Oil and Religion

Islamic Integralism and modernity. Oil and religion.
These are just some of the many faces of Saudi Arabia, a country that has always been poised between past and future. At the centre of this country and all its dynamics, there is the Saʿūd dynasty, which for more than a century has influenced the balance of the entire world.

Abdulazīz ibn Abdull-Raḥmān b. Fayṣal Āl Saʿūd (1932-1953)

In 1902 Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Raḥmān ibn Fayṣal ibn Turki ibn Abdullah ibn Muhammad Āl Saʿūd (which I will abbreviate in Abdulaziz during the writing), great-grandson of the founder of the dynasty, led a faction of 40 brothers and cousins determined to restore the power of the family. The first move was to conquer Riyadh, the ancient capital of the Saudi Kingdom.

Abdulaziz had a clear vision of what Saudi Arabia was to become. It was to become a nation, one of the states of the world, with hospitals, schools, roads, industries, everything that constitutes a modern state. Abdulaziz aimed to make Saudi Arabia a real country and not a land prey to the raids of the various tribes. A nation capable of playing a role on the world chessboard.

To conquer the entire Arabian Peninsula Abdulaziz understood that he needed valiant warriors, for this reason, he made an alliance with the Bedouin tribe of the Ikhwan, also called “Muslim Brothers” (who are fundamentalists).

The troops of Ikhwan were unstoppable, thanks to them Abdulaziz conquers the interior of the country, but his only goal was to take over the coastal area of Hejaz and its capital Mecca. The holiest place in Islam.

His dream came true in 1926.

With the final victory for Abdulaziz came the first problems, the Ikhwan, in fact, broke the alliance and accused him of being an infidel, of having betrayed Islam. They blame him for having abandoned religion for the thirst for power.

King Abdulaziz was in trouble, to realize his dream of a modern state, he had to eliminate his faithful warriors, the Ikhwan.

To do this he had to bring to his side, a part of the religious authorities: the Ulama, the guarantors of the integrity of the kingdom.

Abdulaziz questioned the religious leaders in Riyadh and gave them a choice, choose me or the Ikhwan. The Ulama then consulted the law, the Qur’an and ḥadīth, and understood that King Abdulaziz was right. At that point, they issued the fatwā against the Ikhwan’s stating that they had no right to rebel against the king’s authority.

From that moment on, the Saʿūd family showed itself to be a master in the art of compromise, the power that the Ulema have to bless a political action or to sanction it with a fatwā became the cornerstone of the regency of Saʿūd.

With the consent of Ulema, Abdulaziz can crush the rebel warriors, but the Ikhwan are subdued only momentarily. In every crisis of the Saudi dynasty, their descendants and their followers emerge.

At this point, Abdulaziz could concentrate entirely on his project, so in 1932 the King officially gave the country his family name: Saudi Arabia was born.

However, keeping this huge country together is quite difficult and one of the most effective methods is marriage. King Abdulaziz marries the daughter of each of the tribal leaders of the areas conquered by him, by these wives the monarch will have 45 legitimate children, so each Saudi king is a direct descendant of the founder.

From an economic point of view, building a country from scratch is particularly expensive. So far the only income comes from pilgrimages to Mecca, but it is too little.

The biggest problem for the country was the lack of water, Abdulaziz was not interested in oil, but looking for aquifers the immense oil reserves were discovered.

Extracting oil is not easy and Saudi Arabia needed Western countries to do so, and this was a problem for Islamic law and for the Ulema but even in this case, the King was able to convince them.

In 1933 the first foreign oil companies arrived in Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz did not care which country they came from, the important thing was immediate payment. The first to show interest in the new oilfields are Japanese and British, but the Americans are the first to come up with the cash.

In 1944 the Arabian American Oil Company, the Aramco, was founded with the aim of exploring and marketing Saudi Arabia’s oil resources, but until 1945 oil was not a priority for the United States. Everything changed with the Second World War. Suddenly oil was at the top of national security priorities, so for the President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Saudi monarch became a very important ally.

