Saudi Arabia — At the Crossroads

Is Saudi Arabia still a rock in an otherwise troubled region — or might it crumble?

September 19, 2001

Is Saudi Arabia still a rock in an otherwise troubled region — or might it crumble?

Oil, desert and sheiks. That pretty much sums up the Western idea of Saudi Arabia. But for all its fabulous riches, the country’s GDP ranks only 27th in the world. It has long been considered — especially by U.S. policy makers — a rock in an otherwise troubled region. Is that assumption justified any longer — or is the country threatened with crumbling? Our Globalist Factsheet explores the challenges for Saudi Arabia’s future.

What is Saudi Arabia’s relationship to the Taliban in Afghanistan?

As of 2001, only three countries — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Kabul.

(Washington Post)

How well off are the Saudi people?

Back in the early 1980s, Saudi Arabia had a per capita income of $28,000, matching that of the United States. By 2000, the size of the Saudi population had nearly doubled to 20 million — and per capita incomes had fallen below $7,000.

(New York Times)

What about the employment situation for young Saudis?

While Saudi Arabia’s public and private sectors generate about 50,000 jobs each year, there are 100,000 young men entering the labor force annually.

(New York Times)

What is the basis for the Saudi economy?

Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil producer and pumps 8.2 million barrels a day. That is equal to 41% of the daily U.S. oil consumption of 20 million barrels.

(Wall Street Journal)

How does that compare to other oil-producing countries?

As of 1999, OPEC held 79% of global oil reserves, which are currently estimated at 140 billion tons. Saudi Arabia alone owns 25% of these reserves.

(BHF-Bank)

How are the country’s leaders selected?

Saudi Arabia’s royal succession is based on age and family consensus in order to avoid fratricide. The one rule is that any future king must be a direct descendant of Abdel Aziz al-Saud the founding monarch who died in 1953 and had 44 sons from 22 marriages. More than 20 of his sons are still alive.

(Washington Post)

Who is running the country?

At present, there are roughly 7,000 princes in Saudi Arabia’s royal clan. They generally make a living as heads of various government, administration or military posts.

(New York Times)

How open is the country to technological progress?

In Saudi Arabia, which has been connected to the Internet since 1994, private citizens were prohibited to go online until January 1999.

(BBC)

What is life like for women in Saudi Arabia?

Beginning in spring 1999, Saudi women are allowed to drive cars between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. — provided they are married, over 35 years old and have the written permission of their husbands.

(Die Welt)

Did that help to make them more independent?

Saudi women use “family IDs” — without photos — that list them as dependents of fathers or husbands.

(Washington Post)

How strict is the Islamic faith in Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Arabia’s “mutawa,” or religious police, go into sports stores and cosmetics shops with felt pens to black out pictures of women on boxes and posters.

(Washington Post)

How dependent is Saudi Arabia on its foreign workforce?

While foreigners accounted for 30% of the 20 million people residing in Saudi Arabia, they held 4.7 million of the 7.2 million jobs — or 66% of the total as of 1998.

(Washington Post)

Are the Saudis concerned about this?

“Saudization” laws passed five years ago mandated gradually eliminating the need for millions of expatriate workers. The share of local workers in any business had to increase five percentage points annually — which, so far, has not happened.

(Washington Post)

How open is Saudi Arabia’s financial sector?

Before 1999, the only way by which foreign investors could invest in Saudi Arabia’s stock market — which with a market capitalization of $45 billion, is the largest in the Arab world— was through a single closed-end mutual fund.

(Financial Times)

And finally, how has desert life shaped the Arabic language?

There are eight words for desert in Arabic — all with different nuances.

(New York Times)