did not diminish his secular effectiveness. For him, political functioning was a religious act that demanded thoughtfulness, dignity, and integrity. Respect for Faisal increased in the Arab world based on the remarkable changes within Saudi Arabia, Faisal's excellent management of the holy cities, his reputation as a stalwart enemy of Zionism, and his rapidly increasing financial power.

Faisal proceeded cautiously but emphatically to introduce Western technology. He was continually forced to deal with the insistent demands of his Westernized associates to move faster and the equally vociferous urgings of the ulama to move not at all. He chose the middle ground not merely in a spirit of compromise to assuage the two forces but because he earnestly believed that the correct religious orientation would mitigate the adverse effects of modernization. For example, in 1965 the first Saudi television broadcasts offended some Saudis. One of Faisal's nephews went so far as to lead an assault on one of the new studios and was later killed in a shoot-out with the police. Such a family tragedy did not, however, cause Faisal to withdraw his support for the television project.

Under Faisal's reign a massive educational program was initiated. Expenditures for education increased to an annual level of approximately 10 percent of the budget. Vocational training centers and institutes of higher education were built in addition to the more than 125 elementary and secondary schools built annually. Women's demands, increasingly vocalized, led to the establishment of elementary schools for girls. These were placed under religious control to pacify the many who were opposed to education for women. Health centers also multiplied (see Education; Health , ch. 2).

Regional affairs within the peninsula, with the exception of Yemen, primarily concerned boundary disputes. Faisal made much progress, but at his death Saudi Arabia still possessed more unsettled than settled frontiers. In August 1965, a final determination of boundaries was reached between Saudi Arabia and Jordan. In 1965 Saudi Arabia also agreed on border delineations with Qatar. The Continental Shelf Agreement with Iran in October 1968 established the separate rights of Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, and an agreement was reached to discourage foreign intervention there. The formation of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 1971 did not receive official recognition until the settlement of the long-standing Al Buraymi Oasis dispute.

Saudi Arabia's largest problem within the peninsula remained the settlement of the Yemen crisis. In August 1965, Faisal and Nasser agreed at Jiddah to an immediate cease-fire, the termination of Saudi aid to the royalists, and the withdrawal of Egyptian forces. In 1965 at Harad in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Egypt sponsored a meeting of Yemeni representatives from the opposing sides. The conference became deadlocked, and hostilities resumed after the promised Egyptian troop withdrawals. The royalists claimed extensive victories. The Egyptians announced that they would not withdraw their remaining troops and were incensed at what they believed was renewed Saudi intervention. Egyptian aircraft bombed royalist installations and towns in southern Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia responded by closing its two Egyptian banks, an action countered by Egypt's sequestration of all Saudi Arabian property holdings in Egypt.

Saud, then residing in Egypt, made a personal gift of US$1 million to the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and made broadcasts from its capital and from Cairo, stating his intention to return to rule "to save the people and land of Saudi Arabia." A series of terrorist bomb attacks against residences of the royal family and United States and British personnel led to the arrests of a group, including seventeen Yemenis, accused of the sabotage. They were found guilty and were publicly beheaded in accordance with the law. Egyptian and Saudi disagreements over the area were not resolved until the Khartoum Conference of August 1967.

In the aftermath of the June 1967 War between Israel and various Arab states, the disputes between Arab states had to take a secondary position to what the Arabs called the "alien threat" of Israel. Faisal's influence at Arab conferences continued to increase, his position strengthened by the enormous revenues with which he could make good his commitments, and by his irreproachable reputation as a pious Muslim. Faisal's pan-Islamic pronouncement took concrete form after the June 1967 War when an Islamic nation, Jordan, received a direct threat to its existence and that same "infidel power," Israel, seized and retained Jerusalem, the third holiest city of Islam.

At the Khartoum Conference Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Kuwait agreed to set up a fund equivalent to US$378 million to be distributed among countries that had suffered from the June 1967 War. The Saudi contribution would be US$140 million. Jordan and Egypt were both in desperate financial positions. The monies were intended not only to ease this situation but also to buttress their political bargaining power. Egypt could no longer continue expensive commitments to the war in Yemen, and Nasser and Faisal agreed to a compromise proposed by Sudan for financial and economic pullouts in Yemen. Military aggression against Israel was not mentioned, but the conferees agreed neither to recognize nor to make peace with Israel and to continue to work for the rights of Palestinians.

A fire in the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on August 21, 1969, prompted the Islamic Summit Conference of September 1969 in Rabat, Morocco. Representatives agreed to intensify their efforts to ensure the prompt withdrawal of Israeli military forces in the occupied lands and to pursue an honorable peace.

Having increased Saudi economic power, in July 1973 threatened to reduce oil deliveries if the United States did not seek to equalize its treatment of Egypt and Israel. The threat was realized during the October 1973 War between Israel and two Arab states when the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries imposed a general rise in oil prices and an oil embargo on major oil consumers that were either supporters of Israel or allies of its supporters. The embargo was a political protest aimed at obtaining Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab territory and recognition of the rights of the Palestinian people.

At an Arab conference held in Algiers in November 1973, Saudi Arabia agreed with all the participants except the representative of Jordan to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Jordan's King Hussein refused to participate but was encouraged by Faisal to attend the follow-up conference in October 1974 in Rabat. At this meeting Hussein gave his reluctant agreement to the proposal that the PLO should be the negotiators with Israel over the establishment of a Palestinian entity in the territory newly occupied by Israel. In return Saudi Arabia promised Hussein US$300 million a year for the next four years.

As a result of the 1973 agreements that tripled the price of crude oil in response to the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Saudi Arabia acquired vastly increased revenues to devote to domestic programs. However, Faisal's failing health, overwork, and age prevented him from formulating a coherent development plan before he was assassinated on March 25, 1975. He was shot by his nephew, a disgruntled brother of the nephew killed in the 1965 television station incident.

Courtesy Aramco World

Data as of December 1992



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