Roosevelt and Abdulaziz met and began to discuss extremely relevant issues: oil, the possibility of establishing an American military base in Saudi Arabia and the tricky Palestinian issue. With regard to the latter issue, in November 1947 the United Nations prepared to vote on the partition plan for Palestine. The prince Fayṣal ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Āl Saʿūd (which I’ll shorten to Fayṣal), the second son of Abdulaziz, arrived in New York sure that Roosevelt’s promise would be honoured also by his successor (it must be remembered that on 12 April 1945 Roosevelt died and Harry S. Truman arrived at the White House). On the merits, Roosevelt’s promise, regarding the partition of Palestine, was that no decision would be taken without first consulting both sides, i.e. both the Saudis and the Jews.

November 29, 1947, the United Nations decided the partition of Palestine, in the front row to support it there were the United States. For Fayṣal it was a betrayal and for the rest of his life, he had a deep distrust towards America. King Abdulaziz then made very clear statements in which he expressed all his disappointment. In truth, his main concerns were about security. The Saudi King felt surrounded, the Hashemites in Iraq and Jordan, the British in Kuwait, and from all the Gulf states. In short, it was easy to imagine that someone could have taken advantage of Saudi Arabia’s weakness and therefore also of its poor ability to defend itself and aim at all its riches.

The country needed protection, which is why it turned again to the United States of America and decided to set aside its interest and worries about the Palestinian issue.

In 1953, the founder of the Saudi Kingdom, who was over 70 years old, died and the delicate moment of succession arrived, but it happened as least traumatically as possible, in a very natural way.

Saʿūd bin ʿAbd al-ʿAziz Āl Saʿūd (1953-1964)

In fact, his successor was his son Saʿūd bin ʿAbd al-ʿAziz Āl Saʿūd (which I will shorten to Saʿūd). King Saʿūd, however, was a very bad administrator, who spent a lot of money in a foolish way, and every time he was in trouble he asked for loans at Aramco. In addition, he also had a serious problem of alcoholism, which the Americans tended to hide because for them the Saudi monarch was a fundamental ally.

Since 1954, in fact, with the coup d’état by Nasser in Egypt, all the military, economic, geopolitical balances ended and the consequent approach of Nasser towards the Soviet Union was a source of great preoccupation for Washington.

Saudi Arabia was therefore (as it is today) a fundamental nation for every U.S. relationship in the Middle East and the risk that the Soviets could arrive there and take possession of all that oil and all those oil reserves was terrifying.

Meanwhile, on January 20, 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower became the new President of the United States and his idea was that King Saʿūd could become a leading figure in the Arab world, contending for Nasser’s leadership.

February 1957 the King Saʿūd is the first Saudi monarch to be invited to an official visit to the United States.

The main object of this visit was the permanence of the American airbase in Dhahran (Saudi Arabia). In the middle of the Cold War, this base for the United States was a strategic outpost fundamental to counter the Soviet presence in the region. King Saʿūd knew this well and had very clear ideas about the price to be charged. In exchange for the free use of the Dhahran airbase, were requested tanks, training, planes and various types of armaments.

Everyone in Washington was very worried about what was happening in Saudi Arabia, not only about the Aramco but especially because the US administration thought that Saʿūd was not the right man in the right place.

For this reason, the U.S. government believed that the only hope to “save Saudi Arabia” was in the hands of Fayṣal.

All the brothers of the dynasty then ganged up against Saʿūd and so in November 1964 they met the religious leaders and with their approval decided to go ahead against the King.

The same religious leaders then emanate a fatwā, de facto the abdication of the monarch was ratified, and Fayṣal was indicated as the next king of the nation.

Fayṣal ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Āl Saʿūd (1964-1975)

King Fayṣal had decisive challenges ahead of him, his kingdom is little more than a desert wasteland where schools, roads and infrastructure were lacking. The new King had every intention of modernising the country, while at the same time not offending Islamic values and traditions.

The biggest obstacle was to convince the Ulama. For example, for the Ulama to broadcast television programs was a sin, it was about images and Muslims are not allowed to show images. For them it was a real blasphemy, it was as if the government had made a “pact with the devil”. King Fayṣal then decided that an Imam recited the Koran on television, then told the people: ” television is like a sword, you can use it for evil purposes or for good”. He made them understand that it was only a tool.

In June 1967 the Six-Day War between Arabs and Israelis broke out. The conflict overshadowed all internal problems. Although Israel was attacked without warning, it turned the war upside down and defeated the Arab formations. It even occupies territories 4 times larger than those it had at the time of the constitution of the Jewish State.

