Saudi Arab is now looking to march shoulder to shoulder with the modern world
One of the most devout and insular countries in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has emerged from being an underdeveloped desert kingdom to become one of the wealthiest nations in the region thanks to vast oil resources. But its rulers face the delicate task of responding to pressure for reform while combating a growing problem of extremist violence. Ruling family of KSA responded to the task wonderfully of reforming nation gradually by balancing conservative minds with liberal outlook.
AT A GLANCE
Named after the ruling Al Saud family, which came to power in the 18th century, the country includes the Hijaz region – the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and the cradle of Islam. This fact, combined with the Al Sauds’ espousal of a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, has led it to develop a strongly religious self-identity.
Politics: The Al Saud dynasty holds a monopoly of power; political par ties are banned and the opposition is organized from abroad; militant Islamists have launched several deadly attacks.
Economy: Saudi Arabia is the world’s dominant oil producer and owner of the largest hydrocarbon reserves; rapidly growing unemployment is a major challenge. Saudi Arabia sits on more than 25% of the world’s known oil reserves. It is capable of producing more than 10 million barrels per day; that figure is set to rise.
International: Saudi Arabia is one of the main players in the Arab and Muslim worlds; its stature is built on its geographic size, its prestige as the custodian of the birthplace of Islam and status as major oil producer
Saudi Arabia was established in 1932 by King Abd-al-Aziz – known as the Lion of Najd – who took over Hijaz from the Hashemite family and united the country under his family’s rule. Since his death in 1953, he has been succeeded by various sons.
The Al Saud dynasty’s monopoly of power meant that during the 20th century successive kings were able to concentrate on modernization and on developing the country’s role as a regional power.
It has always been in the ruling family’s interests to preserve stability in the region and to clamp down on extremist elements. To this end, it welcomed the stationing of US troops in the country after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.But the
leadership’s refusal to tolerate any kind of opposition may have encouraged the growth of dissident groups such as Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, which benefited from popular resentment against the role of the US in the Middle East.
After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington of 11 September 2001 – carried out mainly by Saudi nationals – the Saudi authorities were further torn be- tween their natural instincts to step up internal security and pressure to allow a greater degree of democracy.
In 2003 suicide bombers suspected of having links with al-Qaeda killed 35 people – including a number of foreigners – in the capital Riyadh. Some Saudis referred to the attacks as their own 9/11.Since then, demands for political reform have increased, as has the frequency of militant attacks, some of them targeted at foreign workers. The security forces have made thousands of arrests.
Municipal elections in 2005 were a first, limited exercise in democracy. But political parties are banned – the opposition is organized from outside the country – and activists who publicly broach the subject of reform risk being jailed.
FACTFILE ON KINGDOM OF ARABIA
Full name: Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Population: 25.2 million (UN, 2008)
Area: 2.24 million sq km (864,869 sq miles)
Major language: Arabic
Major religion: Islam
Life expectancy: 71 years (men), 75 years (women) (UN)
Monetary unit: 1 Riyal = 100 halalah
Main exports: Oil, gas, cereals
GNI per capita: US $15,440 (World Bank, 2007)
Internet domain: .sa
International dialling code: +966
Head of state, prime minister: King Abdullah Bin-Abd-al-Aziz Al Saud
Saudi Arabia has been ruled since its foundation by the Al Saud dynasty. King Abdullah succeeded the late King Fahd, his half brother, in August 2005. King Abdullah is seen as a cautious reformer,As crown prince, Abdullah had been the effective ruler of Saudi Arabia since the former king suffered a stroke in the mid-1990s.
He became heir to the throne in 1982, commanded the power ful National Guard and was considered to be the most influential figure in the country. He is a former mayor of Mecca. His son, Mutib, is deputy commander of the National Guard.
Abdullah is said to have forged al- liances with other members of the ruling family to offset the influence of his seven half brothers. Known as the “Sudayri Seven”, they are the most powerful alliance within the ruling family.
He is seen as being untainted by corruption – giving credibility to his drive to stamp it out and to favor reforms which are balanced with a respect for Saudi traditions.
Regarded in the Arab world as a sup- porter of wider Arab interests, he has criticized US support for Israel and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.
King Abdullah is believed to have been born in 1924. He received a traditional religious education and is close to the Saudi tribal way of life, often spending periods of time in the desert.
Saudi Arabia, though a pioneer of pan Arab satellite television, has long had one of the most tightly-controlled media environments in the Middle East.
