When the world awoke on September 11 to scenes of horror, it took most people a while for reality to sink in. Between the reports and counter-reports, it took even longer for an accurate rendition of events to appear; to this day, there are still a great many people who don't believe the full truth was told. One thing we know for sure: of the 19 9-11 terrorists, all of them shared a common religion, and 15 shared a common nationality: that of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, ruled for a century by the royal family of Sau'd.
I know a fair bit about the house of Sau'd and the fact that the Brits backed a winner in the Middle East for a change. It paid off in many respects, unlike the alphabet soup of countries in the "arc of instability" I've mentioned in my articles which devolve from the end of the British and Soviet Empires.
As I've said many times, the mandarins of Whitehall, and later the Kremlin, made gross errors for which we are all paying, by ignoring the work of surveyors, traders, explorers, geographers and government officials who could have told them where the tribal fault lines ran.
By and large these countries are ruled by gangsters, thugs, and ex-communists but they have Islam in common and most are Sunni. American dollars still buy temporary allegiances in that part of the world but most of the countries are going broke and others are just poor: they were a drag on the Soviet economy but pipelines run through all the territories and some of them are staging points for the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. I don't think any government in that part of the world stays bought; they usually follow the day's highest bidder - look at the recent problems the US has had with logistical routes to Afghanistan.
Getting back to Saudi Arabia: like Australians, they are wonderful liars or shall we say storytellers. Saudi legend has it that the first kingdom was established in 1774 (a very rich decade when you stop to think about it) but this is really shrouded in the mysteries of time.
Modern Saudi Arabia's history apparently started in 1902 when the al-Sau'd ancestral palace at Riyadh was taken from the infidels by Abdul Aziz al-Sau'd. Consolidation of the kingdom proceeded until the 1930s when the British came on the scene and put their weight behind the ruling family.
Just as a slight historical digression, it is my understanding that during World War II when many of the Middle Eastern countries were practicing the Heil Hitler salute because Rommel was fast approaching the Egyptian capital, the Saudis kept out of it and some actually fought with British forces as individuals. I stand to be corrected on that point but students of history don't argue with those who slogged their way across the Western desert fighting arguably one of the most brilliant World War II commanders only to face him again in Normandy: especially when the raconteur happens to be a relative!
Some recent historical research that I conducted in connection with the politics of oil stated that the House of Sau'd was moderately pro-Axis prior to World War II but more or less successfully maintained neutrality until they realized which way the wind was blowing and declared war on the Axis in February 1945. It was only after war ended that the great oil rush began and people suddenly discovered that this desert kingdom literally floated on the stuff. That's the origin of our dependencies on tyrants.
Despots come and despots go but the house of al-Sau'd goes on forever - I expect that is because they breed like rabbits. Like any large family they have factions. Also like Australia, the Saudi population is comparatively small - 28 million vs 23 million - and contains a lot of unusable desert. Unfortunately, we don't appear to have oil in our deserts, more's the pity.
The Saudi system of government is feudal monarchy driven by oil revenues.
Like most developments after World War II, the baton was passed to the US but I can still remember major Saudi purchases of British arms in the 1960s, with the rather ridiculous Hawker Hunter, a swept wing British jet fighter. I think the USAF was flying F-4 Phantoms at the time and I know what I'd sooner be flying against a MIG 21 or something similar in the Middle East. Thanks to the power of the politics of oil, most of their aircraft today are top-of-the-line US products.
Of course the house of Sau'd is typical of most ruling dynasties. Autocratic, filthy rich, numerous branches and of course, plotters within who have usually been rooted out and quietly disposed of without too much fuss.
The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has produced a great number of very competent technical and professional people. A friend of mine studied dentistry in London, which at the time was the place to go for dentists (I think San Francisco is probably the place now). There were two Brits, himself (an Australian) and some 30 Saudis studying at this most prestigious college and they all passed. He never made mention of any undue influence in the way of Saudi funding but then again, at the time, I don't think they needed external funding. I'm not sure what the situation would be today.
Travelers' tales from the kingdom tend to be very interesting and often contradictory. Women in Saudi Arabia are extremely well-educated but they have to adhere to harshly strict dress codes. They work in offices as well as factories but are not allowed to drive. Not that this stops your modern Saudi Arabian woman of substance: I'm reliably informed that once outside the city limits, the chauffeur is relegated to the back seat and milady drives.
Of course, there's not many of those but their numbers are growing; periodically, National Geographic magazine or the associated TV channel manages to get some footage of these brave young women. And I stress the word "brave" because depending on how the law is applied, they can be flogged, imprisoned and even stoned to death for driving at all.
If the US in taking over from the UK has done one good thing, it has exercised a moderating influence on the current rulers; roughhousing of women is far less than in previous years. I am also absolutely astonished at the bravery of BBC female reporters who cover up and visit the country. Some of them have found that middle-class Saudi women long for liberation and as such, the mullahs would call them apostates.
Anyone for flogging, then stoning? No shortage of volunteers in some parts of the Islamic world as I've seen on YouTube.
As with most autocratic monarchies, there are all sorts of other weird and wonderful exceptions to the alleged rules of the Saudi state. Officially they are Sunni Muslims but more importantly, the Saudi government is responsible for the three most sacred Islamic sites.
Perhaps you can remember riots in Mecca during the time of the Hajj some years ago. The Saudi response forces are trained to kill if such disturbances occur and a lot of the Shi'a are none too happy with Saudi overlordship and the way they are treated as second-class brethren.
The trouble from a Western point of view is that Sunni or Shi'a, they both pretend to be adherents of the religion of "peace" known as Islam, but more particularly known to people such as myself as a theocratic doctrine masking jihad and terrorism.
The great problem faced by the House of Sau'd is all the wonderfully educated but tightly limited youth. Many men do not want to stay and live in the traditional Saudi fashion. If educated in the West, at least some of the modernist tendencies tend to take root, especially those that promise freedom of action if not necessarily belief.
Many really like booze and women, not necessarily in that order; They also have their quota of gays, which in the Middle East carries the death penalty - and yet sodomy has been an Arab pastime for centuries. So they're still in the closet, but they are there and potentially revolutionary.
The pro-Western and educated kid, predominantly male, either gets out and stays out or turns to more nefarious pastimes. We should not forget that Osama bin Laden is a Saudi and that although the Saudi government has tried to rein him in, the religious class has urged him on.
There is definitely a clash not only of generations but education and class. A lot of Saudi Arabia was once run by the Bedouin who have now been literally been dragged out of tents, their camels destroyed, and themselves forcibly housed. Doing this to a highly volatile tribal nomadic people is not exactly the smartest move in the world; it merely adds to the tension.
For now, the government will probably retain control because they make enough money from oil to keep most people reasonably sweet. As in Iran, younger Saudis could be taken right out of the cast of "The Young and the Restless."
Back when nobody knew that there was any other way to do things, the mullah's pronouncements were more acceptable. Now that so many people both young and old have traveled and seen that there is indeed another way to live and that it has attractions beyond what's found in the Koran, it is not clear that the security apparatus will be able to keep control, particularly if the family factions start to disagree more openly.
If Iran blows up, can Saudi Arabia be far behind? If Saudi Arabia or Iran fall into chaos, the "Arc of Instability" will get a new starting point a bit further to the west.