Modernization and religious tradition in Saudi Arabia

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There was a major article in last Sunday’s New York Times about Saudi Arabia which, if it turns out to be true, may over time be every bit as consequential as what is about to happen in Iraq. The New York Times piece says that Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, has made some profound and far reaching decisions that will, in time, become royal decrees. They include a decision to ask U.S. military forces to vacate the Kingdom after the coming war is over and then to move, over a period of six years, through a stage by stage program of democratization. This could prove to be the most dramatic development in that oil rich Kingdom since Saudi Arabia was first unified into a country 80 or so years ago by the late King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud.

Saudi Arabia has long posed hard choices for U.S. policy makers. Presidents of both parties have repeatedly chosen stability over democracy because of the critical importance of the oil supply. It is hard to think of a place less democratic than Saudi Arabia. And yet there has been a mutually beneficial relationship between the United States and the Saudi royal family for several generations now.

In many ways Saudi Arabia is the number one key to stability in the region. The conventional wisdom is that Saddam Hussein’s real goal when he invaded Kuwait just over a decade ago was not Kuwait but Saudi Arabia and the United States simply could not allow that to happen hence the first Gulf War. To most Europeans and North Americans Saudi Arabia is, over and above all else, a dependable source of the oil needed to fuel the economies of more modern countries. Saudi Arabia’s daily output of oil is equal to more than forty percent of the daily consumption in the United States.

In the Islamic world, however, Saudi Arabia is, over and above all else, the home of the two most holy places of Islam, Mecca and Medina. The legitimacy of the Saudi Royal family rests in their role as guardians and protectors of these holy places. In Islam, every able bodied person who can afford to do so is required once in a lifetime to make the holy pilgrimage, the Hajj, to Mecca. This week some two million Muslims from all over the world have been in Mecca for this purpose. This is a pilgrimage of the most profound importance to Muslims, and it is the first and most important job of Saudi Arabia to protect the holy places and the pilgrims. In the world of Islam this is a duty and responsibility of far greater importance than the oil.

And so today, on the brink of another Gulf War, Saudi Arabia benefits from American protection even as, in the vast world of Islam stretching from Morocco to Indonesia, it must hold itself apart. It must also modernize. It is in so many ways caught between its cultural and religious obligations on the one hand and its need to become a more modern nation on the other. A great many wealthy Saudis move comfortably back and forth between Riyadh and London or between Jiddah and Paris, or New York or Los Angeles. But for most Saudis some 18 million or so this isn’t possible. For them, it is a life of very strict rules and restrictions, and many of them believe that Crown Prince Abdullah’s decision to move toward political modernization is long overdue.
For the United States, it will be very good indeed if he succeeds. This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.

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