While to many the Middle East tends to focus on Israel and Palestinian Arabs, on Iraq and Kuwait, perhaps the real news of the future will be made not by those ethnically-divided nations, nor by an Egypt, soon to erupt into open Islamic rebellion, but by Iran and Saudi Arabia. “Ever since Napoleon’s expeditionary force landed in Egypt in 1798, the Middle East has been an object of rivalry among the great powers. The discovery by the British of oil in Persia in 1908 added even more to the area’s strategic importance as the gateway between Europe and the Far East.” (Shlaim p. 1) More than a gateway, the Middle East is a repository of the earth’s valuable resources that, for the moment anyway, power the world. The interaction of the nations of this part of the world- the view by the U.S. and NATO- the potential dangers of Islamic militants and the potential of a moderation of Iran’s policies- are vital in the first part of the 21st Century. No matter where you look, the influence of Iran and Saudi Arabia is the balance for the future in this part of the world.
In any discussion of these two nations, two words must be emphasized because they basically are the mainstays of both strength and weakness of Iran and Saudi Arabia: Oil and Islam. In Iran, the fall of the Shah and the development of a theocracy of fundamentalist Islam made Iran basically a pariah among Western nations. Its anti-Western attitudes and its elimination, by force and shame of Western clothes, habits and even Western-style music and education turned Iran inward under Ayatollah Khomeini. The capture and detention of Americans by Iranian students and other ultra-orthodox hotheads further widened the gulf between the U.S. (and the West) and Iran. If it were not for Iran’s valuable oil supplies, the nation might well be considered merely an insignificant player in world politics.
Saudi Arabia is a repressive monarchy, with absolute authority wielded by the descendants of Ibn Saud, placed on the thrown generations ago. Islam plays a vital role in its policies, foreign and domestic. But, its enormous resources of oil is what tends to let Western nations forgive the profligate princes and their gambling, womanizing, their incredibly bad taste (according to Western standards) and their internal policies which continue to place women in near-slave conditions. As fundamentalist Muslims begin to stir up problems within Saudi Arabia, its foreign policy, too, has tempered its former slavish adherence to the will of Western nations, in particular those nations who did the drilling and exploration of oil which has made the nation (and its royal family and some other entrepreneurs) so wealthy.
It is fair to say, however, that of these two nations, the one with the best opportunity to become more important in the world and a better “partner” in the various economic and political activities of the world, Iran has the better chance of being re-admitted to favorable status. In taking a closer look at Saudi Arabia and Iran, we can easily see why this judgment may be valid. However, we must understand both domestic and foreign policies of these nations in light of their basic Islamic, Muslim faith-based interests.
Islam and the modern world.
The fact is that modern Islamic society is seen by most Westerners as a continuation of medieval fanaticism, with conservative views of women and diet, prayer and social obligations that are, at best, “odd”. Other than oil, and middle eastern antagonism and anti-Western hatred by some Islamic groups, modern Islam is not well understood by the average citizen. Yet, it is obvious that religion and nationalism do mix, to some degree. As Max Weber pointed out in his introduction to Sociology of World Religions (1920) “No economic ethic has ever been determined solely by religion…The religious determination of life-conduct, however, is also one…only one, of the determinants of the economic ethic.” (Weber 1)
What needs to be addressed, as well as sociological and economic commentary is the question: “In a world of rapidly developing technology and radically changing social and political institutions, is religion in peril?” (Firth 1) And, if it is, should we be concerned? Is religion still an important part of the world’s civilizations? Islam, it seems, may be the strongest in terms of holding reins on its Muslim followers.
The casual observer looks at Islamic society today, however, and sees veiled women, the fasting during the month of Ramadan, the Islamic Brotherhood and other fanatic anti-Western and anti-Israeli groups. We see the theocracy of Iran, which only now is beginning to moderate. And, we see the Islamic countries in the Middle East use their oil reserves as a political power base, while the Islamic nation of Pakistan now revels in its nuclear capabilities. Actually, “The meaning of ‘Islam’ even when used to denote the religion of Islam is too general and imprecise to be useful in an analytical argument.” (Shalguni 2) In other words, we must differentiate between religion and nationalism, and between nationalism and the economy of Islamic nations.