For King Fayṣal, the War of 6 Days, was a particularly painful wound. For almost half a century, since he was 14 years old and represented his father at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and until 1967, he was the Palestinian representative and defender of their lands.

Because of the Palestinian question, the friendship between the United States and Saudi Arabia had never been easy, but after 1967 it became almost impossible. In the Arab world, there was the idea that the defeat was due to the fact that the Israelis had received American air cover. After the war of 1967, the Arab League accused the Saudis of being puppets sold to the Americans and that they were not even able to control their oil.

October 1973 the Yom Kippur War broke out, once again the Arabs attacked Israel by surprise. This time the Egyptian army gained important positions.

The Israelis asked for the help of the United States to do something and Nixon (who had won the presidential election in 1972) did not want to go down in history as the one responsible for Israel’s downfall.

The Arab states, Syria and Egypt, received weapons from the Soviets and Nixon felt this as a provocation. At no cost, Soviet weapons should have prevailed over American ones.

Washington then decided to carry out an airlift, for King Fayṣal was yet another outrage.

King Fayṣal decided to respond to this US action through a boycott. On October 17, 1973, Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, withdrew large quantities of crude oil from the market. The sudden scarcity of oil skyrocketed the price and caused an earthquake in the economy of many countries around the world. From this moment on, the American administration realized that it could no longer ignore Fayṣal’s requests.

Oil has, therefore, become a weapon and King Fayṣal has forever changed the balance of international relations.

With the 1973 oil embargo, in fact, Saudi Arabia understands that the economy of the West could be in its hands and this puts King Fayṣal at the centre of the international political scene.

The United States needed to lift the embargo as soon as possible. Nixon then sent Henry Kissinger (currently both Secretary of State and Security Advisor) on an urgent diplomatic mission. After 5 months from the beginning of the embargo, Washington understood that the diplomatic solution did not lead to anything and suggested an alternative way, the Pentagon took care of it.

The way was the following: Kissinger gave an interview, in which he declared that the United States could not afford to continue without oil supplies and if it was necessary they would prepare to invade Saudi Arabia militarily and take possession of the oil fields.

Initially, the statement was interpreted only as an attempt to intimidate Saudi Arabia but MI6 in a Top Secret report warned the possibility for a real military intervention.

In this situation, as regards oil-holding countries, the consequences of the energy crisis were quite positive, because revenues increased considerably. Often, however, this increased financial availability did not bring considerable benefits to the population: for example, a war broke out between Iran and Iraq, two oil-exporting countries, and the civilian population suffered severe loss. These fights also put an end to high oil prices, as Saudi Arabia and other members of Opec increased oil extraction as a result of the war, causing the price of oil to fall. The “energy crisis of 1973” could, therefore, be said to be over, even though its economic effects lasted for several years.

On March 25, 1975, a dramatic event. King Fayṣal was receiving the Kuwaiti Oil Minister when Fayṣal bin Musā’id (one of his stepbrother) entered his office. When the minister bowed in deference to the King, Fayṣal bin Musā’id, shot the King who died.

The assassination of King Fayṣal creates dismay. However, once again the succession takes place painlessly because Fayṣal had also planned it for some time. The choice was a compromise that aimed to put the family away from any possible conflict.

Khālid bin ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Āl Saʿūd (1975-1982)

The successor designated by Fayṣal was Khālid bin ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Āl Saʿūd (which I will shorten to Khālid).

Khālid has been a faithful companion of Fayṣal since the founding of the Kingdom.

Always at his side during his visits abroad he preferred until then to live in the shadow of his brother and stay out of politics.

The first years of Khālid’s reign, flow quietly. All the most important ministries were occupied by the Saud house princes. The oil industry was prosperous and constantly growing. The monarchy no longer had to devote itself to finances in crisis and could turn its attention to even the most eccentric projects. The only problem seems to be how to spend, where to invest.

In those years Saudi Arabia was one of the few countries to have strong economic growth. With the Saudi economic boom came also a good dose of Western culture and in a country where 70% of the population is extremely conservative, if not even fundamentalist, this process could not be painless.

The occupation of the Mosque in Mecca in 1979 was perhaps the first sign that the whole of Saudi society was saying “we’re going too fast, it’s better to slow down”.

