Edits – Various comments based on feedback.
In August, I spent a week in Saudi Arabia. I started in Jeddah, drove to Taif, drove to Abha, and then drove 600 miles to Riyadh. I wanted to go to Mecca and Medina, but as a non-Muslim, it’s haram (at least for part of Medina).
Compared to my other travel writings, this one has a lot more on the history, politics, and economics of its subject. Saudi Arabia has been one of my top travel destinations for years because it’s one of the most unusual countries in the world and it’s currently undergoing a massive transformation. Four years ago, despite possessing a per capita wealth level comparable to Western Europe, Saudi Arabia had:
- Complete gender segregation, including forced gender separation in restaurants, mandatory dress codes for women, and a ban on women driving
- Prohibitions on degenerate Western practices, including music concerts, movie theaters, and most advertisements
- Enforcement of Sharia law by paramilitary religious police who could freely beat people with sticks
Today, all of this stuff is gone. Most Westerners could witness the change with their own eyes in 2019 when Saudi Arabia began issuing tourist visas for the first time. Other restrictions, including complete alcohol prohibition and a ban on any religious buildings besides Sunni mosques (there are a few Shia mosques), remain.
This essay is my attempt to explain what has been happening in Saudi Arabia over the last five years, and why. To do so, I have to go all the way back to SA’s origins and follow the throughline to the present day. My understanding presented here comes from my own experiences in the country, Wikipedia, a bunch of random online articles and statistics, and two main sources:
David Rundell – a former American diplomat to Saudi Arabia for 30 years, and the author of Vision or Mirage: Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads.
Graeme (pronounced “gram”) Wood – a journalist who has traveled around Saudi Arabia and got rare interviews with Mohammad Bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and current de facto ruler. He wrote Absolute Power and a few other articles on SA for the Atlantic, plus did a podcast with Sam Harris which covers most of the same territory but has some good color commentary. Wood is an amazing journalist and basically does my dream job.
Rundell and Wood make good companions because they have opposite takes on both the past and present of SA. Rundell praises the past Saudi leaders and the country’s new direction so much that I wonder if he drank the cool-aid while living there for three decades. He has critiques of SA, but he summarizes the Saud dynasty as masters of state-building, legitimacy, and diplomacy who deserve enormous credit for settling one of the most unstable regions on earth. I’d describe his take on Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) and the ongoing reform effort as cautiously optimistic.
Wood is far more pessimistic, and if anything, was anti-charmed by his time in the country. He characterizes the Saud dynasty as a bunch of random Arab lords who got extraordinarily economically lucky and have lazily coasted by for 70 years. He characterizes MBS and the reform effort as good on the surface but with tremendous potential for destruction at the hands of its unstable leader.
(Note – Most of the pictures in this essay are my own. The quality will be lower than usual because I used my phone instead of a camera. In Saudi Arabia, it is officially illegal to take pictures of people without their permission, so I decided not to use a camera to avoid attention.)
Overview of Saudi Arabia:
Population – 34.8 million
Size – 830,000 square miles (roughly the United States east of the Mississippi River)
GDP (nominal, 2021) – $833 billion
(Note – For some reason, Saudi GDP estimates are all over the place. The World Bank says $833 billion, Wikipedia cites the IMF at $1.5 trillion, Economy.com says $1.8 trillion in 2017. The wobbling is somewhat explained by variable oil prices, but not entirely. I’m sticking with the low-bound estimate since it aligns with the commonly cited statistic that the oil industry is 40-50% of Saudi GDP, and Aramco’s revenue is in the $200-500 billion range depending on oil prices.)
GDP growth rate (2019, pre pandemic) – 0.3%
Founded – 1932
Religion – No official census, but close to 100% Muslim, likely 85-90% Sunni
Ethnicity – 61% Arab Saudi, 10% Syrian, 8% Indian, 7% mixed African/Asian, 5% Pakistani, 5% Filipino, 4% Bangladeshi, 3% Egyptian, etc.
Heritage Index of Economic Freedom ranking – #118
Saudi Arabia is one of the few absolute monarchies left in the world. Its structure has not considerably changed since the state’s founding in 1932. It has no legislature or legal representative bodies. There is no, and never has been, voting in Saudi Arabia, aside from a few trial municipal elections from 2009-2015. All power emanates from the king who delegates administrative responsibility to ministers and governors who are usually members of the royal family.
Saudi Arabia is called Saudi Arabia because it is the Kingdom of Arabia ruled by the Saud Dynasty. No one knows exactly how many Sauds there are, but estimates range as high as 15,000. However, only a few hundred Sauds have any real power. Their degree of power is determined by their familial proximity to the king and the personal attention shown to them by the king. There is a salary system in place that no one outside the family completely understands, but allowances probably range from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars per year, though Sauds have many more opportunities to make money through legal and non-legal deal-making. A fairly small percentage of Sauds receive allowances, most have some sort of government positions, but plenty live regular lives and work regular jobs.
Saudi Arabia’s monarchical succession is technically unilaterally determined by the king, but in practice, is determined by a consensus of high-ranking family members. The king may select any family member as Crown Prince, the designated successor, which is then discussed by a royal council. Until recently, there has never been any serious pushback to the king’s choice.
Though the monarch has absolute power, his authority is at least in part derived from Saudi Arabia’s Islamic religious establishment. The ulema (a group of the highest-ranking clerics) is officially integrated into the government, and plays an important role in legal matters. However, the religious establishment has slowly been marginalized by the monarchy over the last few decades, and has possibly been subjugated entirely since the reform era began five years ago.
Saudi Arabia is inextricably intertwined with the Islamic philosophy of Wahhabism. The Saud royal family would never have risen to prominence without Wahhabism, and Wahhabism would not have spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula and beyond without the Sauds. In the past, present, and future, Saudi Arabia will almost certainly be a Wahhabist state. Wahhabism is why, at least until a few years ago, Saudi Arabia was “one of the weirdest countries” in the world according to Wood, with its gender segregation and draconian moral policing, among other practices.
Wahhabism is a Sunni, conservative, reformist Islamic philosophy and movement founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the early-mid 18th century as a reaction to the more liberal Islam preached by the Ottoman Empire’s political and religious authorities.
A key difference between Islam and Christianity is that the former has far more to say on political governance. Mohammad was not only a prophet, but the political leader of an official state, and thus had views on governance and law which are officially prescribed by the faith. Sunni Islam has traditionally been divided between four legal schools which describe different approaches to interpreting how societies should run based on the three foundational Islamic texts: the Koran, Hadith, and Sunnah.
Wahhabism is an off-shoot of Hanbalism, which is the most conservative of the four legal schools. In the context of Islam, “conservative” philosophies generally practice Islam with the least possible deviation from the foundational texts. The Ottomans were Hanafis which is considered a more liberal Islamic legal school where religious scholars are given more latitude to interpret the Koran, Hadith, and Sunnah.
Al-Wahhab and his supporters essentially viewed the Ottomans as weak and decadent. The temptations of modernity and concerns of politics had allegedly led both the Ottoman leadership and people further and further from Allah’s will, which was all very clearly stated in the 600s AD. From this basis, Al-Wahhab birthed a new Islamic philosophy that was even more conservative and reactionary than contemporary Hanbalism.
I’m not an Islamic scholar, so I didn’t bother diving into the intricacies of Wahhabism, but I came away with a few anchoring principles to get a jist of the philosophy.
Wahhabis have a fanatical devotion to the unity of Allah, or the idea that there is only one god, one source of divinity, and thus only one entity worthy of devotion. Wahhabis preach that to show excessive reverence toward anything else, even important people, events, or concepts within Islam, is to engage in a sort of polytheism.
For instance, Al-Wahhab was enraged by how many Muslims conduct their Hajj – a pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest city in Islam, which all Muslims are required to take at least once in their lives. Al-Wahhab saw that many Muslims would stop off at various ancient Islamic towns or sites of martyred Muslims. Likewise, Shia Muslims, who are already considered heretics, have numerous religious holidays devoted to martyrs and battle sites, and other amazing things done in the name of Allah. To Wahhabis, all of these detours are considered blasphemies akin to worshiping the golden calf. To this day, despite immense reforms over the last few years, religious pilgrimage sites in Saudi Arabia which aren’t Mecca or Medina have signs calling pilgrims evil polytheists for visiting.
Wahhabis are totalitarian. Political leaders in Wahhabi states are divinely established and thus all opposition is blasphemy. This means no public dissent, no freedom of speech, no free press, no freedom of sexuality, and certainly no freedom of religion. All aspects of life, from clothing to transportation to diet are assumed to be under the purview of the state which makes policy decisions in consultation with leading Wahhabi scholars. Up until a few years ago, Saudi Arabia still had religious police who roamed around cities and towns shouting at, assaulting, arresting, and fining people for petty infractions, like women showing their faces or people not praying with the proper form.
Wahhabis oppose innovation. This is not just an accusation flung from the moral high horse of my modern liberalism, this is how Wahhabis describe themselves. They believe in a strict literalist reading of Islamic texts, hence innovation is deviation from the texts. This mindset expands beyond esoteric theological theory into everyday life. The founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz al Saud, publicly smashed a telegraph to appease his clerics who worried he was using too much modern technology. Another Saudi king struggled to establish a chemistry university in his kingdom, and the clerics declared it blasphemous alchemy. The official doctrine of SA’s head imams to this day is that the world is flat and does not spin.
(EDIT – After some pushback on how widespread these cosmological views are, they do indeed seem to be the product of random weird clerics rather than a mainstream view. Like Christianity, there’s a lot of antiquated cosmology in the foundational texts/traditions, but modern religious leaders have mostly moved beyond that.
The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia from 1993-1999 wrote an article denouncing round-earth theory and heliocentrism in the 1960s but got chewed out by the king for it. He later recanted partially because a Saudi prince went to outer space and told him the earth rotates.)
Wahhabis don’t like fun. Like most other Muslims, they are opposed to alcohol, drugs, premarital sex, etc., but Wahhabis go far beyond that. Al-Wahhab thought that all music was evil and should be avoided. Until a few years ago, Saudi Arabia had no cinemas (besides on foreigner compounds), no concerts, no amusement parks (EDIT – or maybe there were, this is disputed by a commenter), and only the boringest television shows and movies imaginable. The proximate reason for all these restrictions comes back to a literal reading of Islamic texts: anything which is not specifically mentioned as halal (permitted) is assumed to be haram (forbidden). In college, a professor told me an anecdote about a Hanbali scholar who said no Muslims should eat watermelon because watermelons are never mentioned in the Islamic texts. The more abstract explanation is that fun distracts people from the glory of Allah. People should feel pleasure in their five daily prayers, not on roller coasters.
Wahhabis are very intolerant. Again, this is not just my modern liberal interpretation, this is how the Wahhabis describe themselves. Even by Islamic standards, they are harsh on deviants. Of course Wahhabis consider Shia to be heretics, but even other Sunni Muslims are largely placed in the same category. Arguably, Wahhabis are more tolerant of Jews and Christians than other Muslims since the latter more intensely blaspheme.
Throughout Saudi Arabia’s history, the tenants of Wahhabism have slowly shifted due to negotiations between the Saud royal family and the Wahhabi clerical leadership. Both factions know they are dependent on each another. The Sauds need the Wahhabis to maintain legitimacy and keep the masses in line. The Wahhabis need the Sauds for their domestic power structure, money, and global proselytizing.
However, over the last twenty years, and especially over the last five years, Wahhabism has very gradually liberalized. According to Rundell, this is entirely the result of the Saud royal family politically outmaneuvering the Wahhabi clerical leadership and slowly increasing its influence. The Sauds are by no means progressive in nature, but they do what they need to do to survive, and recently, that has meant liberalizing. Nevertheless, Wahhabism is still a deeply conservative philosophy.
The Early Days
The Saud Dynasty originated in 1727 with the ascension of Muhammad bin Saud Muqrin as emir (rough equivalent of European count) of Diriyah. This city, which would eventually grow into the modern capital of Riyadh (Riyadh was a nearby city which eventually grew to Diriyah’s borders), was located in what was then known as Nejd, an area covering the bulk of the modern Saudi Arabian desert. In a barren desert where daily temperatures often passed 100 degrees Fahrenheit, life was tough even by the standards of global pre-modern poverty.
The regional population of Nejd was divided between small city-states, like Diriyah, and roaming nomadic tribes. Both engaged in meager economic production, the former based on small-scale agriculture and sheep or goats, the latter based mostly on camels. Both heavily engaged in raiding for economic and cultural purposes, and it was such a common occurrence that Rundell likens it to “sport.” Wars were slightly less common but still prevalent, and usually waged over water. Chronic conflict was the default setting for these fledgling states.
The fortunes of the Saud dynasty were changed forever by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. The founder of Wahhabism was a charismatic reactionary imam who wandered around Nejd preaching to people and repeatedly being kicked out of cities for stirring up trouble. Rundell likened him to Martin Luther – both were fearless theologians who preached against degeneracy and were rightly feared by the status quo powers. Al-Wahhab probably would have eventually been executed if it weren’t for Saud Muqrin of Diriyah, who converted to Wahhabism and gave the preacher a home.
In the founder of the Saud Dynasty, al-Wahhab didn’t find a follower so much as a partner. Al-Wahhab’s philosophy of Wahhabism became the bedrock of the nascent Saud state. At the time, it imbued the tiny Emirate of Diriyah with a jolt of religious fervor which gave it an edge over local competitors. Warriors were inspired to join expansionary wars on religious pretexts, and the government amassed more resources due to the implementation of religiously-based taxes.
Within a few decades, the first ruler of the Saud dynasty established a kingdom stretching across the Nejd and into Hejaz, the mountainous region on the west of the Arabian Peninsula which contains Mecca and Medina. By the early 1800s, the Ottomans became concerned that a crazy cult was taking over the holy land, and so they sent an army which easily crushed the far weaker and poorer Sauds. The Ottomans officially annexed Hejaz, though not Nejd (since it was worthless desert), and the Sauds were reduced to a minor power within Nejd.