“Today in most Islamic countries that have deeply absorbed the ‘blows of the West’ cultural schizophrenia has become a paralyzing social phenomenon.” (Shalguni 7) In other words, Islamic countries are torn between their cultural and religious traditions and somehow joining the West in its march toward greater industrialization. What will technology do to these Islamic countries? One sad potential outcome is that technology and industry are in the hands of a very few, including, of course, government officials which means greater polarization between the Haves and the Have-Nots, which could easily develop into serious rebellion in the near future. Westerners interested in defining modern Islam, and using ancient history to do so, are not perceptive and accurate in their definitions of Islam’s role in modern society. What works for the West, does not necessarily translate into an understanding of Islamic societies.
While a moderate newspaper editor was sentenced, this year, as proof that the mullahs still have control in Iran, they are not able to deter the efforts of President Mohammad Khatami to restore Iran to a semblance of a modern non-Islamic republic. It begins, of course, with domestic policies which are changing slowly to restore Iran, in some degree, to a more acceptable nation in the eyes of the rest of the world. Women, which in most Islamic theocracies, are relegated to second-class status, have begun to emerge socially, economically, and politically in modern Iran. Proof of that is that in local elections held last March, “women were reported to be the front-runners in at least 20 cities, and nearly all of the successful female candidates were supporters of Khatami, who has encouraged women to play a bigger role in political life.” (Gazette, p. 1)
If these moderate trends continue, then there will be positive proof that the majority of Iranians want “change rather than clerical conservatism. In elections for city and village councils, the majority of successful candidates are moderates.” (Joffe, p. 11) Of course, this does not mean that suddenly Iran will change all its policies and turn to the West in the manner it was under the late and disliked Shah Reza Pahlevi. And, it does not mean that the majority of women want to eliminate the religious beliefs of Islam, but the terribly restrictive rules and regulations, which are now almost openly flouted by Irani teen-agers, have brought women into the political arena. They have decided that in order to create change, they have to become more politically involved.
The young male fundamentalists, who still retain their past generation’s reverence for Islam, are encouraged by Khatami, even though they may not agree with the increase in women in government. These young people feel that Khatami has brought a new understanding about America to the Iranian people, and that this new view would prevent any further bloodshed, on either side.
Proof of the people’s interest in bolstering Khatami seemed to come at a monster rally at which he spoke in Tehran. It was the occasion of the first anniversary of his election, and there were tens of thousands of people at this rally, mostly young, and among them, many women. “This time no one burned Uncle Sam in effigy. Instead the marchers flowed down….calling for an end to the religious regime’s stranglehold on power. ‘the enemy of our society is prejudice and monopoly,’ shouted a line of young women.” (Montaigne, p. 33) When Khatami began to speak, and a small band started to shout “Death to America”, Khatami silenced the crowd by saying “I prefer to talk about life, not death.”