Also on this occasion, the Ulama (the Muslim clergy) came to the aid of the Saudi royal family, on the basis of some verses of the Koran, according to which the violent response of the monarchy to the troublemakers barricaded in the mosque is to be considered legitimate. They also issued a fatwā.

The extremist group held out for 18 days. The royal family decided to go abroad to resolve the matter through military experts. The best choice for this type of mission was the French secret service.

Thanks to the help of the French, the occupation of the mosque ended and 63 of the surviving insurgents were immediately beheaded.

The royal family was shaken and feared that the siege of Mecca was the birth of a violent opposition movement.

What worried the monarchy was above all the news of the overthrow of the Shah of Persia Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The new Iranian government under the leadership of Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, better known simply as Ayatollah Khomeini, did not miss the opportunity to denounce the unholy alliance of corrupt Islamic monarchies with the infidels. It was a real challenge to the Saud house.

On 4 December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, a month earlier Iranian students took hostage the staff of the American Embassy in Tehran. In a region that had drastically changed, the role of Saudi Arabia became even more crucial.

With the logistical support of the United States, thousands of young Saudis are sent to fight alongside the mujāhidīn in Afghanistan.

For almost 10 years thousands of Saudis have been working alongside their Afghan brothers of faith to fight the Soviets.

Among their leaders, a young Osama bin Laden.

Fahd bin ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Āl Saʿūd (1982-2005)

On 13 June 1982, Khālid died after holding the reins of the state for about a decade, his place was taken by Crown Prince Fahd bin ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Āl Saʿūd (which I will shorten to Fahd), who became the V King of Saudi Arabia. Fahd, even before ascending the throne, has always played a leading role in the government, becoming the occult manipulator behind every transformation that took place in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s support for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq cost at least $50 billion. Throughout the long war between Iran and Iraq, King Fahd is Saddam’s main financial ally, then in 1988, the war ended.  Suddenly two years later there was a new twist.

Iraq invaded Kuwait. Saddam’s tanks even approached the border with Saudi Arabia.

The royal family knew that his tiny army would be virtually helpless against Iraqi troops.

In the first phase of the invasion, aid to the Saudi Royal House Osama came from bin Laden.

Billionaire bin Laden spent the previous 10 years alongside Islamic troops and against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

The collapse of the Soviet regime has left many Islamic fighters without a cause to defend.

The Saudi regime could not accept that a private citizen offers himself as commander of his own army, so while the Iraqi troops were “at the gates”, King Fahd preferred to ask for help from the American allies. Fahd’s solution was bound to create tension.

How was it possible to allow the defence of an Islamic Kingdom to be entrusted to troops of infidels? Once again the Ulema resolved the crisis. Only they gave King Fahd permission to proceed. King Fahd then issued a fatwā. But it generated many internal disagreements.

In fact, the religious establishment was reduced downsized, almost de-legitimized. On the contrary, the measure opened the doors to Islamic radicalism.

In the meantime, the United States seemed to be mainly focused on how to defend the provinces of Saudi Arabia, the main and vital sources of oil.

So the former American Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Charles W. Freeman, the former American Minister of Defense Dick Cheney and the former U.S. General Norman Schwarzkopf went to King Fahd to urge him to take a stand. To do so, Freeman and Cheney brought with them satellite images of Iraqi troops ready to cross the Saudi border.

Once seen the satellite photos and heard the ally’s attack proposal, King Fahd agreed to American intervention.

With the start of Operation Desert Shield, 550,000 American soldiers arrived in Saudi Arabia and this caused so much tension. Fear of a cultural and religious invasion began to grow in the population, but what worried the Saudis most was an unexpected economic crisis.

The Saudis contributed about $17 billion and for aircraft fuel; ironically at that time Saudi Arabia became the largest importer of crude oil in the world. At the end of the conflict, it spent $50 billion and this caused a frightening economic crisis.

Meanwhile, the Saud family had to deal with general discontent, in Saudi Arabia the real social glue has always been wealth and when the economic crisis became serious, dissent turned into rebellion. The radical Islamic opposition also had another topic to use, 5 years after the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein was again the excuse to introduce thousands of American soldiers on Saudi Arabian territory.

Osama bin Laden becomes the voice of the Islamic Radicals. On 13 November 1995, a bomb exploded in the centre of Riyadh, a little less than a year later, another bomb exploded near Dhahran.