In 1824, the Sauds once again rose to prominence, this time as the smaller, but still formidable Emirate of Nejd. But they never quite retook the Hejaz from the Ottomans, and were constantly beset by factionalism within the royal family. In 1891, the Al Rashid dynasty, a rival within Nejd, defeated the Sauds and forced them into exile.
The Saud dynasty seemed to be yet another minor upstart family which had a few moderately glorious generations but was destined to return to dust. That is until the birth of Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia.
Making Saudi Arabia
According to Rundell, Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud is not just the greatest Saud, but one of the greatest political figures ever. His closest European comparison might be Charlemagne, or perhaps a warrior Bismarck.
In brief, Abdulaziz’s great accomplishments were conquering the Arabian Peninsula through equally brilliant warfare and diplomacy, and then miraculously building a state and society which tamed and unified one of the most chaotic places on earth not only for his lifetime, but for almost the next 90 years (and counting). Every other king of Saudi Arabia, including the current King Salman, has been Abdulaziz’s direct son.
Abdulaziz was born in 1875 in Riyadh, the capital of the Nejd Emirate ruled by the Saud family. In 1891, Abdulaziz (age 15) and a faction of his family fled the Nejd as it was being conquered by a rival family, and eventually took refuge in Kuwait, which was ruled by ideological allies. He soon befriended the Emir of Kuwait and joined his army, where he cut his teeth on unsuccessful invasions of neighboring Arab Gulf states.
By his mid-20s, Abdulaziz embodied the image of the classic desert warrior prince. He was said to be around 6 feet, 5 inches tall (195 cm), physically strong, highly intelligent, obviously ambitious, personally charming, pious, yet pragmatic. Apparently he had the charisma to convince 40 comrades to break away from a raiding party and follow him into the Arabian desert in 1901 with extremely vague plans to take back his family’s throne. He then led his men to sneak into Riyadh, murder the unarmed governor, and proclaimed the return of the Saud Nejd Emirate under his rule.
From 40 men and a desert town, Abdulaziz conquered dozens of Emirates throughout the Nejd and Hejaz, unifying the lands for the first time in over a century. Aside from some incredible personal skill and plenty of luck, how did he do it?
First, Abdulaziz brilliantly played the two regional superpowers off one another. At the start of his reign, he allied with the Ottomans by positioning himself as a thorn in the side of the local Emirates which constantly raided Ottoman lands. But during World War I, Abdulaziz signed a formal treaty with Great Britain promising to help the Arab revolt (made famous by Lawrence of Arabia) against the Ottomans. At the war’s conclusion, there were considerations to hand the entire Arabian Peninsula over to the British or French, but the land was so worthless and hard to govern that the Europeans didn’t bother. So Abdulaziz cleverly made overtures to Britain promising to be a stabilizing force in the region which could restrain raiding tribes and keep ambitious Emirs at bay. All Abdulaziz asked for in return was a considerable and steady supply of money, guns, and ammunition.
With British support, the Nejd Emirate was able to consistently defeat larger and wealthier Emirates across the Arabian Peninsula. Abdulaziz was even able to occasionally cajole the Brits into providing aerial reconnaissance and (what was for them outdated) technology. For instance, one of Abdulaziz’s greatest advantages in the Unification Wars was communication. While the other tribes relied on camels and horses to send messages, Abdulaziz had the first non-European owned radio in the region, and the first Arab mechanized military units (infantry carried in very old cars).
Rundell stresses that these diplomatic successes truly were a product of Abdulaziz himself rather than any geopolitical factor. The British supported the Nejd Emirate over dozens of competing states because British diplomats were charmed by Abdulaziz and reported that he was the easiest man to work with in the region. Meanwhile, Abdulaziz constantly had to reassure enraged Wahhabi clerics that he wasn’t selling out the Arab homeland to treacherous infidels. IIRC, it was some time in the 1920s that Abdulaziz had to publicly smash a telegraph to prove to the clerics that he wasn’t bewitched by infidel technology.
Abdulaziz was a tremendous diplomat, but the British got as much as they gave. He was stopped from planned invasions of southern Iraq and Yemen by British interference. The new state was also forced to create official borders, which never existed prior in the Arabian Peninsula (many tribes thought of the desert as akin to the sea, anyone could drift anywhere). Virtually all of Abdulaziz’s major geopolitical plans were shown to the Brits for approval, or at least tacit acceptance.
The second key to Abdulaziz’s rise was his consolidation of competing factions within the Arabian Peninsula.
To Rundell, this was the most impressive aspect of Abdulaziz’s reign and the true legacy of his greatness. Prior to Abdulaziz, the Arabian Peninsula was divided between dozens of tribes and between nomads and city-dwellers. It had an infamously chaotic, multi-polar history stretching back thousands of years, and resembled infamously unstable regions like Pakistan, Afghanistan, or much of sub-Saharan Africa. And then in a mere few decades, Abdulaziz hammered and cajoled it into one of the most unified and placid societies in the Middle East.
His approach to unifying the tribes wasn’t particularly novel, but was accomplished with typical skill – he allied or bribed who he could and crushed who he couldn’t. The crux of his expansion was making the case to each tribe that every other tribe was a greater threat than the Saud dynasty, and so limitations on political power were accepted in exchange for a share of state wealth and protection from rivals. A form of this system continues to the current day, albeit with a lot more oil money being thrown around.
The trickier state-building was reconciling the nomads and city-dwellers, the former of which had always lived off of raids on the latter. Rundell emphasizes that the Sauds were deeply city-oriented in their history and culture, and had an understandably difficult time convincing nomads to give up their cultural traditions (raiding, slaving, etc.) and settle down in one place where they’d accept taxation and political supremacy from city-dwellers.
Abdulaziz’s solution was to incorporate nomads into his state as enforcers, sort of like the Cossacks in Russia. The martial spirit of the nomads was transferred from raiding to para-militarism. With tremendous energy and effectiveness, they roamed around the Arabian Peninsula on Abdulaziz’s orders beating dissenting tribes into submission. They were perfect for the role – tough, well-versed in local fighting methods, and culturally distant enough from the city-dwellers to crack some skulls without remorse. Abdulaziz offered money and power for this service, but he had enormous assistance from Wahhabi clerics who stamped out the local Pagan traditions and brought nomadic Islam in-line with the intolerant and hierarchical Wahhabism which gave religious force to Abdulaziz’s demands for loyalty.
These policies brought the nomads under the control of his state, but one of Abdulaziz’s biggest challenges after the Unification Wars was figuring out how to push the nomads toward peaceful integration. He once again leaned heavily on religious-backed demands for loyalty, but also showered the settled nomads with heavy state assistance at the expense of city-dwellers. Roads, schools, business subsidies, and sometimes direct cash payments were given to nomad leaders in exchange for settling into the newly-established country.
The modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was officially established in 1932 when Abdulaziz unified the Kingdoms of Hejaz and Nejd under a single title. Abdulaziz died in 1953, and since then, Saudi Arabia has had six kings, all of which came to the throne peacefully. It has had no coups, no civil wars, no major or successful violent uprisings. One king was quietly removed due to incompetence. One was assassinated by a (probably) insane relative. One spent half of his reign incapacitated after a stroke. Today in 2022, SA is ruled by the same dynasty with the same political structure, same religion, and same state philosophy as when it was founded 90 years ago.
During that same time frame, the monarchies of Egypt, Iraq, and Iran fell. Turkey and Egypt have had at least a dozen coups between them. Iran succumbed to radical Islam. Syria and Iraq were taken by brutal secular dictators. Syria, Iraq, and Yemen have been consumed by decades of civil wars. Looking more broadly, by my count there are only 4-12 absolute monarchies left in the world, depending on whether you count each of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates. Compared to Oman, Brunei, Eswatini, and even the UAE, Saudi Arabia is larger, more populous, and wealthier.
Say what you want about the Saud dynasty, but compared to its neighbors and monarchical cohort, Saudi Arabia has been phenomenally stable and prosperous under its rule.
This was by no means a foregone conclusion. The stability can at least in large part be attributed to official rules and unofficial norms regarding succession pronounced by Abdulaziz before he died.
One of the biggest potential struggles of the Saud dynasty is figuring out succession in a massive family. Islam officially permits up to four wives, though old-school Arabian tribalism permitted many more. Between marrying tribal princesses for alliances and old fashioned hedonism, Wikipedia says Abdulaziz had 22 “consorts” (which seems to cover spouses and concubines) that produced “almost one hundred children,” including 45 sons. Rundell claims that Abdulaziz’s sons weren’t quite so fecund, but he ballparks that each one had about 20+ children, and each of those children had an average of 10+ children.
In traditional Christian kingdoms, succession was based on some variation of primogeniture, where the oldest son became king, and other sons would usually gain lesser titles. Old Islamic kingdoms generally used a more informal succession process prone to competitive jockeying between sons and splitting kingdoms. While the Ottomans infamously solved this problem by developing a norm of princes murdering each other, Abdulaziz wanted a more civilized means of both preserving Saudi Arabia as a singular state and forging a legitimate line-of-succession out of an exponentially growing family.
Abdulaziz’s solution was to declare that succession would flow purely through his sons, and only once they had all died off (which still hasn’t occurred as of 2022), the throne would pass to their direct sons. Further, he determined that though each king would choose his successor, there would be a norm within the Saud family that leading dynasty members would be consulted and arrive at a consensus to confirm the king’s choice. This norm would later be somewhat formalized by an official royal council.
More importantly, Abdulaziz adamantly hammered into his progeny that the Sauds do not fight each other publicly. He emphasized that the unity of the kingdom was paramount, but when inter-family conflict inevitably emerged, it had to be dealt with behind closed doors. The current king, King Salman, used to run the Descendants Council, which privately mediates disputes between family members.
To sum up, Abdulaziz’s succession plan was – aim for no division of territory or familial infighting, successors are chosen from his sons and eventually their sons, achieve consensus within the family to confirm successions, no public displays of family conflict. None of this is revolutionary or inspiring, but it has kept the dynasty stable and in power for 90 years so far.
The first big challenge to Saudi succession was its second king.
Among Abdulaziz’s 45 sons, two stood out from the rest. Saud (same first name as dynasty name) was the eldest son, had the height and appearance of his desert warrior father, was beloved for his loyalty, and once took a knife wound to protect his father from assassination. Saud’s competition was his half-brother, Faisal, who lacked the flashiness but was considered smarter, and he had not only worked in the guts of the new Saudi state for decades, but helped build it. According to the New York Times, Faisal looked like “someone out of a poem by Rudyard Kipling or a casting office in Hollywood,” but was shorter than his brother and father.
In a Marcus Aurelius move, Abdulaziz chose Saud to succeed him. The royal family, including Faisal, consolidated around the pick, and King Saud became the second monarch of Saudi Arabia in 1953 at age 51. Faisal was made the equivalent of Prime Minister, the second-in-command of the kingdom.
Saud was not only the wrong man to be king, but at the wrong time. His ascension was perfectly timed with the discovery of enormous oil reserves in Saudi Arabia (more on that in the Economy section), leading to a classic lottery winner arc of state-ruining. In half a decade, the Saud royal family went from hardened desert people to living in some of the most opulent palaces on earth, complete with electricity, fancy cars, and elaborate fountains. The sons of Abdulaziz and more distant relatives engaged in petty palace intrigues to secure their slices of the state treasury for personal enrichment. Far worse, King Saud’s lazy management attracted legions of corrupt courtiers and bureaucrats who looted the state through embezzlement, bribery, kickbacks, extortionary contracts, or simply securing enormous salaries.
By the late 1950s, despite more than 20Xing tax revenue in a few years, Saudi Arabia was nearing bankruptcy. This would be terrible for any state, but for the newly-born Saudi Arabia, it had a good chance of ending the monarchy. If the state defaulted on its debts, it wouldn’t be able to keep pumping money into welfare and infrastructure projects to maintain the support of constituent tribes. The likely result would be an uprising against a decadent and weak Saud family, plus possible interventions from foreign powers to replace the Sauds with better caretakers.
In response, King Saud desperately handed complete power over the state’s budget to Faisal, who proceeded to ruthlessly slash payments to princes and root out corruption. Bankruptcy was narrowly avoided and the state was pointed in the right direction, but a few years after Faisal’s appointment, a faction of corrupt courtiers consolidated around King Saud and persuaded him to restrict Faisal’s power over the budget. Saud complied, and a frustrated Faisal resigned as Prime Minster above the protests of his brother.
Unsurprisingly, the kingdom returned to the edge of bankruptcy a few years later, and the response from the royal family is what Rundell considers to be one of the Saud dynasty’s greatest achievements.
Faisal engaged in secret discussions with dozens of the most prominent members of the royal family (basically the eldest children of Abdulaziz) as well as the top Wahhabi clerics. From the first group, he received permission to pressure King Saud to resign. From the second group, he received official religious fatwas overriding previous fatwas which would have prohibited the removal of a divinely appointed monarch. Both groups attended a climatic meeting between Faisal and King Saud, and after hearing them out, the king agreed to a peaceful resignation.
(Saud received a massive golden parachute in exchange for his cooperation and voluntary exile. He moved to Greece and briefly flirted with the idea of coordinating a coup with a few loyal sons and the support of General Nasser in Egypt, but nothing came of it.)
The brilliance of Faisal’s play was both the use of Saudi religious doctrine and informal norms to manipulate the system in his favor and for the good of the realm. Rundell claims that Faisal could have easily replaced King Saud during the first near-bankruptcy era, but he chose not to because though he would have had strong support, he wouldn’t have total support. The unity of the Saud dynasty is paramount, and taking such a bold action as removing a king required unanimous consent from top princes to maintain the dynasty’s legitimacy. If he had made a move earlier, at worst King Saud could have tried to hold power with the backing of corrupt princes and a sizeable chunk of the Wahhabi establishment, leading either to civil war or the swift imprisonment of Faisal. The more likely outcome would have been a successful removal, but with Saud legitimacy irreparably damaged by what a minority of princes would have seen as a heretical power grab by Faisal.