In foreign affairs, Iran (as in most nations, other than former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Hannan Ashrawi, spokeswoman for the Arab League) is still a male preserve. However, rather than concentrate on gender, perhaps one needs to look at in which direction Iran is turning- and much of that direction lies East- the “new” Russia, Ukraine, and the new an d still uncertain various Soviet republics, with goods to sell and imports to pay for. This is a decided shift from the 1960s and 1970s, when “Iran and Afghanistan sold their natural gas to the USSR at prices far below the going international rate because their alternatives would have been no buyer at all.” (Rubinstein p. 36) Now, Russia’s economy is still in shambles. And, Iran has yet to prove its new moderation to the full satisfaction of potential Western traders. “An ailing Russia and a pariah Iran are now brought together by much more than the overriding strategic considerations that underlay their accommodation in the past.” (Rubinstein p. 38)
As these quotes clearly demonstrate, the basis for this more moderate approach by Iran is, at its core, an economic one. Iran is still reeling and trying to recoup from its murderous war with Iraq in the 1980s. Not only was there heavy loss of life (on both sides, actually), but “by 1987, Iran’s overall war costs were calculated at approximately $350 billion. Moreover wartime damage to urban centers in Western Iran, such as Abadan, Ahvaz, Dezful, and Khorramshahr, caused refugees to flood into Tehran and other cities, further aggravating the housing shortage.” (Metz p xxix) In addition, many of the petroleum producing plants and sites were destroyed or severely damaged, and i6 has taken years for Iran to refurbish and rebuild them. During all the down time, of course, Iran’s oil exports suffered. Obviously, to get out of this economic chaos, Iran could not (and even if it could, the conservative mullahs would have refused) to turn to the West. So, the look was to the East. And, if there is one thing that seems obvious for the future, Iran must concentrate on two important priorities: One, to continue to be a buffer between an economically unstable Russia and the West. This puts Iran in a very strong position- the best of two possible worlds, the Eastern as well as the Western. “Iran (is) conscious of the lack of friends on (its) own borders, and hence (is) committed to policies that would reinforce Moscow’s…” (Rubinstein p. 275) But, the second priority favors more than being a buffer, but a closer look toward Russia and Asia. The opportunity lies in these newly formed former soviet republics (as was mentioned earlier). Iran, of course, is not alone in this. American companies are already hard at work getting access and leasing oil drilling rights in Azerbajian and Kazakhstan. In some of these central Asian areas where the Islamic influence is strong, Iran has a friendly “brotherhood” sympathy factor. But, the vociferous opponents of Islamic militants in some of these republics therefore would do everything possible to discourage Iran from any economic participation. In fact, “there is a coincidence of interest between Russia, Turkey and the West, as well as governments of the newly independent Eurasian nations, that sets them at odds with Iran: all are determined to stop the spread of Islamic fundamentalism among the Muslim populations of the former USSR.” (Rubinstein p. 275)
So, as we have looked at the seeming moderation of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran, again one can suspect that the motives were not merely social or even politically motivated, but propelled by Iran’s aim at seeming more acceptable in Eurasia. The economic battle lines are unfortunately mixed with Islamic faith and fundamentalism, something not unusual in the Near and Middle East these days. Politics and religion make uncomfortable allies. Iran is aware of its recent history of such fundamental “mistakes” in the eyes of the Western world. No doubt, Khatami and his political allies are doing whatever is feasible to erase this militancy from current policies.
“When viewed through Western eyes, Saudi Arabia presents many anomalies. It is a barren land endowed with huge oil wealth; its affluent society places more importance on lineage and blood ties than on personal wealth; and its government is devoted both to rapid modernization and the preservation of an Islamic way of life that is 1,400 years old.” (Long p. xi) While the world knows a few things about this nation, getting a feel for Saudi Arabia is “perhaps the most elusive task for foreign resident and reader alike.” ()Long p. xi)
Saudi Arabia is involved internationally for only one reason- Oil. “Oil was the basic reason for Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented international involvement. Sitting on top of the largest proven reserves of petroleum in the world, and capable of producing oil at very little cost, Saudi Arabia earned $225 billion from oil during the 1970s- over $60,000 per capita. In 1980 alone, oil income amounted to another $95 billion.” (Quandt p. vii) Like it or not, we have to deal and at least pretend to be friendly with one of the most socially and politically repressive nations in the world. We have to deal with a royal family whose spendthrift ways are legendary. Without oil, and the investment of American and other Western corporations, Saudi Arabia would have continued to remain a nomadic nation, surrounded by desert and the enmity of its Islamic neighbors. Except for a common interest in the economics of petroleum, the many OPEC nations, led by Saudi Arabia, would have nothing in common. Oil keeps them together, and allows them to control prices which affect every citizen in the world.