Both attacks were intended to hit American military bases and behind both was Osama bin Laden.

At this critical juncture, in 1995 King Fahd had a heart attack and the management of power was entrusted to his brother (on his father’s side), Prince Abd Allāh bin ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Āl Saʿūd (which I will shorten to Abd Allāh).

20 January 2000 George W. Bush became the new President of the United States. Prince Abd Allāh considers the Palestinian issue the main problem behind the discontent in the whole region.

In February 2001, with the election of Ariel Sharon as Israeli Prime Minister, the Middle East exploded and Bush publicly supported him.

Bush said that the Israelis would never negotiate under the threat of terrorist attacks. If the Palestinians were really interested in dialogue, Yasser Arafat would have to offer 100% of his contribution to ending terrorist violence. At that point, Crown Prince Abd Allah sent the American President a very harsh message, in which he expressed his disappointment with the American choices.

At that point, Crown Prince Abd Allah sent a very harsh message to the American President. In the message, he expressed all his disappointment with the American choices, particularly the choice to support Sharon without any regard for the Saudi interests in the area. He added that the U.S. is a sovereign country and you are free to act as you wish, we must protect our interests. Therefore, we will not worry about the possible repercussions that our choices may have on you.”

Within 24 hours, President Bush replied to the message, in which he explained the American point of view on the whole issue. Bush spoke clearly about two countries. A Jerusalem divided in two. About a definition of the refugee issue and then he added that all this could only be done if the violence stopped.

In turn, the Prince replied to the President “this is certainly a step forward, but you must make your positions public as soon as possible”.

Bush said that he agreed.

3 days later, 3 planes crashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon…the whole peace process was wiped out.

Abd Allāh bin ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Āl Saʿūd (2005-2015)

Abd Allāh ascended the throne as King of Saudi Arabia and Prime Minister after the death of his half-brother Fahd on 1 August 2005 and named his half-brother Salmān bin ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Āl Saʿūd (which I will shorten to Salmān) as Crown Prince.

Abd Allāh during his 10 years in power carried out some reforms in different fields, but above all, he sought inter-religious dialogue. The aim of this dialogue was to eradicate the prejudices that link Islam to terrorism, becoming in 2007 the first Saudi monarch to visit a Pontiff (Pope Benedict XVI). He also asked for a “fraternal and sincere dialogue between believers of all religions” speaking during a conference in Mecca to urge Muslim leaders to dialogue with Jews and Christians, and discussing with Islamic scholars about the need to establish an interreligious dialogue.

Saudi Arabia also co-organized a conference on inter-religious dialogue, which took place in Madrid in July 2008, while in November 2008 it presided a debate at the United Nations General Assembly on the promotion of dialogue between civilizations. The discussion was attended by prominent world leaders including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Israeli President Shimon Peres, US President George W. Bush and King Abd Allah II of Jordan.

Among the most important reforms and investments were in education. A government scholarship program was implemented, which allowed young men and women to study abroad at various universities around the world for undergraduate and postgraduate studies.

The program offered funds for the school and daily expenses for up to four years. It is estimated that more than 70,000 students were educated abroad, in more than 25 countries. The United States, England and Australia are the first three destinations chosen by young Saudi students. Currently, more than 22 000 young people are studying in the United States.

The King also renewed the Ministry of Education, nominating a former teacher trained in the United States, Nora Al Fayez, as deputy minister and head of education for women.

In order to improve the country’s economic situation and make the nation more attractive, the King developed a new investment promotion agency to make the process of creating a company less convoluted. He also created a regulatory body for capital markets and invested in the training of the workforce for advanced professions. This was also done through the construction of the University for Science and Technology King Abd Allāh.

Also in the economic sphere, King Abd Allāh encouraged the development of non-hydrocarbon sectors where the kingdom has a comparative advantage, including mining, solar energy and religious tourism. The 2010 budget reflected these priorities, in fact about 25% of it was dedicated to education, providing a significant stimulus to the economy.

During his reign, King Abd Allāh harshly pursued the fight against domestic terrorism with arrests, torture and public beheadings and made the protection of Saudi Arabia’s critical infrastructure a top security priority. His strategy against terrorism was twofold: he attacked the roots of the extremism that fed Al-Qaeda through education and judicial reforms to weaken the influence of the most reactionary elements of Saudi Arabia’s religious class. To this end, it also encouraged economic diversification.