King Faisal ruled for 11 prosperous years until his assassination at age 68 by his nephew Faisal bin Musad. Though tragic, the assassination was deemed to not be politically motivated. The younger Faisal was probably insane, though some speculated that he murdered King Faisal because his rambunctious brother had been killed leading a luddite protest against the government after it launched a television station in Riyadh.
King Faisal’s successor, King Khalid, executed what Rundell considers to be the Saud dynasty’s most recent masterstroke of strategy.
Khalid came to the throne in 1975 during one of the most tumultuous times of an overwhelmingly tumultuous century in the Arab world. On the left, secular nationalists were rejecting religious orthodoxy, flirting with the Soviet Union, embracing aggressive modernization, and discarding sluggish regimes. In Egypt, Nasser overthrew the monarchy and proclaimed a new pan-Arab state, and he was soon followed by revolutionary Baathist regimes in Syria and Iraq. On the right, a religious revival was pushing for even more reactionary doctrines than Wahhabism. The Iranian monarchy fell to Shia extremists, Yemen split in a civil war, and throughout the Middle East, nationalists and religious factions clashed for control over states.
Saudi Arabia was caught in the middle. It culturally leaned toward the religious right, but its leadership tended toward a pro-Western secular pragmatism, much to the chagrin of Arab states who urged the Sauds to spend more of their boundless wealth on trying to destroy Israel. With neither side placated, the Saud dynasty was facing revolutionary pressure on both fronts, and there were serious concerns that the Sauds would be overthrown or Saudi Arabia would break up. Shias funded by Iran tried launching a separatist movement in the eastern provinces while Baathist-backed revolutionaries infiltrated the Saudi government bureaucracy.
But the threats were not all foreign. In late 1979, 400-500 extremist Sunni Saudis seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca (the holiest Islamic site on earth) and demanded the overthrow of the Saud dynasty in favor of a theocratic state meant to await an imminent apocalypse. They held on for two weeks while managing to fight off waves of Saudi police and military squads. Eventually, three French commandos flew to Mecca, converted to Islam in a hotel room, and led a successful assault to retake the Mosque. Over 100 men died on each side, with hundreds more wounded.
The Grand Mosque seizure was the final wake-up call for the Saud dynasty. Something drastic had to be done or their regime would likely be ground down under mounting internal and external pressure. After fifty years of reasonable political and economic success, the old paradigm was not working, and even the common Saudi people had taken notice.
By Rundell’s account, King Khalid’s solution was another genius bit of statecraft, albeit one more Machiavellian, or even Faustian, than anything cooked up by his predecessors. Khalid recognized that the Iranian-backed Shia separatists and the revolutionary secularists would always oppose the Saudi state, but the Sunni extremists could be reasoned with. They considered the Sauds to be decadent, too soft on Israel, and too friendly with the West, but they largely shared an ideological vision of a conservative, Wahhabi, or Wahhabi-adjacent form of Islam.
Hence King Khalid led a social/religious/political reactionary revolution within Saudi Arabia to align with the Sunni extremists. Up until about four years ago, Saudi society was still gender segregated and enforced a largely literalist interpretation of Sharia, hence the array of bizarre and antiquated laws – gender segregation in public, requiring women to cover their faces, outlawing of non-Muslim religious buildings (there are a few Shia mosques), restrictions on foreign media, etc. Saudi Arabia was always conservative, but most of these draconian laws were only put into place in the 1980s. The Saud dynasty purposefully induced a reactionary legal regime and pulled Saudi Arabia further away from liberalism.
The charitable take on making an already oppressive regime even more oppressive is that the Sauds were trying to bend Saudi Arabia to the extremists so the country would not break. And by all accounts, it worked; the conservative Wahhabi clerics backed by the Saud dynasty placated a sizeable portion of the Sunni extremists inside and outside of Saudi Arabia, and they became a pool of support against the Shia and Baathists. Saudi Arabia was certainly made a worse country for its citizens, but that was the price to pay for averting civil war.
(Fun fact – King Khalid was an avid falconer, and bought the longest Cadillac in the world for his falconing expeditions, Time Magazine called it the “Khalidillac.”)
King Khalid died in 1982 and was succeeded by King Fahd who continued the reactionary movement. For the following 30 years of Saudi history, the monarchy was stable. The revolutionary pressures subsided, and Saud legitimacy only improved as the neighboring secular and religious extremist regimes devolved into various forms of chaos. King Fahd ended up being most noteworthy for a long 23 year reign, during more than half of which he was medically incapacitated, and yet government operations ran smoothly under lieutenant princes and bureaucrats. His successor, King Abdullah, introduced some moderate economic reforms, but was another stodgy old guard.
This 30 year status quo ended in 2015 with the ascension of the current King Salman. But to understand his reforms, I’ll dive into other key aspects of Saudi life prior to his reign.
Before starting this research, I had the same perception as Wood that the Saudi economy is essentially what he calls a “petrol-rentier state.” Basically, Saudi Arabia sits on top of a giant ocean of easily-accessed oil which they suck out of the ground and sell at enormous profit to prop up the rest of their extremely inefficient economy and buy the loyalty of their own people and foreign powers. Saudi Arabia is the wealthiest large state in the Middle East today by sheer virtue of geographic luck rather than any innovation or business acumen on the part of its people.
And after doing my research, all of the above is… basically true.
But all of that should also be true of Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, Libya, and a few other countries which are also situated on giant oceans of oil but are far poorer than Saudi Arabia.
Economically, Saudi Arabia deserves little credit for its success. Politically, Saudi Arabia deserves a tremendous amount of credit for enabling its economic success. Yes, this is Rundell’s very pro-Saudi take, but he has convinced me of its merits.
To give a more informal perspective… based on my time in the country, I’d say that people living in the cities of Saudi Arabia have a standard of living comparable to Western Europe, if not better. There are lots of shopping malls, lots of nice cars, the streets are reasonably clean, buildings and infrastructure appear well-made and maintained. Outside of the cities, SA is significantly poorer, but maybe comparable to Eastern Europe with more Middle Eastern flavor… if that makes sense.
By Middle Eastern standards, this level of wealth is extremely impressive, and not really matched outside of Israel and a few of the most prosperous Gulf State cities. When I visited both Egypt and Iraq, and I told locals I had been to Saudi Arabia, I always heard comments about how wealthy the Saudis are. They’ve done something right.
Saudi Arabia sits on top of the second-largest proven oil reserves on earth. Luckier still, along with the other Gulf states, Saudi oil is the easiest to extract on earth because of its geology. Saudi wells are shallow, they are situated on land or right offshore, and their pipelines run along flat desert or coastline. Rundell states that an average barrel of Saudi oil costs $3-5 to pull out of the ground, while other sources I’ve seen put the figure at $5-10. In comparison, Rundell puts the US figure at $40 per barrel (traditional sources, not fracking) and Canada at $100 per barrel. Today, Saudi Arabia makes 10-12% of world’s oil annually, which powers about 50% of the Saudi GDP.
In 1921, American President Herbert Hoover removed restrictions on American oil companies to search for new reserves abroad. In 1932, a subsidiary of Standard Oil California (presently known as Chevron) found oil in Bahrain. The following year, a group of US oilmen outbid a British firm for exploration rights in Saudi Arabia. To King Abdulaziz, this was an easy way to make a quick buck off the foreigners, hence he sold a 60 year concession for 50,000 pounds, which if fully followed, would have been the worst trade deal in the history of trade deals.
In 1938, the Americans found oil in Saudi Arabia, and quickly established an enormously profitable well. In 1944, the company was renamed the Arabian American Oil Company, or Aramco. By 1948, Aramco’s ownership was officially split between three American oil companies which would eventually be known as Chevron, Exxon, and Mobil.
The profit split between the Saudi government and Aramco evolved, but even with the Westerners getting highly favorable terms, the Saudis were getting unimaginably rich. In 1939, the Saudi government was making $2 million per year off oil; in 1950, they made $56 million; in 1951, they made $110 million. In 1947, the entire Saudi Arabian government budget was $7 million; by 1952, it was $205 million.
Much of what the Sauds did right with their oil lies with Aramco – both its internal management and its political relationship with the Saudi state. The Sauds initially botched their oil money with idiotic spending and rampant corruption, but Rundell argues that they have done a remarkable job at managing their oil operations, especially compared to Iraq, Iran, and the other would-be petrol powers.
According to Rundell, the Sauds struck a clever balance between being too aggressive and too placating of the foreigners operating their oil wells. If the Saudi state had been aggressive and tried to nationalize its oil quickly, Saudi Arabia could have ended up becoming another Venezuela or Iran with lots of external political pressure from hostile Western countries and a low-efficiency oil industry. But if they had nationalized too late, they would have ended up like a lot of African nations who have all their natural wealth siphoned away by foreigners.
Instead, the Sauds executed a patient, and most importantly, amicable assertion of power over Aramco, which did not become fully owned by Saudis until 1974. At the very start of Aramco, the company was entirely owned and operated by Americans aside from menial labor. However, the Saudi government inserted a clause into their contract with the corporation requiring the American oil men to train Saudi citizens for management and engineering jobs. The Americans held up their end of the bargain, and over time, more and more Saudis took over management and technical positions. This steadily increased the bargaining power of the Saudi government, which periodically renegotiated its contract with the Americans over decades to get a greater share of the profits in exchange for more oil exploration or diplomatic concessions.
In 1973 and 1974, the Saudi government authorized two big final buy-outs of Aramco. The prices were not disclosed publicly, but the consensus is that the American oil companies were well-compensated, and that’s after they had made enormous profits for 30 years. This left the oil companies on good terms with the Saudis who were happy to employ them as consultants and specialists. Today, 80% of Aramco’s employees are Saudi, as well as all executives, though surprisingly not all board members.
It’s a bit confusing, but Aramco is mostly owned by the Saudi government (except for the 1.5% of its shares it IPOed in 2019), but operated and managed privately. It is officially run by a board of directors, which is obviously tightly connected to the Saudi government, but legitimately operates independently. The current board consists of the Saudi Ministers of Finance, Transport, and “Economy and Planning,” but also the ex-CEOs of Dow Chemical and Ernst & Young.
The other smart Saudi move was the decision to never fully nationalize Aramco… or rather, to fail to nationalize Aramco.
Iraq, Iran, and Venezuela all nationalized their foreign-built and operated oil companies, and all three predictably produced extremely corrupt and inefficient oil industries. Saudi Arabia actually had the stupid idea to do the same thing, and even created a parallel state-run company known as Petromin which handled all non-oil aspects of petroleum operations. Despite Petromin’s reputation for being extremely corrupt and inefficient, the Saudi government tried to subsume Aramco under its operations after it bought out the Americans. But the legitimately heroic Aramco board of directors revolted, and threatened to resign en masse along with most of the executive staff, so the Saudi government backed down. Aramco absorbed Petromin in 2005 and remains a technically private company to this day (the second largest on earth at time of writing).
I’m not sure precisely how the profit sharing between Aramco and the Saudi government works, but 93% of Aramco’s profits go to the government, while private shareholders keep the rest. According to Rundell, my Googling, and a random former Exxon executive I talked to, this is apparently enough of an incentive to produce one of the best run oil companies in the world. The Saudi economy has many problems, but Aramco is apparently a highly efficient and well-managed corporation.
The result is a government built atop a single company. Prior to the modern reform era, about 90% of the Saudi state’s revenue came from oil.
The Saudi economy and government are built on oil, which constitutes about 50% of the country’s GDP. But what is that other 50%? What does it do?
Very little. While Aramco is a miracle of efficiency given its circumstances, the rest of the Saudi economy is laughably inefficient. Most businesses are heavily subsidized, innovation and entrepreneurship are nearly non-existent, most educated workers become government bureaucrats, and there are practically no competitive Saudi companies operating on the international market besides Aramco.
So what do the Saudi people do?
Unless they work in oil… not much. In the pre-reform era (five years ago), Saudi citizens basically lived a life of cushy socialism with free or heavily subsidized housing, free electricity, heavily subsidized water, heavily subsidized petrol ($60 billion per year in 2015, about 10% of GDP), free healthcare, free education (often paid to get educations, even abroad), extraordinarily generous unemployment benefits, and random cash gifts bestowed by the monarch. They paid no taxes outside a handful of tariffs, and if they wanted jobs, they would be given them by the government, but… they generally didn’t want jobs. Outside of the oil sector, a staggering 90% of Saudi Arabia’s workers were immigrants, covering both low wage menial labor and high-skilled technical or administrative work. In total, almost 40% of Saudi Arabia’s population was immigrant in 2020.
Again, it’s easy to be cynical about this. The Saudi government, economy, and people can be accurately categorized as lazy and being carried by the sheer randomness of existing on top of an ocean of oil. But… again, Rundell makes a convincing case that there is not only a method to this madness, but that the Saudi economy has been perversely well-managed, albeit not by traditional economic standards.
The Saudi economy is essentially a massive wealth redistribution scheme. Saudi citizens feel entitled to oil wealth due to their loyalty to the crown, but not everyone can work for Aramco (it doesn’t help that the oil industry has low labor intensity), so they need to draw wealth another way. Not everyone wants to be a layabout on welfare, so some Saudis run heavily subsidized businesses or collect easy salaries on government jobs (Between 55% and 67% of the workforce is in the government). The price to pay for all this is inefficiency, government waste, and rampant corruption, but the benefits are a relatively well-designed national patronage system which has kept the Saudi people loyal for nearly a century.
A case can also be made that the Saudi state has been fairly successful in brute force economic development. At the founding of the kingdom, Arabia was one of the least developed places on earth, with <1% literacy, no electricity, almost no modern infrastructure, and a highly informal barter-heavy economic structure. From the 1940s-1980s, the Saudi government dumped substantial money into schools, roads, water pumping and purification, the financial establishment, and power grids, until SA was brought out of the dark ages. Much of this development was conducted under the advisement of foreign experts, sometimes provided by friendly Western governments, sometimes brought in as consultants. Given the geography, Saudi Arabia still doesn’t quite feel like a modern nation outside of the major cities, but it has attained nearly universal literacy, electricity, and basic resource provisioning.