The state-run Broadcasting Service of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (BSKSA) is responsible for all broadcasting. It operates four TV networks, including news channel al-Ikhbariya. The minister of culture and information chairs the body which oversees radio and TV operations.
Private radio and TV stations cannot operate from Saudi soil, but the country is a key market for pan Arab satellite and pay TV broadcasters. Saudi investors are behind some of these net- works, including Dubai-based MBC and Bahrain-based Orbit.
The press in Saudi Arabia: Saudi news- papers are created by royal decree. There are more than a dozen dailies and many magazines. Pan-Arab papers, subject to censorship, are available. Newspapers tend to follow the lead of the state-run news agency on whether or not to publish stories on sensitive sub- jects. The government has invested heavily in security systems to block access to websites it deems offensive, said to range in subject matter from religion to swimwear. There were 6.2 mil- lion internet users by March 2008 (ITU). Many surfers are said to be women, possibly a result of restrictions on their movements. There are said to be as many as 5,000 Saudi blogs.
THE PRESS Al-Watan | Abha-based daily
Al-Riyadh | Riyadh-based daily
Okaz | Jeddah-based daily
Al-Jazirah | Riyadh-based daily
Al-Sharq al-Awsat | Riyadh-based daily,
English-language web pages
Arab News – Jeddah-based English-language daily Saudi Gazette – Jeddah-based English- language daily
Saudi TV – State-run, operates four net- works
Radio Saudi Radio – State-run
Saudi Press Agency (SPA) – state-run
— Wamiq Warsi (The writer is heading a prominent religious shrine in India)
QAs one of the most recognized leaders of this country, what is your opinion on the current situation of the kingdom’s economy? What are the main challenges and opportunities?
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is part of the world and in the global village we live in today, no country goes unaffected by what occurs in the rest of the world. That is why the Kingdom always adopts conditions that follow the economic main- stream. The kingdom is definitely open for investments and there are numerous investment opportunities. Obviously there are some obstacles of which the government is aware. The Crown Prince along with the Economic Council is trying to remove these obstacles as well as re- moving the administrative bureaucracies. Our objective is to facilitate the investors into the kingdom as much as we possibly can.
We are keen to maintain a stable economic position because we are sensing certain radical reactions. Right now we are enjoying great revenue. There was a period of time
where we were experiencing a strong decrease in revenue but even during that time we were able to adapt and better our situation. Currently we are cautious of going too far economically which may result in disaster. Right now the kingdom is working on devising a method to make our economy more stable and more constant.
Every government has a responsibility to provide services to its people. I do not believe in making unreasonable promises but at the same time I do aspire to al- ways achieve more than what is promised. There are many governments that create programs for elections. However, these governments put in place idealist solutions to problems that are not attainable. I myself believe we should tackle those problems and develop those solutions that we can reach and those that are applicable. You cannot satisfy people with slogans alone but you must take appropriate action as well.
I am feeling confident about the economic situation in the kingdom.
Q: There is a very good chance the
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will enter the WTO by the end of 2005. What will be the effects of this?
I recall a time in my childhood where there was next to nothing in the country. We would have to travel quite a distance by foot to get water. Also our houses used to be lit by gas and there really was not much of at available. The progress that we have achieved in such few years is amazing. Those that can provide a testament to how quickly the country has developed are those who lived here in the early times when the nation was formed.
Our entrance into the WTO will cause us to pay closer attention to the desires of other nations. Every nation has their reservations about certain things. An example is Britain, which is a member of the EU but has not yet joined the Euro Zone.
Another example is the Schengen visa, which Italy signed in November 1990 and implementation wad in October 1997. When Saudi Arabia is reserved about certain issues and dis- cusses them, it is looking after its own interests. We have interests both with our own people as much as with other nations. A successful solution is always found in trying to reach a
compromise, in developing a true solution. By doing so every- one benefits and a common interest between different parties is created. For example the EU does not make hasty decisions on who is allowed to join their organization. A country that hopes to join has certain interests and the EU allows them to join based on its own interests. It is these common, mutually beneficiary interests that result in the decision to allow nations to join.
We have interest in the world and this can be facilitated
States, France, and many other parts of the world. The exposition helped scatter the name and image of Riyadh as a rapidly progressing city. The same question was posed to me during this time and my answer was that Riyadh is the title of a book about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Primarily investments into the country come through Riyadh although we have many other cities where investments are made such as Al-Khobar, Jeddah, and Dammam. It is actually a pleasure for us to have competition between these cities because it pushes us to strive to better ourselves. It also serves to attract in- vestment and the development of industries.