In light of the Arab Spring in 2011, Abd Allāh established a $37 billion program to distribute among unemployment benefits, education and construction funding, debt forgiveness and a new sports channel. There was also a commitment to spend a total of $400 billion by the end of 2014 to improve the kingdom’s education, health care and infrastructure. However, Saudi police arrested one hundred Shiite protesters who complained about the discrimination suffered by the government.

Later in 2011, as part of the protests that were upsetting the kingdom, the King announced the concession of the right to vote for women in the 2015 municipal elections, and in January 2013 he appointed thirty women to the Shura’s Consultative Assembly, amending its mandate law, stipulating that at least 20% of the members of the assembly should be women. In August 2013, the Saudi cabinet passed a law sanctioning domestic violence as a crime. The law provided for a penalty of up to one year in prison and a fine of up to 50 000 riyals. The maximum penalty could be doubled for repeat offenders. The law criminalizes not only physical abuse but also psychological and sexual abuse.

This rule includes a provision that obliges employees to report cases of abuse in the workplace to the employer.

The new laws were welcomed by Saudi women’s rights activists, although some expressed fears that the law could not be successfully implemented without the formation of a new judiciary and that the tradition of male protection remains an obstacle to prosecution.

Very important, however, remains also during his reign a privileged economic, diplomatic and military channel with the United States.

In 2008, the kingdom purchased the JDAM system (the Joint Direct Attack Munition is a guidance kit that converts unguided bombs, or “dumb bombs”, into all-weather precision-guided munitions).

While in December 2011, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia signed a defence package contract that includes F-15 fighter planes and upgrades for 70 existing aircraft, as well as ammunition, spare parts, training, maintenance and logistics. The sale reached a value of $29.4 billion.

In 2012, the U.S. embassy and consulates in the Kingdom issued more than 90,000 visas to Saudi citizens. The Saudi embassy in Washington and the consulates of the United States issued more than 70,000 visas. These are historically high numbers.

Following an agreement reached in May 2008, the two countries decided to issue multiple-entry visas to citizens of both countries for five years.

In May 2013, Saudi Arabia and the United States signed a bilateral air services agreement aimed at implementing an open skies policy between the two countries. As a result, American airline companies have been able to expand services in the kingdom and Saudi Arabian Airlines has increased the frequency of its flights to the United States.

Saudi Arabia is the 10th largest trading partner of the United States. Investment between the two countries has seen record numbers. The United States is the first source of foreign direct investment in the kingdom.

Strategic partnerships between Saudi Arabia and the United States continue to flourish.

In 2010, Alcoa and Ma’aden Arabia signed a contract worth approximately $15 billion to build the world’s largest aluminium refining and smelting complex in the kingdom. While the following year, Saudi Aramco and Dow Chemical Company approved the establishment of a joint venture to build and operate a fully integrated chemical complex in Jubail Industrial City, worth $20 billion. In 2013, the Saudi government’s public investment fund signed a contract with Fluor to manage the $7 billion Riyadh – Jeddah railway line project.

In the same year, a consortium including, among others, Bechtel and Salini Impregilo was selected for the multi-billion dollar Riyadh metro project.

Salmān bin ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Āl Saʿūd (2015-current)

Salmān on 23 January 2015 succeeded his brother ʿAbd Allāh as King of Saudi Arabia.

Salmān is one of seven children that King Abdulazīz, founder of Saudi Arabia, had from his wife Hassa al-Sudayri. Salmān is considered to be conservative, unlike his predecessor, who liked to be known as a modernizer.

As soon as he took the throne on 29 January, the new King took care of streamlining the bureaucracy of the State, establishing only two departments (while at the death of the King ʿAbd Allāh, there were eleven government secretariats), the Council for Political Affairs and Security, which he entrusted to his nephew Muḥammad bin Nāyef Āl Saʿūd and the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, which he entrusted to his son Moḥammad bin Salmān Al Sa’ud, former Minister of Defense.

Both had carte blanche in the complete reorganization of the government and immediately strengthened the power of the Sudayri family, to which both principles belong. Until 2017, almost all of the King’s powers were concentrated in the hands of the couple, who also headed the committees that determined all matters of security and economic development in Saudi Arabia.