The immigrants are an interesting part of the equation. Saudi Arabia always paid far higher wages than India, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt, etc., but even still… attracting immigrants to SA is a tough sell. Foreigners can’t practice their non-Sunni Islam religion, women are second class citizens, alcohol is illegal, the government is authoritarian and corrupt, etc.
The Saudi solution was to provide remarkably generous benefits to immigrants, notably free healthcare and subsidized housing. High-skilled immigrants from the West in particular are treated like honored guests and allowed to live in quasi-extraterritorial enclave compounds where they more-or-less follow their own laws. As long as immigrants maintain the non-oil Saudi economy and quietly cash their checks, they can do quite well in the kingdom.
Since the start of the reform era in 2015, the welfarism has been moderately scaled back, taxes have been raised considerably, and immigration has been discouraged, but I’ll get into all that in the Vision 2030 section.
Riding the Oil Waves
Saudi Arabia’s economy is weird. That’s what happens when half of a country’s income is based on a single commodity whose global price fluctuates every single day. Here is Saudi Arabia’s GDP from the World Bank plotted against an aggregation of the average annual price of three main crude oil categories:
The first thing that jumps out is that Saudi Arabia’s economy has had 8X growth over the last three decades. That’s insane. Everyone was impressed when China hit 10% growth consistently while Saudi Arabia was doubling that not far behind. But of course, the yellow line reveals that Saudi Arabia’s economy has simply been pulled up (and flung around) by rising oil prices.
A factor missing in the chart is Saudi oil production, which explains much of the divergence between the Saudi GDP and oil price. Rundell describes one of the most unique aspects of the Saudi oil economy is that it was purposefully built to rapidly increase and decrease production at will. Turning on and off massive oil derricks is normally a tremendous undertaking, but Saudi rigs are built to do it fast. Within days, the kingdom can sway production rates by double digit percentages, which it does for the sake of controlling market prices and politics.
Rich conservative Muslims + lots of welfare + eager acceptance of immigrants = rapid population growth. It is difficult to exaggerate how outside of the western mountain range, Saudi Arabia is nothing but a giant pile of sand. And yet, since the kingdom’s founding, this giant pile of sand’s population has more than 8Xed.
This means that the Saudi population has increased faster than the price of oil. The WTI crude oil price per barrel in 1950 was $2.77, or $34.18 in 2022 USD. As of writing this in mid-November, 2022, the price is about $87, which is less than 3X from 1950. I couldn’t get good aggregated crude prices before 1993 for the chart, but from 1981-1998, Saudi Arabia’s per capita oil revenue actually fell from $11,700 to $6,300.
The population chart is all the more striking when you realize that the vast majority of these inhabitants are not contributing to oil production, and are therefore not contributing significantly to the kingdom’s economic progress. Oil drilling is simply not a labor-intensive industry. As of 2021, Aramco only has 68,500 employees, for an eye-popping per capita revenue of over $5 million.
Going back to the first chart:
There’s a big trend-break that I have trouble explaining. Up until 2014, Saudi GDP and crude prices track very closely, then from 2014-2016, crude price fell by about 60% while GDP only fell by about 15%.
That’s strange. About half of the Saudi economy is based on oil, though that varies depending on oil prices. If, between 2014 and 2016, oil prices fell by 60%, Saudi GDP should have fallen by very roughly 30%, unless other factors boosted Saudi GDP. What were those factors?
I’m not sure.
It’s not an issue of population growth since GDP per capita tracks the same trend line:
And long-term Saudi oil production didn’t increase after 2014. If anything, it decreased:
An increase in foreign investment? Nope:
Part of the explanation is increased deficit spending by the government:
Saudi Arabia increased its welfare spending during the early 2010s, mostly in response to the Arab Spring. At the time, their oil revenues could cover the new costs, but after 2014, they had to borrow. That deficit spending could take the place of some lost oil revenue on GDP, but not all of it. Deficit spending was only around $20-50 billion annually from 2015-2020, but if we estimate that oil is half of the Saudi GDP, then a 60% decline in oil prices should equate to a 30% decline in GDP, which in 2014 would be around $200 billion.
I think another piece of the puzzle is natural gas production:
That’s a 25%ish growth in natural gas production since 2014. I know Saudi natural gas production is much lower than oil production, but I can’t find a revenue figure, so I have no idea how much of the lower oil price hole natural gas filled. Also relevant, natural gas prices declined from 2014 to 2021.
That’s all I can find to explain why Saudi GDP didn’t fall more after 2014, but it’s insufficient. If anyone has further explanations, let me know.
Saudi Arabia has a perfect swirl of factors to establish endemic corruption throughout the government and economy.
First, like virtually all developing nations, SA has a long history of informal economic arrangements. Before the formation of Saudi Arabia, the Arabian Peninsula’s economy was heavily mercantile, with a strong barter component. There were lots of roaming merchant caravans and handshake deals, so there is little tradition of formalistic contracts with codified legal enforcement, without which corruption can easily thrive.
Second, from the 1950s-onward, Saudi Arabia was hit with an enormous influx of oil wealth. This induced a classic cycle of decadence in the Saudi people where money was abundant and easy, and not closely monitored.
Third, much of that oil money flows into an enormous welfare state. This is treated by the royal family as a way to buy loyalty, so they aren’t too concerned with where it’s going or why.
Fourth, because the oil industry carries the Saudi state and economy, the non-oil half of the Saudi economy has little pressure to be efficient, so businessmen and the state apparatus monitoring them can easily afford to be corrupt.
Thus, outside Aramco almost everyone is corrupt. The worst of it happens at the top where wealthy Saudi princes and businessmen steal money from the government through kickbacks, bribes, and wasteful contracts. Most commonly, grifters use their connections to make land development deals or they buy swathes of empty desert for nothing and then sell it to the government at inflated prices. Notoriously, some particularly skilled grifters have repeatedly bought and sold the same tracts of land over-and-over to comical levels. Given the power of connections and lack of oversight, such practices are easy to get away with, at least until recently.
But yet again, Rundell casts a slightly more positive light on one of the worst aspects of Saudi Arabia. He argues that the Sauds are aware of this corruption and let it commence both for their own personal enrichment and because they see it as essentially welfare for rich people. The normal Saudi welfare state buys the loyalty of the poor and middle class, while implicitly sanctioned corruption buys the loyalty of the rich. Sure, it’s not great for the economy or society for multi-millionaire sheiks to steal money from the treasury to buy more yachts, but it’s better they are fat and loyal than starved and mutinous.
Also on the other hand, Transparency International ranked Saudi Arabia as the 62nd least corrupt country in the world in 2016, before the reform era really kicked off. 62nd certainly isn’t good, but it’s not terrible. In the Middle East, the countries with better rankings are the UAE (24th), Israel (28th), Qatar (31st), and Jordan (57th). SA was ranked comparably to Italy (60th).
Saudi Arabia contains Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities in Islam. At least once in their lives, all Muslims are required to embark on the Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca (and they often stop off at Medina).
Economically, one would think the Hajj was a massive built-in source of tourist revenue. There are about 2 billion Muslims in the world, and they will all need to buy transportation, food, lodging, etc. on their Hajj.
In Saudi Arabia’s early days, the Hajj was a major economic factor and source of revenue for the crown. King Abdulaziz significantly boosted his popularity by investing in Hajj infrastructure, particularly by providing security for pilgrims from roving bandits.
However, since the oil boom in the 1950s, the Hajj has actually been an economic drain on Saudi Arabia. The revenue it brought in simply became irrelevant, so the Saudi crown kept investing more into infrastructure as a way to buy goodwill until the costs eclipsed the profits. Today, there is a train in the Jeddah airport which takes people directly to Mecca about 70 KM away.
What Happens When the Oil Runs Out?
This question has forever haunted Saudi Arabia. Yes, they have an ocean of oil under their feet, but even that will run dry eventually. When? No one knows. Maybe in 50 years, maybe in hundreds of years.
The good news for Saudi Arabia is that with almost 300 billion barrels of proven reserves, it has the second largest in the world. Even with Aramco pumping out almost 5 billion barrels per year (4.8 billion in 2019), it’s going to take awhile to burn through that as SA continued to find more oil (the official reserve was 264 billion barrels in 2005). Plus, if global oil production finally does pass a mythical peak (which has been predicted for decades but never seems to materialize), SA will benefit from rising prices on its dwindling supply.
The bad news for Saudi Arabia is that it might be lying about its oil reserves. One major source of skepticism is that SA raised its estimate from 170 billion barrels in 1987 to 260 billion in 1989 without any apparent explanation. The official reserve then stayed constant for 20 years, as if Aramco magically finds almost exactly the same amount of oil it pulls out of the ground each year. Also, although a tightening supply might be good for SA’s prices, a falling demand instigated by alternative energy might punish it worse.
Thus, Saudi Arabia is in a possibly existential race. Can it use its abundant oil wealth to develop a decent non-oil economy before it runs out? Only time will tell.
The Saudi military is another strange outlier compared to its neighbors. Like South America and much of the developing world, many Middle Eastern countries have been plagued by military interference in political affairs. Without a strong culture of civilian authority, leaders struggle to provide enough funding to the militaries to keep them functional while not giving them so much power that they eclipse the government and launch coups whenever they feel like it.
In contrast, Saudi Arabia’s military has always been loyal to the crown. Rundell doesn’t give an explanation for this, but I have my own theories.
First, the Saudi military is both historically and currently entangled with the royal family. Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdulaziz, was a military commander who built the Saudi military from the ground-up, and since then, many prominent and mid-level princes have held officerships within the military.
Second, the Saudi military has always been taken care of. It has a budget between $50-60 billion, making it the 6th most well-funded in the world, and the highest funded by percentage of GDP (caveat – we don’t know North Korean figures). While there are legitimate defensive reasons for this, the spending also acts as another extension of the Saudi welfare/patronage state. IIRC, Rundell notes that salaries are fairly high for military personnel for their education requirements.
Third, the Saudi military is heavily subsidized by the United States. SA is the US’s largest foreign military sales (FMS) recipient, with $100 billion in active contracts. From roughly 1950-2005, Saudi Arabia received $80 billion in US military hardware, compared to Israel receiving $54 billion. From 2008-2018, Saudi weapons sales stepped up to $89 billion. Thus the Saudi military’s operational capabilities are not just dependent on the monarchy’s oil money, but on its diplomatic ability to beg the US (and to a lesser degree, the UK) for support.
Fourth, the Saudi monarchy has been extremely cautious with the military, all things considered. Since the unification of Saudi Arabia, the kingdom has never had a protracted, large-scale, costly-in-lives war. It has periodically fought in Yemen, but aside from a brief and easily repelled invasion in 1934, the Saudi military has almost entirely engaged in air and artillery support of local allies. SA did send ground troops to Operation Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait, but they met little resistance and were amply supported by US logistics.
This track record shows a lot of restraint on the crown’s part. Egypt and many Arab states begged Saudi Arabia to help fight Israel for decades, but the Saudis never sent more than a few dozen token soldiers. SA probably could have invaded Yemen to squash the ulcer, but they haven’t bothered. Iraq asked SA to deploy troops to fight Iran (the Saudi arch-nemesis) in the 1980s, but they declined. Rather than send Saudi men to distant lands to fight and die, thus potentially pissing off the military and destabilizing the country, SA is content to use its oil money to bankroll its allies in proxy wars.
When it comes to the connection between Saudi Arabia and Islamic terrorism, yet again, Rundell is far more sympathetic to Saudi Arabia than the mainstream opinion. And yet again… I find myself mostly persuaded.
The mainstream opinion is that the Saudi government at least turns a blind eye to wealthy Saudis who fund Al Qaeda, Isis, and other terrorist groups. 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis and Osama bin Laden was the son of one of the wealthiest men in Saudi Arabia. Worse yet, the government may be purposefully funding these groups as part of the eternal war between Sunni and Shia Muslims, or more proximately, between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
It doesn’t help the Saudi case that Wahhabism is at least Jihadist-adjacent; Al Qaeda and Isis certainly share ideological similarities with Saudi Arabia. Most notably, Isis has the same obsession with the unity of Allah, hence the demolition of Shia mosques and ancient monuments in Iraq and Syria.
Rundell’s take is that the Saudi state is, always has been, and always will be anti-terrorist because the ultimate goals of the monarchy are stability, stability, and stability. The Wahhabi imams have always preached against Jihadism, likely at the behest of the Sauds. Yes, they are hardline religious conservatives, but they are not apocalyptic, they are not crazed jihadists, they don’t want to drag SA into destabilizing wars, and they certainly don’t want to alienate the United States which has been propping them up for 90 years. Hence, the Saudi government has consistently funded counter-terrorism efforts throughout the Middle East, and even fought an internal war against Al Qaeda insurgents in the 2000s which cost 100+ lives. Today, the monarchy considers its two biggest threats to be Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, both of which are supporters of terrorism.
I can buy that the Saudi government is anti-terrorist, but even Rundell admits there are terrorist connections in Saudi Arabia. Outside the government’s purview, there have probably always been wealthy Saudis (including princes) who covertly financed terrorist activity, and despite the government’s claims, it’s not clear how much has been done to stop them. A strange off-shoot of this problem is Muslim charities; Islam requires that adherents donate 2.5% of their annual incomes to charity. This is typically accomplished by individual Muslims putting cash into charity boxes outside of Mosques. Apparently, quite a few of these boxes in Saudi Arabia were managed by terrorist front-groups, and again, it’s not clear how much the Saudi government knew about this or tried to stop it.
More damningly, the Saudi government at least accidentally promoted terrorism with a few policies. Infamously, lots of Saudi money was poured into Afghanistan in the 1980s to support the Mujahedeen against the Soviet Union, and some of those funds went to people and organizations which would eventually become the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The Saudi government also loves indiscriminately giving money to foreign Islamic countries to build mosques (as I mentioned about Bosnia Herzegovina here) which the Saudis require to be Wahhabi, and it’s likely that some of these mosques radicalized foreigners into terrorists.
The Quiet Political Revolution
Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) tends to get the credit for Saudi Arabia’s ongoing reforms. But his work began with his father, King Salman, who now in his 80s, has been fading into the background as his son takes prominence. Before MBS could launch his economic and cultural reforms, King Salman coordinated a quiet political revolution which upended almost a century of Saudi political tradition and cleared a path for remaking not just the state but the entire country.
