Middle East — Saudi Arabia

King Hussein’s fellow monarch to the southeast viewed events in the 1950s and 1960s with mild apprehension. Unlike Jordan, though, he was secure in the knowledge that his kingdom was awash with oil to support his power and the power of the royal house. This was Saudi Arabia – a country whose al-Saud family had roots in the history of the peninsula it ruled. In the eighteenth century the Saudi clan allied with the puritan sect of Wahhabi Islam, and was so successful militarily that it was able to briefly seize the holy places of Mecca and Medina from the Ottoman sultan in the early nineteenth century. After World War I, young Abdul Aziz ibn Saud (c. 1880-1953) unified most of the peninsula dynastic marriages and by his sword. In 1932 was created the kingdom that bears his family name, and today contains the largest concentration of Sunni Muslims in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia is comparable to Western Europe or Mexico in land area, though with a small fraction of either in population. Since American oilmen found black gold in 1938 under the eastern sands of the peninsula, its seven million people and the family that rules over them have seen rapid and enormous change. Countries like Iran or Iraq had oil. But Saudi had more. The fact that its economy produced little else seemed to matter little. In the late 1940s and 1950s, an impoverished, isolated, tribal, sparsely populated land became unimaginably rich, catapulted to financial prominence with a product that everyone needed to rebuild their economies after the devastation of the Second World War.

The richer it grew, the more tempting its riches to a predator. Prudence led the Kingdom to seek a powerful ally and to build powerful armed forces. The ally – and the main supplier of the hardware for these forces – was the United States. American penetration of the Middle East began in Saudi Arabia, where the American oil company, ARAMCO (Arabian American Oil Company, fully nationalized in 1980), concluded a 50-50 deal to split oil revenues with the Saudi government after the war. This was considerably more generous than the terms by British and French companies and was designed to enable American companies to compete, and then ultimately displace the British. It was from this commercial arrangement that the American government developed a political relationship with the anti-communist Saudi royal house that has lasted, with some turbulence, to this day.

In the 1950s, the United States valued stability in Saudi Arabia amidst what appeared to be a generally grim situation in the Middle East. The fortunes of the European nations – dominant in the region for decades – where coming undone, and what would replace them was unknown. France was in retreat from Syria and Lebanon as a dangerous situation developed in its colony of Algeria. Britain faced a virulent new nationalism in Egypt that threatened the Suez Canal. To this was added the new variable of Israel, and increased the likelihood for instability and the opportunities for Soviet intervention that instability might bring.

American construction companies such as Bechtel were the primary contractors which built much of the Saudi infrastructure – its roads, airports, as well as the oil pipelines that enabled the Kingdom to transport its oil riches to world markets. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was integral to the development of Kingdom’s communication systems and defense industry. The favorable 50-50 oil deal with Saudi Arabia arranged by the U.S. State Department was designed to achieve stability in key states in the region. Saudi was one, and Iran was another, which we shall see below later.

The story of Saudi Arabia in the 1960s is the search for continued stability. It is also story of two rulers: one competent, one not. When Ibn Saud died in 1953, he left a country just twenty years old, and had established an autocratic central government in place of bedouin confederations. Absence of democracy was not unusual for the region. But like no other Middle Eastern state, the affairs of the new country reflected nothing else but the decisions of one family, one king. None of the trappings of Western influence, British or French, do we see in Arabia. In 1953 the Kingdom had no constitution, no codes for governmental procedure, no political parties, and no institutionalized forms of consultation between the governing and governed. Wahhabi Sunni Islam was the ideology through which Ibn Saud legitimized the right of his family to rule. The Koran, a religious text, was the constitution. Sharia was its law. (Cleveland, p. 394)

King Saud, the second of Ibn Saud’s thirty-four sons, succeeded to the throne upon his father’s death. His years on the throne (1953-64) coincide with the rise of Nasser in Egypt and the events that came as a result. Unlike Nasser, King Saud was not anti-American. To the contrary, he viewed the United States as a source of technology and industrialization on the cheap since American aid came in the form of low-interest loans until Saudi could organize itself economically according to the 1958 recommendations of the International Monetary Fund. During and after World War II, production of Saudi oil expanded and oil revenues increased, rising from $7 million to $200 million between 1939 and 1953 – replacing completely the traditional income from the Hajj pilgrimages.[1] In the decade after 1953, cultural life developed rapidly, primarily along the western coast (Hejaz) between the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. In cities like Jeddah for example, new radio stations, schools, universities, and newspapers appeared. The National Commercial Bank – Saudi Arabia’s first and today the Arab world’s largest by assets – is based in Jeddah and represented the budding Saudi Arabian financial system when started in 1953.

