Paul Aarts and Carolien Roelants, Saudia Arabia: A Kingdom in Peril. London: Hurst, 2015.
J: What made you write this book?
Paul Aarts (PA): Two years ago I had a chance to visit Saudi Arabia again (after many years). My co-author Carolien Roelants also managed to get a visa—which is not easy—and separately we interviewed quite a few Saudis, from different backgrounds. I travelled to Jeddah, Riyadh, and the Eastern Province (al-Khobar, Dammam, and Qatif). In Jeddah and in the capital city I talked to Saudi youngsters, bloggers, human-rights activists (among them Waleed Abu al-Khair, now in prison), journalists, and academics. In the Eastern Province I mainly spoke with representatives from the Shi’a community, both the so-called “notables” and the younger part of this disgruntled section of the Saudi population. For her part, Carolien sat mainly with female Saudis (of different backgrounds and ideological orientation), high-raking officials, and several prominent artists. She wrote her experiences down for the newspaper where she was working (NRC Handelsblad) and I wrote a few more academic pieces. To reach a wider audience, we put a book together. It was published first in Dutch (Saoedi-Arabië. De revolutie die nog moet komen, 2013), and two years later, it was revised and updated in English. During the last two weeks of 2015 I visited the country again, collecting material for the second updated edition of the book in Dutch.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
PA: Almost any topic you might think of has been touched upon in the book: politics (to be more specific, the relation between the House of Saud and the Wahhabi establishment, as well as the different oppositional currents); economics (the impact of low oil prices and shale oil/gas in the US, and unemployment and poverty issues in Saudi Arabia); the increased importance of social media (and the use of this by the conservative clergy in particular); the task of modern art in the Kingdom; women’s issues; the education system; the underprivileged position of the Shi‘a and their political struggle against this situation; the succession struggle within the House of Saud; Saudi Arabia’s counter-revolutionary strategy in the MENA region after the Arab uprisings; and finally, we sketched a few scenarios for the future—including “total implosion.”
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
PA: My previous work was largely limited to academia. The most important publication has been the edited volume I did with Gerd Nonneman eleven years ago: Saudi Arabia in the Balance: Political Economy, Society, Foreign Affairs (Hurst, 2005)—which was also translated into Arabic and published by the Centre for Arab Unity Studies in Beirut. After that I wrote several articles in academic journals. The present book is clearly less academic and aims to reach a much broader audience. The fact that I worked together with a (very experienced) journalist speaks for itself in this regard. A recent review (by Malise Ruthven) in the Financial Times, which describes the book as “a lively narrative that conveys a wealth of information in an easily accessible way,” shows that we seem to have succeeded. This review stimulated us to offer the book for translation to publishers in Beirut and Tehran—which will result in an Arabic and a Persian edition in the course of this year.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
PA: As indicated above, anybody who takes an interest in this enigmatic kingdom might learn from this book, though most likely the non-specialist will profit more. What the book certainly tries to do is give a balanced, though critical, analysis of Saudi Arabia’s domestic and external challenges—without joining the one-sided “Saudi-bashing choir” that seems to grow by the day.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
PA: As both Carolien and myself are retired, we are free to take up whatever we like. My co-author has a weekly column on Middle-Eastern issues in NRC Handelsblad and works as a senior editor for the website Fanack.com. There is not one (big) project I am myself working on these days, but I do regularly write pieces on the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, with a particular focus on the Iraqi-Syrian theatre, trying to make sense of Islamic State’s role in all this. Apart from that I am involved in Track-II initiatives related to Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Excerpt from Saudi Arabia: A Kingdom in Peril
“It Is Time to Listen to Saudi Youth”—this was the heading of an op-ed in the Saudi Gazette. It was a cri de coeur about the huge problem of the disproportionately large number of young people in Saudi Arabia. The Arab Spring has highlighted this issue yet again. It was indeed the younger generation that made up the greater part of the jam-packed squares in various Arab capitals calling for the fall of the regime. After the initial euphoria, these youthful revolutionaries have experienced little but disappointments. The fact that the younger generation was present en masse was not in itself surprising, because the Middle East has a very young population—the youngest in the world after Africa.