Salman was born in 1935 as the 25th son of King Abdulaziz. In 1963, at age 28, he earned the prominent post of governor of Riyadh province, where he would stay for almost half a century. For much of that time, he was a royal court player, but always in a support role for his older brothers. Meanwhile, he established a reputation for firmness, incorruptibility, and financial soundness as the governor of Saudi Arabia’s most important province. As the appointed head of the Descendants’ Council, he also became something of a fixer who mended inter-family squabbles with a diplomatic grace. In 2011, after 48 years as governor, Salman was finally moved to a national role as the Minister of Defense, and the following year, he was named Crown Prince. In 2015, Salman ascended to the throne with the death of King Abdullah at age 90.
Salman was considered yet another safe choice as king. He was 80, had been in the capital forever, and aside from keeping an unusually tight lid on local corruption, he didn’t seem to do or say anything interesting for a Saud prince. But he came to the throne at an inflection point for the monarchy. Every successor to Abdulaziz had been a direct son, but the founder of Saudi Arabia was finally running out of sons 60 years after his death. There were a few octogenarian princes left, but even the conservative Saud family realized that the torch needed to be passed to the next generation.
For the first time since Abdulaziz, the Saudi king named a Crown Prince of a younger generation – Muhammad Bin Nayef (MBN), King Salman’s nephew. MBN’s father was a previous Crown Prince who died before taking power and who thought Israel committed 9/11. But like Salman, MBN was another safe choice for the crown. He was in his 50s, had been in government his entire life, and as Minister of the Interior, he had led the Saudi police forces against Al Qaeda in the 2000s, so he had strong established relationships with foreign powers.
But King Salman’s choice for Deputy Crown Prince came out of left field. Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS) is Salman’s seventh son and was only 30 when he was made second-in-line to the throne.
Normally, both the Crown Prince and Deputy Crown prince were old guard, and it wasn’t unusual for them to die of old age before getting to the throne. In his 50s, even MBN was very young for the role. But at least MBN was established; the same could not be said for MBS.
MBS got a degree in law from King Saud University in Riyadh and then worked in the private sector as a consultant for a few years before entering politics. At age 24, he become an assistant to his father, and was soon handed a bunch of BS-sounding jobs for which he was dubiously qualified, like “chairman of the board for the King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives” and “board of trustees for Albir Society.” In 2011, MBS followed his father from the governorship to national politics and was made an official advisor at the Ministry of Defense. In 2015, King Salman ascended to the throne, and MBS took his position as Minister of Defense as well as becoming Deputy Crown Prince.
This is a good reminder that though Western democracies can be terrible in many ways, at least they don’t let 30 year old princelings run the Pentagon or whatever. MBS has no military background, and aside from working for his dad, he has no relevant administrative experience, so suddenly being put in charge of the sixth-most well-funded military on earth was kind of a reach.
The logic of King Salman’s seemingly bizarre appointment was revealed two years later in 2017. MBN was invited to the King’s palace, and after an awkward stop-and-chat with MBS, King Salman told MBN that his political career was over. He would no longer be Crown Prince nor Minister of the Interior. MBN left the palace a few hours later as a political pariah. Soon after, MBS was promoted to Crown Prince. Three years later, in 2020, MBN was arrested for treason and has remained imprisoned ever since.
We know these events happened, but in classic Saudi fashion, we have little-to-no idea what happened in between. This is pure court intrigue, likely between fewer than a dozen figures. It’s not clear if King Salman always planned on keeping MBN as a placeholder to be discarded, or if MBS instigated the transition. We know MBN was surprised and upset by the move – some sources say he surrendered after being compelled by King Salman’s demand for loyalty to the dynasty, while others say he was detained in the palace for hours and his bank accounts were frozen. MBN was arrested for treason in 2020, but it’s not clear whether he was really making moves against the king and MBS, or if they decided to definitively take him out of the political equation as a precaution.
Rundell emphasizes that the disruptiveness of this maneuver can’t be understated. The supplanting of MBN for MBS was perhaps the greatest breach in Saud family tradition ever. King Saud had been removed from the throne in 1958 with a nearly complete consensus of the royal family and the religious establishment. No other king nor Crown Prince had been thrown out of office until 2017. MBN was well-established, well-connected, and there was every expectation he would take the throne. When he was disinherited, it wasn’t just MBN that fell, but an entire network of patrons in the royal family, business community, Wahhabi establishment, and military. Suddenly, promises from MBN couldn’t be met, government contracts dried up, and promotions and appointments didn’t materialize. And into that vacuum stepped MBS who scooped up who he could with deals or found new clients to replace the old ones.
It was a power grab. King Salman and MBS broke the consensus model of the Saud dynasty with a quiet but bold consolidation of power. The great wealth and authority of the Saudi government would henceforth be less evenly distributed among the 200 or so Saud dynastic members of prominence. Rather, all power would flow from two men at the center who were willing to implicitly and explicitly intimidate rivals.
In 2017, King Salman was 82 and MBS was 32. As the quiet political revolution continued, it’s generally believed that Salman slowly relinquished day-to-day rule to MBS. The degree of deference and the motive (beyond age) are unknown, but now that the royal family was brought to heel, MBS likely orchestrated the quelling of the crown’s two other competitors for power: the Wahhabi establishment and the wealthy old guard.
We don’t have a ton of details on how MBS took over the Wahhabi establishment, but it appears to be a classic carrot-and-stick situation. Many prominent mullahs were promoted and many more were unceremoniously fired, with a few even ending up in jail or exile. The message quickly became clear – either you align with MBS or you’re out of the job.
This, again, was a tremendous breach of precedent in Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabis have typically been the junior partner in their relationship with the crown, but they’ve been partners none-the-less. Kings could steer the mullahs, but like with the royal family, this was typically done by persuasion and consensus. Troublesome mullahs could cause real problems, like stoking luddite protests against the kingdom adopting new technologies, or even tacitly supporting the radical reactionary elements who opposed the Sauds in the 1970s. But all that is over. The Wahhabi establishment is firmly in MBS’s control and they seem willing to announce whatever he demands to their followers, including radical changes to Islamic doctrine concerning women and culture.
Wood notes that MBS has a secret weapon against the Wahabbis – he actually knows Islamic law. Nearly unique to other and former Saud leaders, MBS is something of a Sharia expert and can couch both his political maneuverings and aggressive changes to Saudi law in religious terms. He claims that these radical legal changes to the status of women and treatment of foreigners are all perfectly compatible with the conservative Islamic doctrine upon which the Saudi nation was built, and he’s happy to explain how it’s so in great detail. This seems to have genuinely persuaded some mullahs of MBS’s authority, while at least providing a veneer of acceptability to others to justify their acquiescence to the new Crown Prince.
(While in Saudi Arabia, Wood got a high-ranking cleric to commit to joining him to watch Zombieland 3, if it is ever made, in a movie theater – an act which until a few years ago would be considered blasphemous.)
MBS’s assertion of power over the old money elite of Saudi Arabia was far flashier and more popular.
In November 2017, just a few months after he was named Crown Prince, MBS invited nearly 400 of the wealthiest Saudi citizens – including businessmen, military officers, clerics, and royal family members – to the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh, a hotel at which you can buy a $150 pizza. Once inside, representatives of MBS from a secret prosecutors office privately sat down with the individuals and informed them that they were now prisoners. The prosecutors then presented documents detailing alleged corruption, most of which was almost certainly real. The accused were then offered deals, the most common of which was handing 70% of their stolen wealth back to the state and promising never to steal again. According to the Saudi government, it recovered $107 billion from 87 individuals, which amounts to an impressive $3,100 per Saudi citizen.
If they took the deal, the accused were kept in the Ritz Carlton for a few days or weeks while transactions were made, businesses sold off, and land deeds sent, and then they could walk out of the hotel and go on with their lives. If they didn’t accept the deal, then… no one is exactly sure what happened, but there are rampant rumors of torture. Some people emerged with broken limbs, one guy lost hearing in an ear, and pretty much everyone appeared to have lost weight.
The above is Wood’s explanation of the Ritz Carlton affair, and he is definitely anti-MBS, but he may have inadvertently downplayed it. A 2020 Guardian article cites “a source with intimate knowledge of what took place” who said every prisoner was blindfolded and beaten on their first night. He continues that MBS’s prosecutors didn’t have detailed dossiers on corruption, rather, they “in fact knew very little and were winging it,” so they hoped to beat the prisoners into revealing their assets. While some captives were clearly guilty, others were random courtiers who got lucrative government contracts, but weren’t corrupt in any meaningful sense. And supposedly the true recovery figure was about $28 billion instead of $107 billion.
Regardless, the play was lauded by many within Saudi Arabia, particularly commoners and the middle class. For decades, the Saudis had rightly regarded the Saudi economy as beset by a hoard of leeches who used political connections to rob the state and its people. Finally, in one fell swoop, the young, new Crown Prince had struck the mightiest possible blow against this old guard.
Even from Western sensibilities… it’s not good to have a strongman run a country for many obvious reasons, but if you must have a strong man, this is one of the best things he can do. Democracies are notoriously bad at rooting out deeply entrenched, culturally-based corruption. Strongmen can theoretically bypass red tape, factionalism, and informal connections, and strangle every neck of the chimera at once. And as brutal as the Ritz Carlton affair may or may not have been, it could have been much worse! How would a Saddam Hussein have taken out corrupt cronies? Or how about in CCP China, where a billionaire dies of unnatural causes every 40 days?
By 2018, King Salman and MBS had executed a quiet political revolution in Saudi Arabia which consolidated the royal family, tamed the Wahhabi establishment, and neutered the wealthy old guard. Now that the father and son firmly controlled Saudi Arabia, what would they do with it?
Vision 2030 is King Salman and MBS’s plan to save Saudi Arabia from inevitable decline through the top-down implementation of social and economic reforms. Wood likens the scale of proposed change to the French Revolution.
So far I’ve highlighted what I consider to be the underappreciated successes of the Saudi regime, including its remarkable stability, pragmatic foreign policy, and deft evasion of the resource curse. But Saudi Arabia also has big structural problems, most notably its economy and government are heavily dependent on oil and its regressive culture quells innovation and repels foreign talent. Vision 2030 is a grand plan to use Saudi Arabia’s not insignificant wealth and power to break out of the old ways and embrace a glorious new future on a stronger, but still distinctly Saudi path.
There is too much to Vision 2030 for me to cover entirely, but I’ll describe its major reform areas.
In the pre-reform era, Saudi women were second-class citizens in accordance with conservative Sharia law. There was complete gender segregation in most public places. Women could legally and practically do very little without the explicit permission, if not the actual presence of a male guardian (usually the father or husband). Women were required to keep their hair and faces covered in public at all times. An illustration of how seriously this was taken was the 2002 Mecca girls school fire wherein 15 young girls died and dozens more were injured partially because:
“According to at least two reports, members of the CPVPV [the crazy religious police]… would not allow the girls to escape or to be saved from the fire because they were “not properly covered”, and the [CPVPV] did not want physical contact to take place between the girls and the civil defense forces for fear of sexual enticement, and variously that the girls were locked in by the police, or forced back into the building.”
It would take too long to describe all the restrictions on Saudi women, so just imagine the opposite of the following Vision 2030 reforms:
- Women are no longer legally required to keep their faces and heads covered in public
- Women can live alone without a male guardian’s permission
- Women can get jobs without the permission of a male guardian
- Women can change their name or get divorced without a male guardian’s permission
- Women can attain passports and travel abroad without a male chaperone
- Women can go to Mecca for the Hajj without a male chaperone
- Women can attain driver’s licenses
- Women and men may shop at stores, eat at restaurants, and enjoy any other public commercial activity together
- Schools now offer physical education classes to women
- Women can buy houses
- Women can attend sporting events
- It is illegal for men or women under 18 to get married (EDIT – still possible with special permission from a judge)
- Men are legally required to notify their wives about being divorced
- Women can inform government offices of legal matters like a death in the family, attainment of a marriage license, birth of a child for a birth certificate, etc.
One of Vision 2030’s biggest initiatives is integrating women into the workforce. Pre-reform, women could only perform jobs in which they exclusively interacted with other women, resulting in only about 15% of women in Saudi Arabia working, and mostly in low-skilled labor. They were banned from most high-level jobs, particularly in the government, and even where they weren’t legally prohibited, norms against hiring women pretty much guaranteed they were kept out.
Under Vision 2030, almost all of the old laws prohibiting women from working are gone, and gender discrimination in employment is now illegal (including differential wages). Female workers are also the recipients of a host of new government welfare programs that promote employment, including free childcare, subsidized work transportation, and job training.
As of March 2022, the Saudi female labor force has grown by 6 million; the female labor participation rate has more than doubled to 35%. This brings the total Saudi labor participation up to the low 60s%, which is actually pretty normal by current Western standards. There is a female military division which fights with their faces covered. A handful of women have been brought into senior government roles, like the Deputy Secretary General of the Cabinet, and a Saud princess has taken over the new tourism ministry. There’s also a female board member on the Saudi central bank and the first female Saudi CEO.
The push for labor integration has also inadvertently expanded opportunities for men a bit. In the pre-reform era, women performed jobs that involved unavoidable interactions with women, so there were female teachers for female students, and female doctors for female patients. In 2012, the Ministry of Labor declared that lingerie shops had one year to replace all of their male workers with women. Under Vision 2030, Saudi men are once more free to be gynecologists and sell sexy underwear.
Do Saudi women finally have it all? No… not even close. They still can’t get married, leave prison, or attain some forms of healthcare without permission from a male guardian. These guardians can also file “disobedience” charges against them, resulting in possible house arrest. Women cannot swear to honesty in court, a man must swear for her. And so on.
But still, there is definitely real progress for women in Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, the tone of Vision 2030 seems apologetic on this front. The website uses the phrase: “Saudi women are now fulfilling their dreams,” which seems to imply that they were not fulfilling their dreams before Vision 2030.
