The CEO of a large American information technology (IT) company has some long-term business experience in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, through several defense contracts, but is interested in expanding his IT investments to the Saudi civilian sector as well. His first experience with the latter has proved disappointing because, as negotiations progressed, it became evident that a potential Saudi partner had a hidden agenda to control the defense-related business in Saudi Arabia of this U.S. company in addition to becoming a partner in new areas. Nonetheless, the American CEO wants to continue exploring the Saudi investment environment still further and has hired a reliable American consultant outside his own company for this purpose.
Since this expansion is to take place soon, if at all, the CEO needs an accurate assessment of economic and political risks for American entrepreneurs outside the defense sector in the Kingdom, including domestic instability in major cities. Of course, he is also sensitive to local business pitfalls, as in his past experience with an overly ambitious Saudi candidate for partnership, but such behavior is a universal problem not confined to the kingdom, chiefly Riyadh and Jeddah. What he desperately needs for his future decisions is a reliable political and economic risk analysis.
The consultant selected by this CEO is a private researcher experienced in Arab affairs, not influenced by outside prejudices such as a special sympathy for Israel or Christian zealotry. In addition to the latter’s Middle East expertise, it also helps that he has past professional exposure to the erosion of another non-Middle Eastern authoritarian myth structure—which Saudi Arabia surely is—the Soviet Union and its immediate aftermath. As already noted, the person selected should not be overly influenced by past government experience and official American mind-sets that often lead to perspectives warped by elitist preconceptions—both Saudi and American—of what constitutes expertise in analyzing the Kingdom’s problems. This consultant will produce, hopefully, “the plain, unvarnished truth” for the CEO’s eyes only. For the consultant, this means working with personal contacts in various areas of Saudi society and tailoring his reports to the CEO’s requirements, and it also necessitates a deconstruction of the formidable myth structure put in place to shield the kingdom from foreigners who are intent on the kind of analysis the CEO’s consultant wishes to do.
Today’s dramatic policies of young prince Mohammad bin Salman, son of the king, represent the most extreme steps yet taken by the Royal Family to assure the United States and the rest of the world, which now seem totally under his control, and which now stands ready to guide foreign investors away from old conservative mythologies—veritable mirages—about the Kingdom into imaginative realms of a renewed Saudi Arabia freed from political myths of exclusiveness and toward technological cities seemingly devoid of old images of Islamic intolerance and political repression. After all the years of a rigid religious orthodoxy led by an exclusive band of royal brothers in a highly repressive political system, could this new vision be anything more than another mirage to cover Saudi Arabia’s pressing need to attract substantial foreign investment in its economy?
The first hurdle the consultant must overcome, therefore, is the omnipresent danger of mirage in the Arabian political desert. This myth structure rests on the story of the triumphal emergence of the modern Saudi nation-state from a Bedouin society over the past three-quarters of a century. Its founder, Ibn Saud, himself a Najdi tribal chieftain from the rocky desert soil of the central Arabian Peninsula, consolidated the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during the 1920s and 1930s with British government assistance, including the Royal Air Force, and American private investment in its vast petroleum resources. The founders of the state, therefore, belong to a single family of a father and his twelve sons (by multiple wives), the House of Saud, who quickly ensured that absolute power of government and resources would rest with this family in perpetuity, in the process creating a wealthy oil-rich state with ostensibly happy citizenry content to worship Allah under the purest possible Salafi doctrine, protecting the holy places of Mecca and Madinah with a conservative religious leadership thankful for such royal largesse in the propaganda in the one true faith. Vast political and economic power was duly appointed, without opposition, by an expanding royal progeny of the prolific Ibn Saud. Stability in the kingdom was ensured by the seemingly unanimous and enthusiastic consensus of tribal elders, religious teachers and commoners empowering the al-Saud with a divine entitlement, all with British and American backing, as perpetual guardians of the sacred space called Saudi Arabia—this according to Saudi mythology largely embraced by London and Washington.
The oil economy designed to sustain the mission of the House of Saud, as guardian of the holy places of Mecca and Medina, is based on principles of private property and business entrepreneurship, official proclamations declare, providing an economic milieu where American and other investors can feel at home, given the historic hospitality showed by Saudis to private business, and there will be little monetary risk to outsiders if good partnerships can be arranged—the more lucrative using powerful princes as indispensable, well-compensated patrons. Foreign firms will find Arabia to be a proverbial land of milk and honey; it has been promised as long as Saudi etiquette and customs are strictly observed regarding not only behavior toward Saudis in general but special deference to the Royal Family as first priority.
The latter caveat about appropriate protocol in the Kingdom, of course, is all-important and brings us to the point where, as with the man in the desert parched with thirst, we might mistake the mirage for water without proper guidance. Mindful of the ominous admonitions in the Quran’s famous Parable of Light, about such confusion, the Saudis provide what they claim is dependable guidance to foreigners in their seemingly impenetrable culture.
Guidance for strangers in Saudi culture has proven all the more necessary because periodic domestic disturbances against the Royal Family and its foreign guests seem to unexpectedly occur, such as the societal discord shortly after 9/11. Explosions rocked Riyadh and the Royal Family moved quickly to shore-up their myth structure. We were assured that the stern measures would be taken against Saudi trouble-makers after the traumatic events in New York and Washington. Indeed, Riyadh would take draconian steps, not only against Saudi trouble-makers but also Iranians and the citizenry of Yemen, long-time Shiite enemies of tranquility in the oil kingdom—all these draconian measures in the name of the fight against terrorism.
Today’s dramatic policy proposals of the young Saudi crown have attracted the enthusiastic attention of the Trump administration with the president’s young son-in-law now having singular access to the crown prince into the early morning hours. Yet, among those who are victimized by mirages in the desert, are those tired travelers who begin to imagine cool, refreshing water where there is none. But Saudi leaders, as self-professed strict followers of the Holy Quran, the Salafin, apparently do not accept the old saying, “Where ignorance is bliss; tis folly to be wise.” Quite the contrary: this worldview is self-destructive and dangerous for national well-being. The Saudis seem to know where they are headed with this ‘’new look”; but, do we? Another mirage for thirsty travelers searching for the cool waters of peace in the region? Or signs of real change in the Royal Family’s skills at mirage?
Robert J. Pranger
Defense and Security, U.S. Foreign Policy
Robert J. Pranger is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Middle East and an advisor on foreign policy issues.