In April of the same year, Salmān confirmed the opportunity, already announced by his predecessor a few years earlier, for Saudi women to participate in municipal elections, the only votes granted to the population of the kingdom, as candidates and electricians.

A big change took place on April 29, 2015.

On that date, in fact, the Foreign Minister, Prince Saʿūd bin Fayṣal, in office since October 1975, was replaced by the ambassador to the United States, Adel bin Ahmad al-Jubayr, the first not belonging to the royal house to hold office. On 27 December 2018 King Salmān also appointed him Minister of State for Foreign Affairs.

In March 2015, instead, the king ordered the bombing of Yemen (Operation Decisive Storm) to fight the Huthi Shiites, supported by Iran, leading a coalition of ten Muslim countries in support of the legitimate government, taking a leading role in Yemen’s civil war. This was the first time that the Saudi Air Force launched airstrikes against another country after the first Gulf War in 1990-1991.

From an economic point of view, it is important to note that, at the meeting of the Council of Ministers on 26 April 2016, the Deputy Crown Prince Moḥammad presented a strategic plan drawn up by the Council for Economic and Development Affairs led by him, called Saudi Vision 2030.

Saudi Vision 2030, is a strategic framework to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil, diversify its economy and develop public service sectors such as health, education, infrastructure, recreation and tourism. The central points of the proposal are of an economic nature, including the transformation of Saudi Aramco into a holding company; the creation of a $2000 billion sovereign fund for the launch of investment projects on the territory in the non-oil, tourism and entertainment sectors; increased taxes and tariffs (one on added value, one on luxury goods, road tolls, gasoline prices and production of equipment and ammunition); and also heavy cuts in subsidies.

Key strategic objectives include strengthening economic and investment activities, increasing non-oil trade between countries and promoting a softer, more secular image of the Kingdom. According to the plan, it would allow the kingdom’s economy to become independent, by 2020, from oil production and the price of oil, whose decline in recent months has put the public budget in difficulties.

From the point of view of succession to the throne, it is important to talk about what happens in June 2017.

On 21 June 2017 Salmān decided what the line of succession would be for decades to come. In fact, the sovereign appointed his son Mohammad as the new Crown Prince in place of his nephew Muḥammad bin Nāyef, who also left the post of Minister of the Interior; in this role, he was succeeded by Prince Abd al-Aziz bin Sa’ud Al Sa’ud.

According to Al Ikhbariya state television, the appointment of the heir to the throne was confirmed by 31 of the 34 members of the Loyalty Council. Mohammad took the oath the same day after the evening prayer in the al-Safa palace in Mecca.

The announcement has a strong value and means that the throne will pass to a new generation, for the first time since 1953, when the crown passed from the founder of the dynasty Abdullazīz to the first of his six children.

Now Saudi Arabia, like practically all countries in the world, has to face the dynamics that the COVID-19 and the lockdown have caused mainly in economic and health terms.

What worries Crown Prince Mohammed is not the health issues, but the project to which he has inextricably linked his name: Vision 2030.

In fact, the collapse of crude oil coincides with phase one of the project which, because of the pandemic, will probably have to be delayed. Projects like ‘Neom’, the futuristic hi-tech city between the desert and the Red Sea, with its hyperbolic cost of 500 billion dollars, will have to wait. And Vision 2030 could become Vision 2040. At best.

The pandemic and the effects of the lockdown on global industrial production have hit the coffers of the kingdom and the Saudi Arabian government is running for cover with unprecedented economic measures.

As of 1 July, value-added tax (VAT) will triple from 5 to 15%. The payment of subsidies to civil servants will also be suspended.

Economic measures needed to avoid even more drastic measures such as a cut in public sector salaries, as oil does not seem to be showing any significant signs of recovery at the moment.

The rise in the cost of living could break the social pact with the population and curb the scope of the reforms initiated by Crown Prince Mohammed.

The kingdom, therefore, finds itself at a difficult crossroads: to increase expenditure again – after a quarter in which there was a budget deficit of 9 billion dollars – or to cut welfare? In one of the last absolute monarchies, where political legitimacy is largely based on the redistribution of oil revenues, can drastic cuts and tax increases fuel discontent, but could they go so far as to undermine its stability?

By Michele Brunori

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