Recall that Wahhabism is literally anti-fun. Al-Wahhab even thought music was evil. Thus, prior to the reforms, Saudi Arabia was extremely restrictive of anything remotely resembling fun, especially if it has a Western origin.
But under Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia has music concerts, amusement parks, and movie theaters. The government has built a bunch of massive entertainment complexes, and is currently building a racing circuit. A Six Flags will open soon in Qiddiya. The World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) has signed a ten year contract with Saudi Arabia to hold events. Initially, the contract had a clause prohibiting female wrestlers, but the following year, the rule was relaxed as long as the women dressed modestly.
The Vision 2030 website says that “Saudi Arabia has organized over 3,800 entertainment events attended by 80+ million people.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, but it sounds impressive.
In the pre-reform era, there were no tourist visas for Saudi Arabia. Foreigners could get in on work, business, or family visas, but the only other option was a Hajj visa exclusively available to Muslims. I’m not sure if Muslims on the Hajj visa could also do tourist activities.
In September 2019, all of a sudden Saudi Arabia had tourist visas. One year, multi-entry visas can be attained online (theoretically at least, the online system failed to process my payments) or on-arrival. As of writing this, tourist visas are available to 49 countries. I’m pretty sure that not since the fall of the Iron Curtain has such a reclusive state so suddenly opened up to the world.
King Salman, MBS, and the Saudi leadership are not stupid. They know the Saudi economy and state are completely dependent on oil. They know that if oil prices fall significantly or their wells begin to dry up, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia will return to the desert from whence it came. Thus Vision 2030’s most important reform effort is using its oil wealth to develop the non-oil economy.
Both Wood and Rundell describe Vision 2030’s economic plan as basically trying to turn Saudi Arabia into Dubai. The latter country (or rather, autonomous kingdom within a country) was also utterly oil-dependent until a massive central government effort turned it into a shopping/tourism/entertainment/banking/rich person’s paradise. There is still plenty of skepticism as to whether the Dubai transformation has actually worked, or whether it built an elaborate wasteful anvil for its preexisting oil economy to drag around, but at least most people seem to think Dubai is doing well.
Of course, a similar transformation in Saudi Arabia will be much more difficult to achieve. The Emirate of Dubai is 25% smaller than Delaware, and even now only has 4.2 million inhabitants. Saudi Arabia is the size of the United States East of the Mississippi River and has almost 35 million inhabitants. The latter is a much larger ship to steer. Plus, before the reforms, nobody outside of the Middle East and British imperialist circles had heard of Dubai, so its ambitious leaders were working from a clean slate to attract money and inhabitants. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has a largely accurate reputation of being a stolid, regressive, scary country still operating on a medieval legal template.
Nevertheless, the Saudi government is angling for foreign investment. Aside from the tourist visas and entertainment deals mentioned above, the kingdom has finally deregulated foreign money to a practical degree. The current goals are $160 billion for Neom (described below) plus $103 billion annually for general non-oil economic activity by 2030. For comparison, the United Arab Emirates and Israel had net capital inflows of $20 and $24 billion in 2020, while Saudi Arabia only had $5.4 billion.
For Saudi Arabia, generating its own wealth is more important than bringing in new wealth. Perhaps the single-highest priority of Vision 2030’s economic reforms is getting Saudis to work, both men and women. And so far, Vision 2030 appears to have done a hell of a job; here is the kingdom’s labor participation rate:
But this chart is somewhat misleading. Recall that Saudi Arabia’s population is almost 40% immigrant, so the native Saudi labor participation rate is far lower than this graph implies. Prior to the female labor reforms, even the immigrant labor participation rate was very low because female immigrants (wives and daughters of male immigrants) were almost entirely excluded from the labor force.
In other words, Saudi Arabia’s labor force has always been anemic, even with foreign supplementation. Vision 2030 wants to incentivize Saudis back into the labor force so it can stem the tide of immigrants who currently do almost all the non-oil work and send a lot of their money out of the country in remittances. As mentioned, removing legal and cultural barriers to women working is the low-hanging fruit, but the tougher nut to crack is the bulk of Saudi men who can only be coaxed back to work by unwinding the privileges and welfare benefits they have long-enjoyed.
Intertwined with the employment issue is a recent government debt problem. After the debacle of the 1950s, the Saudi government had been fairly good at keeping its oil revenue and government spending on the same trend line. But over the last twenty years, the kingdom has become increasingly profligate, mostly due to increased welfare spending and government wages. But also, Saudi kings like to randomly give out piles of money like Roman Emperors. When King Abdullah ascended to the throne in 2005, he increased all government worker wages by 15%; after a successful medical treatment, he gave all government workers a one-month salary bonus. When King Salman came to the throne, he distributed $32 billion to Saudi citizens (about 3-4% of the country’s GDP).
In 2014, the government budget break-even price for Saudi Arabia was $106 per barrel (compared to $49 for Kuwait and $73 for the UAE). In 2015, when global oil prices began a 40% nosedive, the Saudi government’s deficit spending exploded to 9% of GDP and there were serious concerns of bankruptcy by the end of the decade. That year, the government spent $107 billion on petrol subsidies and had a $98 billion budget deficit. Shockingly, it’s much easier to give out giant piles of money than to get them back.
Hence, since 2015, Saudi Arabia has been raising taxes and cutting benefits to coax people back into the labor force and save the state budget from oil whiplash. In January 2018, the country instituted its first VAT tax at 5%. A few weeks later, the government stopped paying the water and electricity bills of princes, prompting a protest that resulted in the arrest of 11 Saud princes. (They were also trying to get compensation for the execution of a cousin, but the utility bills were the immediate catalyst.) In 2020, the VAT tax tripled to 15% and a $270 per month subsidy to government workers was eliminated. However, the kingdom has backpedaled a bit in response to recent international inflation with a one-time $5.33 billion direct payment scheme to Saudi citizens in 2022.
It’s hard to find a consolidated evaluation of Vision 2030’s economic reforms, but a 2015 article said 90% of the Saudi government’s revenue came from oil, while a 2020 article cites 70%. So it seems like they’ve made decent progress on the government budget front.
Anecdotally, the reforms seem to be having their intended effect on the workforce. In the kingdom, you can usually tell who is a Saudi by their traditional outfit, and I saw plenty at work. In his Sam Harris interview, Wood has an amusing anecdote about incompetent Saudi workers at hotels being managed by their far more experienced immigrant subordinates. I, personally, had the single worst customer service experience of my life with my car rental from Saudi Avis, which included (among many other issues) being stranded by the side of the road for hours because EIGHT different Saudi Avis offices didn’t answer my phone calls even though they were all open. Fast food chains were also dreadfully slow.
Since going to Saudi Arabia, I have tried to explain Neom verbally on three separate occasions, and I have learned that’s a fruitless endeavor. So here’s Neom:
I recommend reading Scott Alexander’s overview here, but the TLDR – Neom is a region of empty desert near the Israeli border. The Saudi government is planning to invest $500 billion to $1 trillion to build a futuristic mega-city in the region, which includes “The Line,” a 650 feet wide structure that is the height of the One World Trade Center and the length of Ireland. The Line will contain, flying cars, an artificial moon, and robotic maids, among other cyberpunk fare. Neom will hopefully be the foundation of an entirely new economy for Saudi Arabia built from the ground-up to optimize city life despite being in a desert in the middle of nowhere.
Since Scott Alexander’s write-up, construction appears to be moving along, or at least the Saudis have dug a really big trench.
Based on the Neom website, here are more TLDR’s for how Neom will handle some of the challenges of modern city-life:
Energy – Neom will use 100% renewable energy and achieve zero carbon output, big push for hydrogen plants, Neom is supposedly “one of only six places on earth” optimized for wind and solar energy simultaneously.
Food – Neom will be agriculturally self-sufficient, genetic engineering and an “Agri-Foodtech Accelerator” will master farming in a desert, the consumption of “plant-based alternatives” to meat will be incentivized for Neom residents.
Water – Water will be taken from the Red Sea, desalinated, and then kept in a 100% self-sufficient system which never discharges water back to the sea, sewage will be converted into fertilizer for agriculture (and I’m pretty sure inhabitants will drink their own [processed] urine).
Tourism – Saudi Arabia is going to turn this desert into a massive natural resort oasis, you can ski in the morning and snorkel in the afternoon, the government is going to bring a bunch of extinct and/or migrated wild animal species back to the region to repopulate it, they are going to regrow the world’s largest coral garden.
Transportation – In the Line there will be no traditional roads or cars, only flying taxis and super speed trains fast enough to traverse the 105 mile length in 20 minutes.
Note that all of these “sectors” are managed by people with charmingly blunt titles, including “Head of Food” and “Head of Water.”
A lot of the descriptions on the Neom website are infuriatingly vague, and come off like “throw money at a broad category and hope something good happens.” For instance, Neom promises that it will “spearhead genetics as the future of personalized care,” with the description:
“NEOM will invest in a new form of patient engagement. Driven by AI and data science, a high-end healthcare system will employ biotechnology such as genomics and genetics. Through detailed assessments and individual-centric journeys, NEOM will create an advanced model of care.”
I guess it’s saying that Neom will invest money in genetics research and hope it pans out in a specific way that will be massively beneficial to practical healthcare? I’m not sure why Saudi Arabia needs Neom to do that. Making breakthroughs in genetics research would be great in Riyadh, or Jeddah, or anywhere. No cyberpunk city is required.
Another example – in the “Design and Construction” sector FAQ, the website asks: “NEOM is aiming for best-in-class cognitive cities – would you be able to map out what that means and how it’s possible?”
The answer from the “Head of Design and Construction”:
“When we talk about city systems, it’s all the things you are conscious of when you walk around in a place – whether it’s public transport ticketing or maps for where things are. A city is also the things you are not physically conscious of. There is virtually nothing, no hardware or platform, that deals with empathy and how you feel when you are moving about in a city. Cognitive cities are about bridging the gap between human emotions and the assets that exist in a place, so that our environment learns from us. That spans across everything – climate, mobility, social. A cognitive city ebbs and flows with the tide of emotion and makes the experience of being there somehow less anxiety-inducing. Another big issue is trust. Our trust in how a city uses our data has become fractured because of the way that personal information has been used for commercial gain over the past few years. We aim to overcome that too by implementing a trust stack for data sharing.”
Yet again, I kinda sort of understand what he’s saying, but I have no idea what any of that means in concrete reality beyond, “we will collect lots of data on inhabitants, and make adjustments based on patterns.” And again, I’m not sure you need a cyberpunk city to do that.
If you’re looking for work, Neom’s career page still has openings for “Head of Regulation – Financial Services,” “Senior Manager – Wet Infrastructure,” and “Cybersecurity Architect.” Better yet, if you’re a Saudi, the requirements for getting a job at Neom are quite low, including a bachelor’s degree, a 3.5 GPA, “leadership potential,” “tech proficient in Microsoft,” and “strong interpersonal capacity.” Unfortunately, you do have to possess a “willingness to relocate to Neom.”
The Case Against MBS and Vision 2030
There are plenty of unambiguously good parts of Vision 2030. Saudi Arabia has opened up to foreigners, modern culture is coming in and hopefully softening the religious fundamental edges, and the status of women has been greatly elevated. But while the cultural reforms are solid, I’m very skeptical that Vision 2030’s economic reforms will succeed.
I don’t have any technical analysis to offer, I just have the sense that a country (and culture and region) with little experience in developmental economics is attempting an extremely ambitious economic jump-start almost entirely through centralized planning. The state can probably carrot-and-stick Saudis back to work, but so what? Will disgruntled Saudis make good private sector employees? Will they be industrious and innovative in a manner that will break the non-oil Saudi economy out of impotence? Probably not, especially while Aramco is still pumping oil and the state is still rich with funds which the Saudi people know could be thrown back their way if enough pressure is put on the crown.
Neom is the single-worst part of this. It’s cool, it’s impressive, it’s staggeringly ambitious, and I would bet serious money it won’t be completed by 2030 as planned, nor will it ever achieve a tenth of what it claims. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the high-level personnel are technical expert Westerners grifting the Saudis with big promises they know can’t be fulfilled. Neom has boondoggle written all over it.
My economic prediction for Saudi Arabia – it will put up some impressive foreign investment numbers and continue to boost labor participation until it hits a plateau, but Saudi Arabia will not dig itself out of its position as a petrol-rentier state. Its economic structure is too entrenched, and there’s simply no other comparative advantage for a desert nation filled with people who aren’t used to working.
The gaping hole in Vision 2030 is a lack of political reforms. In a weird way, this might be the single boldest aspect of Vision 2030. King Salman and MBS are trying to revolutionize the Saudi civil society and economy without touching its political structure. Or another way to think about it is that the quiet revolution before Vision 2030 was the reforms. But they were reactionary reforms rather than progressive.
Structurally, not much has changed in the government under Vision 2030 besides the creations of a few new ministries and positions, and the permitting of women into government posts. But informally, the Saudi state has definitely changed. Wood describes “a climate of fear unprecedented in Saudi history.” Exiling, arresting, torturing, and executing Saudi government officials wasn’t unheard of in the past, but the rate of all of the above has accelerated tremendously since King Salman came to power. Of course, numbers are impossible to come by, but between the crackdowns on the clerical establishment and the Ritz Carlton imprisonment affair, a clear message has been sent – the crown is willing to use extrajudicial methods to crush opposition.
Saudi Arabia has never had freedom of speech or the press. But again, the means and frequency of repression have greatly escalated under King Salman and MBS. Information monitoring and censorship have been stepped up at all levels of society, and the government is less tolerant than ever of public dissent.
A most illuminating instance was the case of Loujain Alhathloul, a Canadian-educated Saudi woman with the bravery and madness to challenge Saudi gender laws. She was first arrested in 2014 for illegally driving and she spent 73 days in detention. She then tried to run for office during the kingdom’s brief experiment with municipal elections, but was barred for the crime of being a woman. The following year, she launched a petition to the king to end guardianship laws which gained 14,000 signatures. She was then jailed for the second time in 2017 for unknown reasons and released an unknown time later.
