The presence of fifteen Saudis among the nineteen 9/11 hijackers marked a turning point in the way Saudi Arabia was perceived in the United States, a shift perhaps best summed up by the expression “Saudi bashing.” Books about the country, which till then had been rare, multiplied, and showed more propaganda than serious study. After arduous researches, American investigative journalists discovered that Saudi Arabia was a theocratic country, that women were segregated, that fundamental freedoms weren’t respected, that there were no elections. One neoconservative actually called for military operations against the country, which was regarded as the main propagator of “Islamic terrorism,” and even suggested partition, with the eastern region–oil-rich and mainly Shiite–to be placed under US control.
Abdelhamed al-Ghathami, a professor of literary theory at King Saud University in Riyadh who readily quotes Derrida and Foucault, is still surprised at what he discovered while teaching in the United States in the 1990s. “Americans didn’t know anything about Saudi Arabia. They thought the country was just a desert and some Bedouins. They didn’t know we had cities, or that middle classes existed. After September 11 they saw us as the quintessence of evil. Our entire society is identified with terrorism. When the Japanese Red Army carried out its attacks, did people make Japan bear all the responsibility? This simplistic view feeds terrorism, since radical groups can claim that the United States is targeting not terrorism but our society as a whole–Arabs, Islam itself. Even more so when we hear Americans calling for the nuclear bombing of Mecca, or denouncing the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist.”
Saudi Arabia deserves better than this simplistic treatment. One must be aware not just of its political system and of the place of Islam but also of the changes the country is undergoing. To understand Saudi Arabia, one must first examine the society and its complex relationships to power.
The accession to the throne of Crown Prince Abdullah last July, after a long period of regency during King Fahd’s illness, has raised people’s hopes greatly, all the more so since the country is riding a wave of rising oil prices: Revenue from oil more than doubled between 2003 and 2005, to more than $500 million a day. The stock market, which shot up by 100 percent in 2004 and by another 100 percent in 2005, has become a source of income for a growing number of households (even if the index has fallen 32 percent from its February peak, and 22.5 percent from its close at the end of 2005). In December 2005 5.7 million Saudis bought shares in the National Petrochemical Company in Yanbu, for a total of almost $2 billion.
The country has changed profoundly since the first oil crisis, in 1973-74. Each day, Riyadh nibbles up a few more acres of sand. Its wide avenues, almost highways, unfurl in every direction. “Just a few years ago there was nothing here,” people will tell you in the heart of an ultramodern neighborhood, a carbon copy of an American one, with huge malls, luxury boutiques, Internet cafes and McDonald’s. In a few dozen years real estate prices have multiplied many times over. Tall buildings are rare; those who have the means–and there are many–prefer the open spaces around detached houses to highrise apartment buildings. Only mosques raise their minarets to attack the sky. No statue of an “immortal leader” or “supreme savior” breaks the symmetry of the crossroads; here, only God is worshiped.
Day after day, a thousand more people crowd into the kingdom’s capital. It has grown from 111,000 in 1950 to 5.5 million today. In two generations urbanization has changed the face of the Arabian Peninsula and has transformed its nomads into a sedentary population: In 1970 49 percent of the inhabitants of Saudi Arabia lived in cities; by 2005 almost 89 percent did. Thanks to its oil resources, the kingdom has undergone other mutations. Infant mortality, which was almost 170 per thousand at the beginning of the 1960s, has fallen to 10.8 per thousand in 2006. Whereas only 2 percent of girls went to school in 1960, by 2000 94 percent of young women aged 15-24 were literate, and they now constitute more than half of all students–even though they are confined to single-sex universities.