Two-thirds of the indigenous population in Saudi Arabia are under thirty. In the coming ten to twenty years this will present the country with considerable economic, social and possibly political problems. Between 1950 and 2013 the population has expanded from three million to around thirty million—a tenfold increase. The demographic profile is unlikely to change in the coming period; the average age will stabilize at around thirty, but only by 2026.
In other words, by then “merely” half the population will be under thirty. To what extent does this youth boom pose a serious threat to stability?
Poverty in the Country of Black Gold
At first sight there do not seem to be many clouds on the horizon. Saudi Arabia has huge oil reserves—the second largest in the world (after Venezuela)—and due to the reasonably high price of oil in the period between 2005 and 2014 the national monetary reserves rose to around $750 billion in 2014—though in the meantime they have tumbled ten percent, or by more than $70 billion. In 2013 the state had earned $278 billion from oil exports; in 2014 $246 billion. Enormous sums like this, however, do not mean very much in themselves. In terms of gross domestic product per capita Saudi Arabia ($31,245) is lagging behind neighboring states such as Qatar ($98,814), Kuwait ($39,706), and Bahrain ($34,584).
A sizable part of the state revenues is siphoned off by the secret but undoubtedly colossal expenses of the royal family, which has proliferated to around seven thousand or eight thousand princes and princesses, all of whom receive a monthly allowance varying from a couple of thousand to more than $250,000.
Defense outlays, which are also guarded by secrecy, account for a similarly large slice of the revenues from oil. According to the estimates of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Saudi Arabia has spent eight to ten per cent of its gross domestic production on the military in recent years. It is a percentage that makes it the number one country in the world; per head of the population, it amounts to more than double the comparable figure spent by the United States and Russia, and is almost five times as much as Great Britain, France and China.
Although there are hardly any official figures available, it is a well-known fact that there is a dramatic inequality of incomes in Saudi Arabia. While the average income per head of the population in 2013 was around SR8,000 ($3,133) a month, a large number of inhabitants have to get by with a much lower income. With the average family in Saudi Arabia amounting to six members, this is barely enough for many people to enjoy a decent existence. It is true that healthcare and education are free, although both these services are frequently of a poor quality, while water, electricity, and petrol are heavily subsidized. For many Saudis life is an everyday struggle to make ends meet.
Is there such a thing as genuine poverty in Saudi Arabia, the country of black gold and skyscrapers gleaming in the sun? Estimates vary and there are no precise figures, but a considerable number of Saudis have a problem just getting by. According to the statistics of the Ministry of Social Services the poverty line is at SR1,800 ($480) a month. One leading economist at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran has made a calculation of his own. “The government’s figures are not really reliable. I reckon that thirty-five percent of the population has to get by with much less than SR2,000 a month ($533). They are poor.” There are also “genuinely” poor people who often have even less of an income. They do not just come from neglected provinces such as Asir, Jizan, and Najran, but from the big cities as well. Al-Suwaidi, al-Jarradiyah, and al-Shimaisi (in Riyadh) and al-Karantina, al-Rowais, and al-Salamah (in Jeddah) are slums that rival each other in notoriety, inhabited not just by extremely poor Saudis but also by foreign workers, who live from charity or, in many cases, from crime. According to some sources the average foreign worker earns as little as 1,000 riyals ($266) a month.
YouTube films have revealed the scale of destitution. “We are being Cheated: Poverty in Saudi Arabia” interviews some desperately poor people in the slums of Riyadh and Jeddah. This material was sensitive enough to get the filmmakers put in jail a few weeks after their film went online. In the summer of 2013 a campaign was launched on Twitter under the hashtag “Salary doesn’t meet my needs.” In the first two weeks it got more than ten million tweets. The popular activist Manal al-Sharif tweeted:
“The government gives money interest-free to Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia and uses a third of the national budget to fund the Riyadh metro scheme. And all the while Saudis spend most of their salaries on rent, private schools, and private hospitals—the public ones often being of inferior quality.”
[Excerpted from Paul Aarts and Carolien Roelants, Saudi Arabia: A Kingdom in Peril, by permission of the authors. © 2015 Hurst Publishers. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]