Alhathloul walked the edge of the Saudi government’s tolerance for dissent. She was an outspoken opponent of guardianship laws and the female driving prohibition, and though she was repeatedly arrested and mistreated (denied counsel, detained without a warrant, etc.), she was still mostly allowed to live freely, albeit certainly with government monitoring. It’s likely that Alhathloul was protected by international recognition which would have caused a public relations nightmare for the Saudi government if she were too egregiously suppressed.
That all came to an end in 2018. In March, Alhathloul was arrested for a few days and then released, but put under a travel ban. In May she was arrested again, this time for running a women’s rights campaign most prominently calling for the right of women to drive. Alhathloul was brought to a detention center known as the “the hotel” where she was tortured with beatings, electrical shocks, and waterboarding. Officials threatened to chop up her body and throw it into the sewers. She was held for years in various prisons on vague charges of threatening state security, and her trial was perpetually postponed for bureaucratic reasons or COVID-19. In 2020, Alhathloul went on multiple hunger strikes until she was allowed to communicate with outsiders. She was finally released from prison in February 2021, but lives under a travel ban.
The supreme irony of the whole ordeal is that one month after her final arrest, the Saudi government ended the prohibition on women driving, and would soften aspects of guardianship laws not long after. Why would the government punish citizens who advocated for reforms it was going to make anyway?
Because, as Wood explains, MBS asserts that there are no women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Rather, there is the right of the Saudi crown to grant privileges to its citizens, which includes driving. Protesting against the government is actually a violation of the Saud Dynasty’s divine right to total monarchical control over the Saudi people. The content of the protest is irrelevant; disobedience is disobedience. Within this context, even the seemingly unambiguously good cultural aspects of Vision 2030 seem a lot less benevolent.
Though the treatment of Alhathloul was terrible, the most notorious act of political suppression was the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi was a Saudi journalist with an independent streak. He briefly worked as an editor for a prominent Saudi magazine, but was fired after a few months for permitting criticism of Wahhabi doctrine. In 2003, he went into voluntary exile and worked as a journalist in the UK where he was frequently critical of the Saudi government. He would eventually become a big supporter of Alhathloul and her quest for women’s rights. Though Khashoggi continued to gain prominence for his criticism, he retained contact with numerous Saudi elites and doubtlessly had the backing of more liberal elements within the Saudi government.
In 2017, Khashoggi moved to the United States to work for the Washington Post. While MBS enjoyed something of an international honeymoon phase, Khashoggi was an early critic of his authoritarian impulses, and soon drew the ire of the Crown Prince.
In October 2018, Khashoggi went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to pick up forms related to his recent marriage. There he was ambushed by a 15-man assassination squad which strangled him to death, chopped up his body into pieces and disposed of him. There are many, many unknowns about the events that took place, but I’m left wondering why the Saudis needed (or even had) 15 assassins to murder one unarmed 59 year old man in their own consulate.
MBS accepted responsibility for the assassination, but not blame. Allegedly, the assassination was a Thomas Becket thing where some overzealous Saudi security agents took it upon themselves to rid the prince of a journalist headache, but the prince himself didn’t order it. This is almost certainly bullshit.
Graeme Wood asked MBS about Khashoggi, and he responded that:
- The accusation that he had ordered the assassination hurt his feelings.
- He had never read a Khashoggi article in his life (despite him being the most famous Saudi journalist on earth).
- If he were to order an assassination, he would use more competent assassins.
- If he were to assassinate political enemies, “Khashoggi would not even be among the top 1,000 people on the list. If you’re going to go for another operation like that, for another person, it’s got to be professional and it’s got to be one of the top 1,000.”
MBS has shown remorse for the murder of Khashoggi, but only because it nearly derailed Vision 2030. The incident immediately ended the MBS international relations honeymoon and put him on the defensive. MBS’s predecessors had done plenty of morally questionable things, but nearly always within Saudi Arabia or the region. They had the good sense to know what would and wouldn’t piss off decadent Westerners. Murdering a popular journalist living in America blatantly crossed the line.
By Wood’s account, the murder of Khashoggi was a public relations disaster, and MBS’s only response has been to hide. Since October 2018, MBS has drastically curtailed his public appearances and interviews, a tactic which was further extended by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Man At The Center
Wood’s deepest source of skepticism for Vision 2030 is the man at its center – Mohammad Bin Salman.
At first glance, MBS might seem like the reformist hero Saudi Arabia has been waiting for. He is (probably) the mastermind behind Vision 2030 and its cultural reforms, including the championing of women for which he has been an enthusiastic and outspoken proponent. Yes, he ordered the murder of a journalist and arrests and tortures dissenters… but I could see a sympathetic case made that MBS is an enlightened despot in the mold of a Frederick the Great. Perhaps authoritarianism is the only way to modernize a deeply backward nation. A maneuver like tricking the 400 wealthiest Saudis into imprisonment and then coercing the return of stolen funds is despotic and contemptuous of the rule of law… but if it gets results, then maybe it’s a necessary evil.
But that sort of optimistic take would require MBS to be stable, smart, and benevolent, at least in some sort of abstract philosophical sense, if not by our practical Western sensibilities. Unfortunately, Wood’s personal conversations with MBS cast these hopes into doubt.
Wood describes MBS as “brutish, thin-skinned, and psychopathic.” He comes off like a decently intelligent and even well-meaning rich kid who has had his ego massively inflated and doesn’t know anything about the real world. He doesn’t seem to grasp how it sounds to Westerners when he tells a journalist that he didn’t order the murder of another journalist, but if he did, he would have used better assassins and would kill other enemies before him. He’s also paranoid and thinks everyone is out to get him; from Wood:
“[MBS] complained that he had endured injustice, and he evinced a level of victimhood and grandiosity unusual even by the standards of Middle Eastern rulers.”
It doesn’t help that MBS appears to have some sort of completely unexplained, undisclosed neurological disorder. From Wood:
“Difficult questions caused the crown prince to move about jumpily, his voice vibrating at a higher frequency. Every minute or two he performed a complex motor tic: a quick backward tilt of the head, followed by a gulp, like a pelican downing a fish.”
MBS is also just kinda weird. There’s this sense that things just don’t quite click the right way in his mind. For instance:
“In our Riyadh interview, the crown prince said that his own rights had been violated in the Khashoggi affair. “I feel that human-rights law wasn’t applied to me,” he said. “Article XI of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that any person is innocent until proven guilty.”
“For fun, he watches TV, avoiding shows, like House of Cards, that remind him of work. Instead, he said without apparent irony, he prefers to watch series that help him escape the reality of his job, such as Game of Thrones.”
One of the big mysteries at the heart of the ongoing MBS saga is: Why MBS? I’m finding it weirdly difficult to figure out how many surviving sons King Salman has, but it appears to be at least 5 or 6. So why did King Salman choose MBS as heir instead of any of them, or instead of any other dozens of cousins and nephews?
Rundell doesn’t exactly give a straight answer, but my reading of his descriptions is that King Salman chose MBS because of his personal loyalty and work ethic. MBS isn’t dumb, but he doesn’t come off as super smart either. Likewise, he isn’t particularly worldly or well-educated by Saudi prince standards. But he has been in the personal service of his father for most of his adult life and he’s supposedly a true workhorse. Given that there were already rumors of King Salman having Alzheimer’s when he took the throne in 2015, he may have chosen MBS over all other options because he had the right combination of traits to realize the vision for Saudi Arabia which Salman lacked the vitality to execute.
The above leads to what is maybe Vision 2030’s single greatest weakness – it has a de facto key man clause.
The entire Vision 2030 project is the brainchild of the MBS/King Salman duo. They probably didn’t come up with much of the literal policy changes, but they are the progenitors and driving force behind it. They were only able to push these reforms due to the quiet political revolution which marginalized their rivals in the royal family, religious establishment, and business community. With King Salman continuing to fade into the background due to age and illness, that leaves the entire Vision 2030 project on the shoulders of MBS, and that makes Vision 2030 fragile.
Wood argues that a worst case scenario parallel to MBS is Syrian Dictator Bashar al-Assad. Like MBS, there were high hopes that Assad would be a liberal reformer when he took over Syria. After all, Assad had been living and working in the UK as an ophthalmologist with no political aspirations, and was known to be a fan of Phil Collins. He was called to the throne after the unexpected death of his older brother, and so the West hoped that this nerdy British doctor would bring upper-middle class liberal values to Syria. Instead, Assad became one of the worst dictators of the modern Middle East, probably second only to Saddam Hussein.
Likewise, MBS has said a lot of things Westerners want to hear. He has called for opening the Saudi economy, elevating the status of Saudi women, modernizing Saudi culture, and many other objectively good reform policies. At the same time, he has commissioned the assassination of a prominent journalist, he has arrested, exiled, and tortured political opponents, and he has broken the consensus system of the Saudi crown, rendering it even more authoritarian. Whether Vision 2030 goes well or ends disastrously may depend on a single man.
I can see three broad failure states concerning MBS’s role in Vision 2030:
First, MBS may have to continue or intensify his brutal tactics to execute Vision 2030. Saudi Arabia could technically become a more open society on paper, but become a more politically repressive and intolerant regime as MBS cracks down on rivals and dissenters.
Second, MBS’s brutal tactics may trigger enough foreign opposition that Vision 2030 loses most of its foreign support (for capital injections, entertainment partnerships, infrastructure expansion, etc.) and so Vision 2030 falls short of its goals.
Third, MBS might provoke so much internal opposition with his brutal tactics and reform efforts that factions of Saudi elites successfully rise up to oppose him. Given the opacity of Saudi court intrigue, there’s no way to tell where this might go. Maybe the quiet political revolution could be reversed, MBS could be restrained, and the crown would revert to a consensus-basis. Or maybe King Salman would be pressured to disinherit MBS, and the prince would be removed from all positions of authority.
This is all wild speculation, but that’s part of the point. The quiet political revolution and Vision 2030 are so unprecedented in Saudi history, that anything could happen. The kingdom has arguably never been more fragile.
Visiting Saudi Arabia
With all that background and history out of the way, I can describe a bit about what it’s like to visit Saudi Arabia today.
Tourism (Or Lack thereof)
Saudi Arabia has little-to-no tourist infrastructure outside of the Hajj, particularly for poorer, backpacking tourists. For instance, there are no hostels in Saudi Arabia. There are almost no brochures, guides, or airport stands for tourists, and what does exist seems oriented toward extremely wealthy Arabs. There are no trains between cities (besides Mecca) and very few buses, so renting a car is essential. As mentioned, my experience with Saudi Avis was a nightmare of incompetence.
I was using a European adapter for outlets prior to arriving in Saudi Arabia. SA uses the British adapter. I visited at least 20 electronics stores (they are often grouped together) and only one had an adapter I could use. Again – no tourist infrastructure.
There is very little for tourists to see or do in Saudi cities, unless you like shopping. On the Riyadh “Things to Do” TripAdvisor page, four of the top ten entries are malls (and one is a tower attached to mall). For Jeddah, it’s three, and for Dammam, it’s four. Aside from malls, there are a few nice mosques, a fort, a fountain, and… that’s about it in the cities.
Outside the cities are far more interesting, and having a car is a prerequisite. There are a few ancient settlements built into mountainsides, roads that perilously wind through canyons, some gorgeous vistas in the west, troops of monkeys, caravans of camels, and it is super cool driving through the bleak endless Arabian desert that makes up most of the country, especially at dusk when the sky and ground blend together.
The silver lining to Saudi Arabia’s lack of tourism is that there aren’t many tourist restrictions. I went to two ancient settlements and I found no guards, no gates, no notices at all. I walked in, around, and on top of 2,000 year old houses, and I honestly have no idea if I was allowed to.
I saw two tourists in Saudi Arabia during the entire time I was there, and they were travelling together.
Mecca and Medina
I would have loved to go to Mecca and Medina, the two holiest Muslim cities on earth. But as a non-Muslim, I am prohibited from doing so (for part of Medina and all of Mecca), though there are rumors MBS might change that.
However, I did drive near Mecca while I was leaving Jeddah for Taif. The area around the holy city is fucking bleak. It looks like Mars – nothing but yellowish-reddish rock under a burning sun in every direction. There’s lots of trash by the side of the road, and a weird prevalence of abandoned buildings with lots of scrap metal. I have no clue how people used to live there in pre-modern times, and apparently no one wants to in modern times.
The annoying part about driving near Mecca is that the city takes up a lot of physical space. I had to follow a bunch of road signs for “NON-MUSLIMS” which took me in a massive detour around an entire city just so I could get to my destination. I took a wrong turn at one point and ended up at a checkpoint going into Mecca, but the armed guard racially profiled my white ass, and forced me to pull over. He didn’t speak English, but I eventually figured it out, and I apologized and turned around.
Saudi Cities are The Least Walkable Places On Earth
In Wood’s Atlantic piece, he has a throwaway line:
“Riyadh has almost no public transportation. No matter where you are, you cannot walk anywhere, except perhaps to your local mosque.”
It is difficult for me to describe how accurate this is. Saudi cities have this almost surreal feel to them, like they exist in a painting meant to evoke the loneliest urban environment possible. There are sidewalks and crosswalks and quite a few bridges for pedestrians over their massive highways, but there is absolutely no reason to walk anywhere in a Saudi city, and pretty much no one ever does.
Everything is incredibly far apart. A common occurrence – I look at Google maps, see that I’m only a few blocks away from my destination, and then Google says it’s an hour+ walk. I usually don’t mind a long walk, but there is absolutely nothing to see along the way. Aside from a handful of unusual buildings, everything in Saudi cities look the same. Everything is sun-bleached yellow or tan and covered in dust. Aside from the occasional palm tree, there is no vegetation. Aside from downtown Riyadh, there is no interesting architecture.
I’m pretty sure there are two reasons for this:
First, it’s hot as fuck for much of the year in Saudi Arabia, though not actually as bad as I thought. But when it’s bad, it’s bad. I traveled during the summer, and my worst day in Riyadh topped out at 116 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temp, the fucking wind is hot, and walking around outside for extended periods of time simply is not a thing. So cities don’t design many areas to walk around, at least not indoors. A Syrian friend of mine says that it’s common in the hotter months to go to a friend’s house at 9AM and not leave until 9PM.