However, as Islamic fundamentalism has spread throughout the Middle East, and into Asia (Indonesia and Pakistan, for example) “politics and religion have often become intertwined” (Simons p 13). As was hinted at, above, in an overview of how Islam plays a role in the policies of both Iran and Saudi Arabia, it must be restated, as political experts have written, that “it is not only Saudi Arabia and the other Muslim states are trapped within the imaginative confines of a single text and the framework of law that flows from it…” (Simons p. 13)
For the most part, the average American knows little about Saudi Arabia, other than the social activities of its wealthy princes, and the fact that the Gulf War cost American lives to protect the oil interests of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. We know, also, that American troops were forced to obey strict Saudi Muslim laws in that country, including having as few women in the Armed Forces there, allowing no alcohol, and having to request permission for American jets to take off, fly over, and even land on Saudi territory while protecting that nation’s interests. It is interesting to note that not a single Saudi army unit seemed closely involved in fighting against Iraq.
Domestically, there is hidden turmoil- hidden, that is, from international view. There are the fundamentalists who seek to find other means of ruling the country than the Saud family. There are Muslim clerics who seek to uphold the strictest laws of the Koran, and whose holy city, Mecca, is removed from any international consideration, other than as a goal for every Muslim to make a hajj- a pilgrimage- there.
The fact remains that Saudi Arabia is not “liked” by international communities. “It is easy to find non-Saudi critics of Saudi Arabia: many people throughout the world are unsympathetic to hand choppings, royal profligacy, the abuse of women, and gross hypocrisy.” (Simons p. 316) But, this dislike of Saudi politics and policies is also threatening the stability of the country from within. Verbal criticism inside and outside the nation, by Saudis, is increasing, as is open rebellion against the status quo from inside the country. “Activists recognize that the Saudi problem is part of a wider predicament in the Arab world, Today’s Arab leaders are either self-elected or inheritors of old regimes. Some Arab governments did not bother to write a constitution. The Koran is said to be the constitution. There is no reason to heed the demands of (more progressive) Arab leaders who can’t stomach the idea that the Arab world cannot become a democracy.” (Simons p. 317)
Far from becoming a democracy, Saudi Arabia is becoming a battleground among the various royal princes. “Trying to predict the identity of new generation of leaders is far more difficult than identifying the problems it will face. Among the sons and grandsons of King Abd-al-Aziz are some who are talented, well educated, and increasingly experienced technocrats; but so long as power remains in the hands of their fathers and uncles, there is no appreciable coalescence of support for any one individual or sibling group of princes.” (Long p. 130)
The West, because it needs Saudi oil, cannot hope to influence or even make any attempt to change the habits and policies of Saudi Arabia. And, what is worse, if somehow the current regime is overthrown by fundamentalist militants, the West will grudgingly have to deal with them, “based on the West’s need to buy oil and the new regime’s need to sell it.” (Long p. 130)
Specialists who continue to study Saudi Arabia feel that change – revolutionary change- will not happen. If anything, any change will be evolutionary. If and when the next generation of Saudis takes over the government, “it is likely to be far more self-assured and more independent of Western and even other Arab political pressures than the current leadership, although it would still proceed cautiously and from consensus.” (Long p. 131)
Repressive as Saudi society and government policies are internally, nevertheless, “over the past century, the Saudi regime has created a solid record of achievement in economic, social, and political development. It has succeeded to a remarkable degree in creating a modern economy and bureaucratic structure while maintaining a traditional Islamic society and political system.” (Long p. 124) While this seems encouraging enough, the fact remains that the nation is Islamic, and, as was mentioned above, is subject to the Koran, not to any man-created constitutional regulations. Many things are done in the name of Islam that would seem horrific to Western eyes. Most recently, for example, the imprisonment of two British nurses, whose lives were spared by international concerns, but, who nevertheless are jailed on what many believed were trumped-up charges of drug use or distribution. In fact, only within the last several years have Saudi women even been able to obtain driver’s licenses. Divorce, of course, is easily obtained by the male-dominated society, and polygamy (while not publicly aired) still exists.
