Saudi Arabia and the Forces of Globalization
Chas W. Freeman, Jr., USFS (Ret.)*
January 1, 1998
The dominant power on the Arabian Peninsula, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, has long been one of the world’s least accessible societies, with a famously inscrutable government. Even Saudi Arabia’s smaller Gulf Arab neighbors, who share ethnic, religious and other ties with the Kingdom but who are separated from it by their heritage as British protectorates, regard it with a mixture of envy, apprehension, and perplexity. Saudi Arabia is, after all, the only non-western polity to have successfully barred intrusion by Euro-American missionaries and soldiers.1 The Saudi monarchy is the only traditional ruling structure to have survived the era of colonialism intact and on its own terms.2 Its oil wealth and the international influence derived from it have made Riyadh the fourth corner of the traditionally triangular Arab East.3 The Kingdom was (with Israel) the only polity to have been successfully established by military conquest in the Twentieth Century.4 (Had the East India Company and its successor British Indian Empire not intervened to suppress piracy and preempt other powers from establishing a foothold in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia’s traditional borders would almost certainly have expanded to include the smaller emirates along the coast of the Persian Gulf and these small polities would have been absorbed by their larger neighbor.)
The Kingdom’s decision-making processes are largely invisible or opaque to those outside the inner circle of its royal family. It continues to defer to the uniquely demanding religious doctrines and social traditions of Wahhabi Islam, which many other Muslims in the region deride as aggressively austere and intolerant. Saudi law and custom forbid the practice of religions other than Islam. Saudi universities do not offer instruction in the Hellenistic philosophical traditions that were at the center of Islamic...