Second, Saudi cities are designed around cars. Everyone has one, they’re usually big, and petrol prices are among the cheapest in the world, so people might as well drive everywhere.
(Probably not incidentally, Saudi Arabia is one of the fattest countries in the world with an obesity rate north of 30%.)
There’s one real exception to this rule – the Jeddah Corniche. It’s a decent waterside promenade where Saudis come to walk around and picnic. I guess a silver lining of being covered from head-to-toe is no sun burn.
There’s also one category of exception – malls. There are lots and lots and lots of malls in Saudi Arabia, and many of them are massive, and it’s the only place I ever saw lots of people walking around.
Saudi Arabia is Not Fun But Is Getting More Fun
Or at least Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a certain kind of fun. Alcohol is illegal throughout the country, even in expat compounds. In contrast, Dubai has legal alcohol in hotels, but nowhere else, a policy which some speculate MBS will embrace. But with no alcohol currently, Saudi Arabia has no bars or clubs, unless you count one place in Riyadh which is aesthetically designed like a bar, but only serves coffee. Riyadh’s Trip Advisor page for night life only has five entries (three of which appear mislabeled), while Jeddah’s only has one.
Cafes largely take the place of bars in Saudi society. It’s where people meet after work, go on dates, and just generally hang out. There are unsurprisingly lots and lots and lots of cafes, and lots of fancy ones at that.
As mentioned, there were no amusement parks (EDIT – or maybe there were, disputed by a commenter) in Saudi Arabia until the modern reform era. Now, there are a shocking number of amusement parks in Saudi Arabia. I wish I had taken more pictures, but I swear, it was insane how many amusement parks I saw in the middle of nowhere throughout the country. The Saudis can’t stop building these things.
I almost went to a beach in Jeddah just to see what a Saudi beach is like, but I decided not to when I saw the $70 entry fee.
Since I spent about 25 hours driving in Saudi Arabia, I have to complain about the roads.
In terms of physical infrastructure, Saudi roads are quite good. There are few potholes or needed repairs, even in the middle of the desert. Much of the country is connected by enormous highways with little traffic and plenty of lanes to spare.
The first major problem with Saudi roads is the two types of drivers in Saudi Arabia. One is an old man driving a 50 year old pick-up truck that can barely reach 40 mph. The other is everyone else in the country, who usually drives a massive white pick-up truck at 100+ mph. There is little middle-ground (besides me).
Thus, driving on Saudi highways more-often-than-not consists of trying to avoid hitting or getting stuck behind the first category, while simultaneously trying to avoid getting hit by or tailgated by the second category. There is never a dull moment, never a stretch of restful contemplation while driving hours and hours and hours on empty stretches of Saudi desert highway.
The second major problem is the infamous speed limits. I’m not actually sure what they are since they’re written in Arabic, but I’m sure I violated them because I got two electronic tickets adding up to $150. Fortunately, Saudi Avis is so monumentally incompetent that they never recorded my credit card, so after informing me of the tickets, they never charged me.
Third, mother fucking speed bumps. I complained about this in Mexico, and Saudi Arabia has the same thing – random speed bumps sporadically placed on fucking highways. It’s even worse in Saudi Arabia because (I think) the speed limit is usually higher. My car was literally brought to screeching slowdowns on at least half a dozen occasions to avoid smashing into these things. I’m starting to think highway speed bumps are simply the go-to strategy for developing nations with terrible drivers.
Due to MBS’s reforms, Saudi women are no longer legally required to keep their heads and faces covered in public. But it’s still the norm. If I had to give estimates:
- 85% of women had their heads and faces covered
- 10% had just their heads covered
- 5% had their heads and faces uncovered
Uncovered women were more common in cities than the countryside. They were more likely to be Asian, likely Filipino.
One surprising aspect – it was fairly common to see completely covered women wearing mascara or eyeliner.
Pretty much everyone – male and female – have their bodies completely covered. Even short sleeves are somewhat uncommon. The only exception I saw were a few Asians picnicking at the Jeddah Cornich who wore shorts and tank tops. This is probably mostly due to modesty, but also the sun.
Saudi Arabia is a very quiet country. There is little chatter of crowds. People don’t talk much, and when they do, they speak quietly. I, unfortunately, had very few interactions with Saudis (aside from prolonged arguments with Saudi Avis). The only people who initiated conversations with me were immigrants; I spoke with at least one Filipino, Egyptian, Sudanese, and Indian.
Given the rarity of tourists, I was actually surprised by how little attention I got. I received far more looks in Egypt, Iraq, and East Asia. In my few conversations with Saudis, they were always polite, though not especially friendly.
Stone Cold Negotiators
Saudis are good negotiators. I’ve been to bazaars all over the world, and Riyad’s was the first where the merchants successfully stonewalled me on price negotiations. I know they do negotiate, but they pinged me perfectly when I wanted a knickknack and was willing to pay for it.
Saudi taxi/Uber drivers were similar. They were more open to negotiation, but quite good at it.
I watched a bit of Saudi television during scorching hot daytime hours. I was surprised at how much violence and gore they permit on regular tv, easily the equivalent of R-rated movies. Of course, there was absolutely no sexuality, and even kissing was removed from movies. I didn’t watch it, but the movie, The Other Woman was on tv… I have no idea what the point of watching that without sexuality would be.
I saw numerous tv commercials for Neom. They didn’t provide much info, just shiny graphics and reassurances that Neom is indeed being built.
All television programs stop for daily prayers. They have a pretty cool graphic for it too.
A movie theater in Riyadh had three categories of tickets, the most expensive of which was 110 riyals (almost $30). The first category was about half that price.
Saudi cinemas have movies showing into the early morning. The latest I saw started at 3:50 AM. I believe this is a product of Middle Eastern social times being shifted later due to the extreme heat. In Iraq, it’s fairly common for people to go out until 4 or 5 AM.
As far as I can tell, Saudi Arabia does not have urinals. My guess – urinals are extremely inconvenient to use with the traditional Saudi outfit, which resembles a robe with no opening.
- Saudi Arabia has a surprising amount of weird abstract public sculptures, presumably because Islam prohibits the artistic portrayal of people.
- Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries on earth with no natural rivers.
- Saudi cars make a beeping sound whenever they go above 120 kpm (confirmed via multiple vehicles).
- Some stores and restaurants (including a McDonald’s) still have walls going through their centers to divide men and women. The division is no longer enforced, but I guess it’s expensive to remove all of those walls.
- It is still illegal in Saudi Arabia to sell red roses because they are connected to Valentine’s Day, and Valentine’s Day encourages infidelity. (This has been reversed)
- Saudi Arabia has a surprisingly high private gun ownership rate for a theocratic authoritarian state. The Riyadh bazaar had a lot of gun holsters for sale.
- I saw a guy face-off against a baboon in an outdoor shopping center. The baboon was in the man’s path, so the man chucked a water bottle at him. The baboon flinched and then feigned an attack at the man with a charge, but the man held his ground. The man then advanced on the baboon and the baboon fled. Humanity wins again.
- I saw one young woman with no head or face covering wearing a nose ring. She appeared to be a local Saudi.
- I did not enter a structure in Saudi Arabia that didn’t have air conditioning. This was almost the opposite of the case in Egypt and Iraq.
- Saudi malls have stores that sell traditional Saudi clothes, but also a surprising amount of ordinary western female clothing. I saw quite a few lingerie stores, but that makes sense – conservative women can wear lacey bras for their conservative husbands in the privacy of their own homes. But who in Saudi Arabia is buying short skirts or blouses with cleavage? I mean, yes, I’m sure there are wealthy Saudis who flout the rules with their Instagram babes, but are there enough of those guys to finance all of these stores?
- The day before publishing this, Saudi Arabia won a huge upset over Argentina in the World Cup. In response, King Salman gloriously declared a national holiday for Saudi workers.
25 thoughts on “Notes on Saudi Arabia”
I have not read the entire thing, but it was fun for the most part learning about the perspective of an outsider. I find the part about economy and oil very intriguing. This might finally push me to read that large book about oil and power, The Prize.
The criticism you have is mostly on point besides the anti-fun part. I think the idea of what is fun is subjective anyway. The infrastructure is indeed not there. I am also not so fond of the Dubai model. The thing with tourism is that I think the main goal is to encourage local tourism and discourage citizens from traveling outside the kingdom. That way people will spend their money here rather than spending it abroad. It is of course more complicated than that since a lot of the entertainment is imported whether it is WWE, singers, etc.
A lot of what I read is pretty biased, but it’s not like this is written for a thesis, so it’s fine. There is some misinformation though. A weird one is about the selling of red roses. I actually have bought red roses before and never heard of such rule or that someone could not buy them. Another one is the legal age of marriage. I am not sure what it is, but it is definitely less than 18 since I married my wife a few months before she turned 18. That was a couple years ago, but I don’t think I would have missed the news about it if it changed.
Red roses ban – looks like it has been reversed, I’ll edit that.
Legal age of 18 for marriage – There are a lot of articles on the reform being implemented in late 2019, though others say that people can still get married under 18 if they get special permission from the court. I’m not saying I don’t believe you, it’s possible the foreign press is getting it wrong, or you got married before the deadline. I’ll make a clarification edit.
Hey. Thanks for the reply. I wanted to add a few more points since you responded.
Amusement parks were always there. Cinemas and music concerts appeared out of nowhere with the “reform.” Also, the part about music being prohibited in Islam is not just related to Hanbalism or “Wahhabism,” there is consensus from the four main schools that it is Haram. The government might say what they want and make the rule they want, but it doesn’t make it true. And it’s not like they are doing it out of goodwill. It’s to direct some of people’s time and minds towards these entertainment events and away from the bad stuff happening.
An interesting point is that there were few cinemas inside closed compounds way before the “reform.” It doesn’t count though as most people could not go there.
Another point is about welfare. Normal people don’t receive money for doing nothing. I would be pretty upset if I knew I can get that oil money without working. It is true that we get a stipend during college. That’s one of the good things the government does. The unemployment money is kind of complicated and not that easy to get. I wouldn’t say it’s a lot of money either.
It’s true that we have been riding the oil money wave for so long without any real efforts to diversify. I would not defend the people and say they want to work hard rather than having it easy, but a change has to happen anyway.
Thanks again for the comment, I’ll make a few notes in the essay. I’m curious about your background. I’m assuming you’re Saudi?
Music in Islam – Wikipedia says the halal-ness of music is “historically disputed.” I’m not doubting your claim, but I’ll defer to Wikipedia since this is beyond my paygrade.
“And it’s not like they are doing it out of goodwill. It’s to direct some of people’s time and minds towards these entertainment events and away from the bad stuff happening.” – That’s interesting, basically a “bread and circuses” policy.
“Normal people don’t receive money for doing nothing.” – I had trouble finding info on precise Saudi welfare policies, but I’d dispute this claim. I take your word that Saudis don’t get lump sum payments for doing nothing (like a UBI), but they get subsidies on fuel, housing, food, water, etc, via various direct and indirect means. And while government word isn’t quite “doing nothing,” I’m sure a lot of it is rather unproductive but commands inflated wages.
These “Notes on” posts have become my favorite emails to get. Please keep it up.
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For an outsider perspective, I found this fairer and more impartial than the typical discourse in western media and social media when it comes to Saudi Arabia. It’s well written and a great read. I actually learned quite a bit about history too.
As a city dweller, I can provide some insights on how things were before the recent reforms.
Indeed amusement parks were previously available with two attendance policies, one allowing only women and children, and the other allowing men accompanying their families and all women, but not single men. Some parks applied either policies depending on the day of the week. Similarly, malls at times allowed single men entry only on one or two days of the week.
Previously, most working Saudi women were in education. There were also female doctors as you have mentioned. And a small minority worked in the private sector, mostly financial.
But nowadays young women have more opportunities, arguably better than men, considering that the government is incentivizing hiring women.
Regarding what we do for fun. Most people I know spend their free time with families and friends at their homes or chalets, or go out with them to restaurants, malls, or cafes.
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Jamal Khashoggi was also an intelligence and antiterrorism official in Nayef bin Sultan’s staff, and likely knew too much. That is more likely to have prompted his murder than his journalism. My cousin was his lawyer and described Khashoggi as appealingly idealistic but surprisingly naive given his professional background. That was probably also why he was so liked by the Washington establishment beyond his actual influence and why it reacted so badly, compared to other such crimes by unsavory allies or clients, like the murder of Orlando Letellier in Washington itself by Pinochet’s Chile.
>Muhamad Bin Nayef (NBS)
Surely he is MBN?
Fixed, thanks. My brain has this thing where it shuts off when I see acronyms.
Love these posts!
The NEOM is still so perplexing. I have no explanation other than dictators sometimes just build big expensive dumb things. However, perhaps your point about how unwalkable Saudi cities are may be part of its motivation.
Saudi Arabia’s push toward expanding its economy to be non-oil is also interesting. Perhaps with the labor force participation, it’s most relevant to look at the numbers for people under 40. If those are high and sustained, the older non-working population will just die out. In either case, just jump-starting a middle- or high-income country just seems so hard, even without this labor force participation issue.
Also, your post also writes “Vision 2020” in a couple places, where I presumed you meant “Vision 2030”?
Fixed Visions, thanks.
Good point on the labor age.
I grew up in Jeddha from 1979 to 1986. We lived in a foreign compound (this is my old house: 21.556717,39.127617). Near us was an amusement park where we went frequently (طريق الكورنيش،, Ash Shati, Jeddah 23413, Saudi Arabia). I don’t recall it only being for foreigners, so I also disagree that there were no amusement parks. But otherwise these notes are 100% spot on. It was hell for my mother.
Well, now I’m the top Saudi Arabia expert in my meatspace circles.
I love this “Notes on…” series.
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I lol’d at the Avis debacle. In my experience Avis are incompetent scumbags even in western countries, but the level of incompetence seemingly correlates with the degree of backwardness of the country.
One of my favorite things is getting a notification in my inbox that you’ve posted a 90 min read on a random place you’ve visited. Great read as usual – always enjoy how you weave history and politics into your travels.
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