Of concern to both the U.S. and the Saudis is their ability to purchase the most modern weapons, including jet fighters, from the U.S. There was a period during the Reagan administration when the Saudis were truly annoyed with the U.S. Congress’ inability to pass approval of the sale of advanced fighter aircraft. So, the Saudis bought them from the British.
While the world (and some writers) may marvel at the technology that Saudi Arabia is now implementing (including plans for desalinization plants to provide adequate water in the desert nation), “for those on the religious right, modern technology is an agent of the devil, to be rejected for its corrupting, secularizing influence; and social reform, which is tantamount to religious innovation, is heresy.” (Long p. 125)
It is in the area of Human Rights, that Saudi Arabia lags behind the rest of the world, including other Muslim nations. In fact, Saudi Arabia has neither signed nor ratified any of the various International Human Rights “instruments” proposed by the United Nations, among other humanitarian organizations. There is, of course, no way to force a sovereign nation to sign or take part in such human rights pleas.
What is of greatest concern now to the U.S. is the fact that Saudis are not very forthcoming with information about terrorist activities. Members of Congress, for example, complained that “nothing…had served to improve the security of the tens of thousands of US and other foreign personnel in Saudi Arabia. Much less had any real effort been made to address the basic causes of the growing political and religious instability of the Kingdom.” (Simons p. 334)
In essence, then, Saudi Arabia, even with its progress in technology and its economic strength is an unstable nation, according to American observers of the Near and Middle Eastern situation. Unlike the rosy view of David E. Long (see above), others are not so optimistic: “In none of the three great areas essential to the Muslim state- economic, political, religious- is the Kingdom secure. The economy is bedeviled by corruption, reliance on foreign labor, and royal (private and state_ profligacy; the politics by an unrepresentative feudalism indifferent to human rights; the religion by superstition, dogma and a bitter factionalism with deep historical roots.” (Simons p. 334) As Simon points out in his last sentence: “The future of Saudi Arabia is uncertain” (Simons p. 335)
The main problems in looking at Iran and Saudi Arabia are that many in the United States- including its politicians and its foreign service professional simply do not understand the “foreign” and sometimes “alien” approaches to life and government, to the economic as well as religious outlook of these two Muslim-dominated nations. This brings into fore the question of whether we should be as involved as we are in how Saudi Arabia and Iran run their domestic and foreign policies, as long as they are no threat to the security of our nation.
As was seen by the failure of the Gulf War- not in military, but in political terms, the U.S. is not really aware of how this part of the world operates. “The Gulf War (Bush) claimed, ushered in a “New World Order”. But…this new world order reflected the interests of the victors rather than any universal principles of justice or morality.” (Shlaim p. 8)
Several years ago, in the sports world of professional basketball (and television advertising) there was a slogan about superstar Michael Jordan, which proclaimed that “I want to be like Mike”. Everybody wanted to “be like Mike”. In a world view, the U.S. seems to prefer that everybody be “like the U.S.” This, of course, is impossible. American people, American points of view- our social, economical, political, even religious thoughts that shape our everyday lives are totally different from those in other parts of the world. Therefore, it would be a serious mistake to attempt to make over these nations- like Saudi Arabia or Iran- into a clone of America. However, rather than merely “understanding” who and what these nations represent, some sort of accommodation needs to be made to better deal with the differences, and to solve the problems that exist, or are sure to crop up in the near future.
The U.S. was involved in the Gulf War (aka Desert Storm) for no reason other than to preserve the supply of oil. “A former Texas oilman, President Bush feared the possible take-over of Saudi Arabia, which would have increased Saddam’s control from 20 percent to 40 percent of the world’s known oil reserves…” (Shlaim p. 97) Under the guise of preserving “freedom” for Kuwait, tens of thousands of American (and other NATO) troops were put in harm’s way. Saudi Arabia was “saved”, so the story gores, by American heroism that prevented Saddam Hussein from capturing the Arabian oilfields.
