Tag Archives: Saudi Arabia
It seems incredible that almost a decade separates the date of this blog post and the beginning of the Iraq War, almost indisputably the most controversial military operation in the first decade or so of the twentieth century; bewilderingly and despite its recency, there is still much about it that is uncertain. There are profound disagreements over the precise reasons that the United States – ultimately joined, though mostly symbolically, from forces spanning nearly forty countries – pursued this conflict, and it remains to be seen whether the incredible fiscal drain placed on America’s resources, conservatively estimated at US$3trn by Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz, will prove to be a burden of decisive proportions.
But one thing is becoming ever-clearer: the geopolitical effect of military engagement in Iraq has been to turn one of the largest oil producers in the world into a state with a symbiotic relationship with Iran. In fact, so strong is the bond between Iraq and Iran – neighbours locked in a one million casualty conflict of their own for much of the 1980s – that the two countries are now forming an alliance with OPEC to counter Saudi Arabian influence within that organisation. This is particularly significant because despite Saudi Arabia’s dire international image, it is perceived as a reliable partner when it comes to pumping sweet, black crude out of the ground and supplying it to world markets with few questions asked; Iran, much like Venezuela, is keener to utilise the political potential of OPEC towards its own geostrategic goals.
Naturally, this feeds back into the United States’ present economic predicament, which is characterised by sensational levels of wealth destruction and, in the form of astonishing quantities of monetary printing, desperation; the last thing that the energy-intensive American economy needs is for the price of its key production and transportation input to undergo a structural increase in price because of a shift within the dynamics of OPEC. Yet that is precisely what it is being confronted with, the irony being that the status quo of the early 2000s would have precluded such an outcome.
The emergency of Turkey in recent years as a regional power – possibly one with world power pretentions – has generated rainforests worth of coverage and analysis, with many commentators adducing a ‘Turkish model’ that is purportedly at the heart of the country’s rapid ascent. As we have previously alluded to on this blog, we at Mediolana are not quite sure what this model is comprised of: the oft-repeated claim that Turkey offers supposedly unique proof of the compatibility of democracy and the Islamic religion conveniently overlooks Muslim-majority democratic states as diverse as Senegal and Indonesia, while Turkey’s outstanding economic progress of the past decade has been exacted at a fairly high ecological cost and is therefore difficult to cite as a model (though notwithstanding this, there are numerous impressive elements to it).
However, a series of intriguing developments during the past month or so has left us wondering whether the real Turkish model is located in a rather different sphere: religious authority. The start point of this hypothesis is Kuwait, where on 15th March 2012 Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Abd al-’Aziz al-Ashaikh, prompted by a question posed by a delegation from a Kuwaiti NGO by the name of the Society of the Revival of Islamic Heritage, declared that all churches on the Arabian peninsula should be levelled.
Despite resembling a scenario from the classic sixth-generation console title Destroy All Humans: One Giant Step On Mankind! rather than a considered religious injunction, the grand mufti’s statements were not essentially surprising given that the connection between Saudi Arabia and extremist ideologies is probably the worst-kept secret in the world. By contrast, what has been a genuine surprise is the sustained, detailed and public contradiction of the grand mufti’s opinion by two eminent Turks.
Firstly, Professor Dr. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu – the current Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and a man the length of whose CV shames most telephone directories – provided a comprehensive rebuttal of al-Ashaikh’s statement on the basis of sharīʿah law, pointing out that the skylines of major cities in the Islamic world such as Damascus, Istanbul, Baghdad and Cairo are studded with historic churches and synagogues as well as mosques; İhsanoğlu invited al-Ashaikh to ‘amend’ his erroneous position.
The professor’s rejection of the grand mufti’s opinion was echoed by Mehmet Görmez, the head of Diyanet, Turkey’s highest religious body. Görmez quoted one of Muḥammad’s many notable sayings on the status of other denominational groups within Muslim societies to illustrate the illogicality of the grand mufti’s sentiments: ‘Those who persecute non-Muslims living under the authority of Muslims persecute me. And who persecutes me, persecutes God.’
The significance of these occurrences will doubtless be clear to anyone who follows Middle Eastern affairs. By openly and convincingly defying the position taken by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, İhsanoğlu and Görmez – intentionally or otherwise – are creating a space for their country in the domain of religious leadership.
This has potentially enormous consequences. For over thirty years, Saudi Arabia and Iran have vied for regional dominance and influence over the Islamic world more generally, but both nations are hamstrung by two partially interconnected factors: neither country has Sunni Islam – followed by between 75% and 90% of the world’s Muslims – as its orthodoxy, and neither state can presently vaunt much in the way of soft power. The reverse is the case for Turkey, a largely Sunni Muslim country with soft power assets ranging from industrial might to soap operas; indeed, according to a 2011 survey published by the Arab American Institute Foundation, Turkey is evaluated ‘favourably’ or ‘very favourably’ by no less than 98% of the Saudi population. The emergence of a Turkish model of religious authority with real international potency can no longer be ruled out.
The similarities between Spain and Saudi Arabia may prima facie be scarce, but there is at least one thing that both states share : structural youth unemployment that is off the scale. But while the troubled eurozone member’s 18-25 unemployment rate of around 50% is increasingly well-recognised, few are aware of the fact that despite an era of stellar oil prices, Saudi Arabia’s demographic of the young and jobless is almost as large: an official jobless rate of 10.6% veils the fact that the KSA has the highest number of unemployed youth in North Africa and the Middle East.
And this matters not merely as what King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud has defined – presumably with one eye on the Arab Spring – as the nation’s ‘number one national security problem’; with a significant percentage of its known oil reserves already exploited, Saudi Arabia is going to have to build a conventional economy if it is not going to be relegated to the margins of the international community.
Enter the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology or KAUST, an acronym reminiscent of the classic nineteenth century opera Faust yet symbolising an even more profound cultural shift: the transition of an austerely radical Wahhabi state into the knowledge economy. A US$10bn endowment from no less a figure than the present ruler of Saudi Arabia himself, a university which was established as recently as 2009 increasingly looks set to feature as a viable choice for international graduate students: inside a campus of world-class laboratories and information networks is nothing less than another society: the religious police are notable by their absence, and the virtually unique gender segregation and clothing requirements that are the hallmark of Saudi society do not apply.
However, can KAUST and other similar projects resolve the Saudi unemployment conundrum? We at Mediolana are uncertain. As countless other commentators have noted, there is no lack of jobs in the KSA: what is missing is the willingness of anyone other than foreigners – whether they be from the Indian subcontinent, South-East Asia, or Europe and North America – to do them. In employment patterns seemingly deriving inspiration from Blade Runner, entry-level jobs are dominated by those hailing from largely poor Asian nations, while Westerners living in gated compounds generally enjoy unusually favourable remuneration; those Arabs thirsty for employment are often Egyptian or Sudanese.
And a cursory look at KAUST shows this institution exemplifying this pattern: the university is headed by Professor Shih Choon Fong, a Singaporean national who has been credited with catapulting his home nation’s National University (‘NUS’) into the global educational elite; meanwhile, despite KAUST’s location on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast, KSA nationals are placed only third in terms of overall enrolment, being numerically eclipsed by those students bearing passports from China and Mexico. Evidently, it will take much more than exemplary facilities and good intentions to stop the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology from becoming an international institution which does little to assist Saudi Arabia’s potentially troubled transition from oil exporter to knowledge creator.