On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future
By Karen Elliott House
The fragility of Saudi society is often attributed solely to its dependency on oil revenues. This is an oversimplification. Today, Saudi Arabia is facing problems that have been built into the very fabric of its society for hundreds of years. Indeed, long before oil was discovered, the Arabian Peninsula was held together by a combination of faith and the ruler’s largess. In exchange for accepting the rule of the monarch, Saudis mostly stayed out of popular politics.
Saudi Arabia’s social contract hinges on the mutual legitimization of religious and secular power. This duality is no coincidence. Muhammad bin Saud, who founded the first Saudi state in 1744, sought to unite a disparate group of tribes spread over the vast Arabian Peninsula into a single entity. This required casting off Ottoman rule, and to do so, he needed a unified force. To overcome the multiplicity of tribal inte