Iran, of course, has a much more ugly recent history, with the taking of hostages at the American embassy, being held for over a year, and only released as a political gesture when the American administration changed from that of Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan. The world became far more aware of Khomeini and his repressive Islamic fundamentalism, the banning of anything Western in the nation, the crackdown on political dissidents and moderates. And yet, American interference in Iran dates much further back than that crisis. In fact, the covert operations of the CIA were responsible for the elimination of Mohammad Mossadeqand the strengthening of the power of the Shah- whose secret police was actually as repressive (we later learned) as any before or since.
It is clear that Iran and Saudi Arabia cannot be separated from the American priorities and goals of a world at economic peace. It seems we are willing to overlook some of the religious and political discrimination and unpleasantries in these (and other) nations, in order to gain economic benefits from them.
However much the U.S. needs oil, the fact remains that in these two nations- Iran and Saudi Arabia, the future and stability is far from assured. While Khatami seems to have the upper hand, at least in many respects, over the religious mullahs and other fundamentalist zealots, there are still stirrings of anti-Western and pro-Islamic activities. While the Saudi princes seem to be secure in their bureaucratic control of their nation, even here there are not so faint stirrings of the same fundamentalist, ultra-orthodox factions as in other areas of the Middle East, and into Asia.
We are therefore faced with the struggle of these two nations, internally as well as in foreign affairs, between a political goal, an economic one, and the restrictions placed on those goals by the possibility of religious insurrection and interference. With all the economic and political maneuvering in this part of the world, the most dominant factor is the role that Islamic fundamentalists will play in shaping the destinies of these two nations (as well as others). There is no doubt that many princes of the royal Saud house, as well as Iran’s more moderate politicians seek to create economic prosperity, ties with other nations, East as well as West, in order to develop ties that can strengthen and improve the qualities of life, prop up economies that may be subject to the world’s economic ills (i.e. the price of petroleum, the financial crisis of Asia and the lack of any sort of financing by African nations). But, the question in the minds of political and economic observers in the West is- how far can these politicians and princes go before some sort of Islamic backlash is felt. There is no doubt, in covering the many volumes written about this port of the world in the past several decades, that the specter of the Ayatollahs and other Muslim fundamentalist groups and clerics hovers over decisions that are short- as well as long-term. An analogy would be that George W. Bush and Congress would fear to enact any legislation that would rouse the ire of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.
What is worse, of course, is that these Islamic powers are interfering not only with these nations’ domestic policies, but also their foreign affairs (as was seen by the fear of some Eurasian nations of Iran’s Islamic presence within their borders). It is the hatred of the West and modernism, by these fundamentalists that can well upset any progress made by incorporating Saudi Arabia and Iran back into the family of nations, economically as well as politically. And, as long as the West fears such uprisings and Islamic control, there can be no complete rapprochement with Iran, and there will continue to be doubt about the stability of Saudi Arabia, where only its oil reserves make it vital.
So, can these right-wing Muslims succeed in stirring up rebellion in Saudi Arabia, and again gain control in Iran? And, should these eventualities happen, should the West, led by the U.S. intervene, even as far as sending military troops to curb these problems? Time, and the need for oil, will tell. Perhaps this is one reason the Bush administration is to interested in drilling in Alaska and offshore in the Caribbean for oil reserves, rather than relying on the tenuous future of Saudi Arabia or Iran.
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Joffe, George: “At The Turning Point” The World Today, April 1999
Long, David E. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (1997) Gainesville FL: The Press of the University of Florida
Metz, Helen Chapin (ed.): Iran: A Country Study (1989) Washington D.C.: U.S. Dept of the Army
Montaigne, Fen: “Iran: Testing the Waters of Reform” The National Geographic Magazine, July 1999
Quandt, William B.: Saudi Arabia in the 1980s (1981) Washington D.C. The Brookings Institution
Rubenstein, Alvin Z. and Smolansky, Oles M. (eds.) Regional Power Rivalries in the New Eurasia (1995) Armonk NY: M.E. Sharpe Publishers
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