Winds of Change in the Desert

Sandra Mackey is the author of "The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom."

After months of escalating tension between the U.S. and the Arab world, the Bush administration is showing some sensitivity to the political realities on the ground. In announcing that almost all U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Saudi Arabia by August, it is advancing the political needs of the House of Saud and, in doing so, promoting American interests by pursuing stability in the Persian Gulf. In essence, Washington is acknowledging that some individuals in the upper echelons of the House of Saud have proved to be good politicians.

Saudi Arabia is a large country of distinctive regions, religious sects, urban areas and tribes. There was no unity until the early 1920s, when Abdul Aziz ibn Saud created the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The king claimed legitimacy through the defense of Islam, particularly the Wahhabi sect. But Abdul Aziz ultimately built and maintained his power by operating as a master politician. Constantly moving across the expanses of desert between the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, he carried his treasury on the backs of camels. Living like a Bedouin, he set up his tent, received tribal leaders, passed out gifts and married the daughters of key allies to ensure allegiance to his rule.

In the 1960s, the increasing economic importance of Saudi Arabia’s oil required the system to adapt. No longer could the sons of Abdul Aziz keep their xenophobic country isolated. Yet, the real jolt to traditional politics came with the Arab oil embargo of 1973, when oil prices skyrocketed. Money poured into the kingdom, and with it came legions of foreigners who built an infrastructure and stamped Saudi society with the veneer, if not the substance, of Western culture.

The House of Saud used its oil windfall to create a welfare state. It also carefully balanced steps toward modernization against defense of traditional cultural mores. This commitment to Saudi culture helped shield the House of Saud against the Islamic passions raised by the 1979 revolution in Iran. But housing, education, health care and defense of the culture were not enough to guarantee the ruling family’s legitimacy.


Oil revenues were falling by the mid-1980s. The welfare state’s generous benefits were cut despite the popular perception of rampant greed in the royal family, particularly among the regime’s lesser figures. Furthermore, King Fahd, who came to the throne in 1982, lacked the political touch of his predecessors, Kings Faisal and Khaled, who carefully tended tribal relationships. Then came Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

The House of Saud, alarmed by the Iraqi occupation of its neighbor, permitted the U.S. to use its country as a base for 500,000 coalition forces, the vast majority of them Americans.

The Saudis, who had convinced themselves that they could have the technology of modernization and still not be Westernized, now confronted the presence of a U.S.-led armed force in the shadows of Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.

After the Persian Gulf War, when thousands of U.S. troops remained in the kingdom to help keep Hussein contained, the House of Saud attempted to repair its political fences by pouring money into Islamic causes. Most of it went to legitimate programs and charities. But some ended up in the schools and coffers of Islamic militants who provided most of the 9/11 hijackers.

Suddenly, the royal family had critics other than the traditionalists who demanded an Islamic republic. Angry Americans believed that it had sent terrorists against the U.S., and Saudi modernizers pushed for liberal reform of the political system. Since then, speculation has abounded in the United States that the days of the House of Saud are numbered. But the princes of Riyadh are answering by mobilizing their talent as politicians.

With Fahd sidelined by poor health, Crown Prince Abdullah is the de facto head of state. He possesses the al-Saud political touch. Tied closely to the tribes and untainted by greed, he claims legitimacy among large sectors of the Saudi population. He also understands that if the House of Saud is to continue its rule, reforms are necessary. These are not only reforms that open up politics to the middle class created by the oil boom. They also include privatization of the economy, job growth, revision of the education system and expansion of opportunities for women.

Abdullah recognizes that all this must come in the context of Saudi norms, not under what the Saudi public sees as the pressure and direction of the United States. That means that the large U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia since the 1991 Gulf War needs to end before the reforms are put into place.

When the U.S. military departs, Americans need to understand that the House of Saud is not kicking America out of Saudi Arabia. Rather, success in the Iraq war means that the U.S. no longer needs to maintain its presence in the kingdom. Americans also need to understand that the United States is neither punishing the ruling family nor writing it off.


To its credit, the Bush administration is acknowledging that U.S. security can be achieved by disengagement as well as engagement. By pursuing disengagement, Washington is allowing the House of Saud to go to its people as politicians rather than as clients of the United States.