MONEY can buy many things: luxury, influence, security–and even time. How frustrating, then, to be vastly rich but never quite to get what you want. Such is the dilemma faced by the world’s richest family, the Al Sauds of Saudi Arabia.
Their kingdom has sold the rest of the world around $US1 trillion-worth of oil in the past three years alone, accumulating a hoard of sovereign assets nearly as big as its GDP of $US745 billion. Immense new investments in infrastructure, industry, health care and education are spreading that wealth by the shovelful. A new underground-railway system for the capital, Riyadh, is to be dug, not one line at a time but all at once, with six full lines due to open by 2018. And this is just one rail project among many. The kingdom is to spend around $US30 billion on mass transit for the cities of Jeddah and Mecca, as well as $US12 billion on a high-speed link running 450km (280 miles) from Mecca to Medina, in addition to billions more on a national freight network.
Yet rather than the ebullience you might expect, the mood among Saudi Arabia’s 30m residents (a third of whom are foreign workers and their dependants) is one of nagging unease. Even as shiny new buildings, universities, “financial centres” and entire cities sprout, the machinery of government has remained as creakily top-down and tangled in red tape as ever. And even as Saudis grow ever more sophisticated and worldly–about 160,000 of them are studying abroad on government scholarships, and those left behind are among the world’s heaviest internet addicts–social, political and religious strictures remain stifling.
“The government keeps people quiet with money, and in the rare cases where that doesn’t work, with threats,” says a diplomat in Riyadh. “But this is not a happy place.” For one thing, ordinary Saudis have no say in where the money is spent. All too often what they see, following the much-trumpeted princely opening of each new project, is vast empty buildings and unused facilities. What they hear is tales of which privileged courtier or business mogul has pocketed how much.
Despite sharp polarisation between arch-religious conservative Saudis and more progressive types, there is general agreement on two points. One is that this is no time to rock the boat: the violence and unrest provoked elsewhere by the Arab spring have largely spooked Saudis into sullen silence.
The other is that the kingdom’s leadership is adrift. King Abdullah, now at least 90, is seen as beholden to a small circle of advisers and sons, with rival courts surrounding the 83-year-old crown prince, Salman, and other contenders for the succession. Amid the intrigue and jockeying, what stands out is a lack of imagination or vision. “At their age, they can’t face a curve ball, or a googly, if you prefer the cricket terminology,” says a Jeddah businessman.
Saudi Arabia’s neighbours and allies, too, are increasingly wary. Their concern is not just about internal strains. In recent years Saudi foreign policy has grown both more assertive and more erratic. It has achieved some modest successes. Long fearful of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose many quiet supporters in the kingdom represent one of the few potential threats to their own control, the Al Sauds strongly backed their removal from government in Egypt. Forceful Saudi intervention in neighbouring Bahrain also bolstered a friendly Sunni ruling family against what the Saudis perceived as a dangerous, Iranian-influenced Shia uprising.
Saudi officials see themselves as having bested such rivals for regional influence as Iran and Qatar in those rounds. Yet Bahrain and Egypt remain both unstable and dependent on continuing Saudi largesse. Meanwhile, Saudi efforts to influence other regional contests, for instance in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, have gone much less smoothly. The kingdom has been unable to match the determination, diplomatic skill or even financial investment that Iran has wielded to bolster its proxies in those fights. Worse yet, many of the clients it has favoured have turned out to be unreliable at best, or murderously fanatical at worst.
“They have too narrow a bandwidth,” judges a foreign diplomat. “It’s barely enough to run their own country, let alone an ambitious regional agenda.” It is not merely against their foes that the Saudis have stumbled of late. An initiative by the kingdom to push the Gulf Co-operation Council, a six-country club of rich Arab monarchies, towards political union was quickly torpedoed by Oman in December, much to the quiet relief of other members.
More bruisingly, the Saudis also felt rejected by their oldest and strongest ally, America, when Barack Obama’s administration failed to seize what they viewed as a golden opportunity to clobber Bashar Assad, Syria’s ruler, after he used chemical weapons against rebel suburbs of Damascus in August. In apparent anger, the kingdom took the unprecedented step of declining a seat in the UN Security Council. “We used to be known for riyalpolitik,” quips the businessman from Jeddah. “But now what we do is piquepolitik.”
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