It is easy to underestimate the Saudi leadership. It was not that long ago that they were predominantly Bedouin, remote from the modern world. They wear clothing that to a Western eye hardly inspires confidence. Their riches beyond avarice permit a self-indulgence that they fully partake of.
But the Saudi monarchy is a formidable institution that should not be sold short, one with many successful innovations to its credit.
I wrote today in "Might the Saudis Blow Up Their Oil Infrastructure?" about the extraordinary Saudi plans (revealed by Gerald Posner) to create "a single-button self-destruct system" on their oil and gas infrastructure, thereby rendering it useless for decades to come. This mechanism can serve either as a deterrent or (if it fell in the hands of some of the country's more radical elements) a suicide-bomb of global proportions.
This astonishing plan fits into a tradition of the Saudi leadership thinking outside the box. Other examples include:
- The royal nomenklatura: The institution of the monarchy dates back millennia but, so far as I know, the Saudis are the first to have expanded the reach of the ruling family from a few individuals to a few thousand. Not only do royals occupy the key positions throughout the kingdom, but their numbers make them impervious to an assassination or other assault.
- Naming the country after a ruling family: As the witticism puts it, Saudi Arabia is the only family-owned business with a seat at the United Nations.
- Separate armed forces: Not wanting to be hostage to military officers, even royal ones, the monarchy relies on a national force to protect the borders, a tribal force to protect the family, and a mercenary force to guard the oil fields.
- Making Wahhabism mainstream: What a century ago ranked as a fringe outlook has become perhaps the most authoritative form of Islam thanks to the dynasty's ideological dedication, its capture of Mecca and Medina, and its ambitious use of oil wealth.
- Expanding the Wahhabi message worldwide: Through a massive effort, both legal (the "Wahhabi lobby" in the United States) and quasi-legal (Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation), and outright illegal (Al-Qaeda), the Saudis have promoted their brand of Islam to nearly all regions of the globe.
- Buying up the Washington elite: Almost any state has the funds to do it but only the Saudis have created what I have dubbed a culture of corruption – making high-ranking friends, both Democratic and Republican, through the careful yet lavish use of funds.
Non-governmental Saudis are also renowned for their imaginative prowess – think of as Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal in finance and Osama bin Laden in terrorism.
The Saudis collectively and individually should not be disdained but respected as a very worthy adversary. (May 11, 2005)