Q: I know there are many projects currently under development and these aim to improve the wellbeing of the coming generations. Are there any specific projects you would like our readers to know about?
We are focusing on the development of accommodation or housing. We are providing opportunities for investors to enter this field. There is charitable housing available for the poor families, which is basically free accommodation.
We are also continuously working to solve the problem of traffic in Riyadh.
There are projects regarding water treatment, healthcare, and social issues. We have developed programs to help better our city in all aspects now as well as for the future. In the Riyadh Developmental Authority for example, over which I preside, all the government administrations are represented as well as all businesses of the private sector. The government administrations decide and coordinate all developmental projects with the various businesses. I personally feel very satisfied with the direction in which we are headed.
There is a plan under development that will reduce the pressure from the large cities such as Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam. In order to do so we will provide services to the smaller towns so they do not have to come to the larger cities. Most importantly we will provide higher education and job opportunities to help better the situation in these small towns and to take the pressure off the larger cities. The project has actually already begun in the form of providing industrial areas as well as university branches in these small towns.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia undoubtedly has unemployment. However, we do have six million expatriates working in our country. We are attempting to Sauditize companies to a certain extent in order to provide more jobs for our own people. Of course we cannot simply give jobs we must educate our people and train them to do the required jobs at the highest levels. This is what we are currently doing and quit successfully actually. I am very happy with the ambition of the Saudis as they are always looking to better their situation and environment.
Q: What are the main objectives, the key policies of this country’s leaders?
We must first go back to the history of how Saudi Arabia was created. The Arabian Peninsula used to consist of many separate states. Ever y village had declared itself as a state. There were tribes that ruled these villages or states. It wasn’t until the 18th century that the first Saudi state was declared. From then on the unification of the numerous tribes continued until the creation of Saudi Arabia as we know it.
It should be understood that the leadership of this country is a historical one. It was a struggle to unify the many tribes in this part of the world. The royal family here feels the responsibility towards the unity of its people. There is a responsibility to reassure the people and to provide the security and well being of its people as well as the development of the nation. The leaders want to improve the living standards of the citizens as well. All this should be understood as a joint responsibility between the royal family and the citizens. Even historically, King Abdulaziz began a nation with the help and involvement of the citizens.
We differ from the other kingdoms in the world because we actually serve our people and we serve our country. The national unity that we possess will be maintained with all our power. The good intentions of the royal family are what help our national unity: good rulers have good citizens.
The participation of the citizens has been ongoing for a long time. We hold open sessions where anyone can speak their mind and their opinions are taken into consideration. At the same time there are obviously social problems in the nation as there are in any nation. The ideal nation does not exist here in Saudi Arabia but then again it does not exist anywhere in the world. Thus I feel that the leadership in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia adequately serves its people and its country as a whole.
Every day at 12:30, I hold a mattress, which anyone is permitted to enter, foreigners included. Last week alone I have met 967 people. Even at my home I receive people who have a variety of concerns raging from their job situation to the health of their family members. They come asking for help and I do what I can, considering each case carefully. I am sure the same is the case for his Majesty King Fahad and the Crown Prince HRH Prince Abdullah. We see this as evidence of the closeness of the relationship be- tween the people and the leaders. There is a certain sense of harmony between the two. Of course we make mistakes as do all other human beings but we are also providing a lot of positivism for our nation.
Q: What are the guidelines and principles that you follow?
First of all, one has to be a believer in God, which provides positive energy and internal hope. Secondly, one must be credible. Thirdly, one must enjoy his line of expertise. It is impossible to be successful if you do not enjoy at least some aspect of your work. One must also realize that he/she is merely a human being and is bound to make mistakes. What is important is to acknowledge these mistakes and listen to the opinions and ad- vise of others to better himself/herself. You must always respect the advice and the guidance of those who provide it.
I do not pretend to be a leader, but I try to lead by example. I work hard at whatever I do. I meet with people, and I closely follow up on all the files for which I am responsible, both in the region and in the country as a whole. My ambition is simply to work my hardest and to serve to the best of my abilities. There is no real pre-format for success because if one programs himself/herself to achieve a goal they risk losing sight of the present. I face each day with the same resolution, which is that I must do my best in whatever manner I can. In this way I am able to properly serve my country be- cause each situation is uniquely approached.
Q: A final message to the world leadersand all of our readers?
Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.
(Courtesy Summit Communications, Summit Communications is solely responsible for the content of reports, interview)