For all its benefits, King Saud was born in old Arabia, and was unsure how to deploy the oil windfalls that rained down on the Kingdom. He set up an economic planning group which did little for fear of offending the King who was quite wary that the expansion of petroleum and the wealth it generated would threaten the political and social order of the royal family – to say nothing of change the role of conservative Islam. Instead, amidst great riches, King Saud’s reign saw spending that was more lavish than useful for development, and which caused deficits and foreign borrowing. Saudi Arabia had supported the 1948 war against Israel and loaned Egypt millions of dollars over Suez in 1956 and 1957. Saudi Arabia also had a productive relationship with the United States at the start of the 1960s. It was part of a group of Middle Eastern states like Jordan and Lebanon that resisted radicalism instead of cultivating it. For this stability, the Saudi royal house was at once prized by the West and scorned as “feudal” and “reactionary” by such pan-Arab powers as Egypt and Syria.


(Outside involvement; expels Muslim Brotherhood; insular compared to other ME states)



Financial profligacy and doubts about Saud’s general competence led to an intense rivalry within the royal family for succession, and Saud’s half-brother, Prince Faisal, deposed Saud in 1964. Faisal was different from Saud, not just because he was more regal in bearing. He was also a builder and a reformer, as well as more traveled; and by the time his reign came to an end in 1975 by an assassin’s bullet, Saudi Arabia’s wealth had ballooned to legendary levels – its power respected around the world.

At home, Faisal sought to broaden governmental authority beyond the secretive circle of the royal family. Faisal established a judicial system in Saudi Arabia by abolishing the office of the Grand Mufti and replacing it with a Ministry of Justice. He sought to broaden education for girls and women, though still within the tenets of Sharia; and even ended slavery by buying each slave from his owner at a price of $2000.00. During his reign, students were sent all over the world to study and came back to the Kingdom to become the core of a new Saudi civil service. In 1965, the first television station began broadcasting, and radio services expanded. All these elements crested when Faisal inaugurated the so-called first Five-Year Plan in 1970 under a new Ministry of Planning which aimed for 10 percent annual growth and a modernization of the non-oil sectors of defense, transportation, utilities, and agriculture.

In foreign affairs, Faisal delineated and expanded the fortunes of Saudi Arabia in the 1960s. He toured Western Europe, Britain, the countries of the Persian Gulf and North Africa. Faisal visited the Shah of Iran in 1965 and the Shah traveled to Saudi Arabia. He visited Libya’s Muammar Kaddafi in 1969 to measure the man who had toppled an oil-rich monarchy not entirely dissimilar to Faisal’s own. In the Cold War, Faisal built on the foundations of his brother, King Faud, and strengthened the mutually-beneficial economic and security links to the United States. He refused ties to the Soviet Union, to Eastern bloc countries or, for that matter to Israel, since he found communism and Zionism equally distasteful. He shared opposition for Israel and supported Palestinian causes with fellow Arab states in the Middle East. At the same time, however, he sought an independent course as a supporter of monarchist and conservative movements in the Arab World, and worked to counter the influences of socialism and Arab nationalism so destabilizing to places like Jordan, and would over time have a ripple effect in its own way in non-Arab places like Iran. To this end, he founded the Muslim League and a standing Islamic Conference as an alternative to Nasser and Nasserism. At the end of the 1960s, Saudi Arabia grew closer to Egypt when the less revolutionary Anwar Sadat replaced Nasser and evicted the Russians.

In October 1973, a coalition of Arab states attacked Israel, and the third Arab-Israeli War since 1948 established Saudi Arabia’s leadership in the region and the world. That year, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) unleashed the “oil weapon,” a tool as fearsome as any tank or plane. Saudi Arabia cuts its production of crude by a third – more than any other OPEC member – and the effect was an embargo of oil that made the price of oil shoot up from $3 to almost $12 a barrel in a few months. Strikingly, King Faisal put an anti-Israeli policy ahead of a pro-America one since the embargo damaged the United States economy. Saudi Arabia’s GNP nearly tripled in a year’s time and its financial reserves grew to truly gargantuan proportions. Most importantly, countries everywhere – from the United States and Europe to East Asia, but particularly those outside the Middle East – realized the detrimental effects that a determined oil policy could have on almost every aspect of the global economy. The events at the end of our 1960s era caused a decade of economic malaise in the developed economies, and ignited a concerted effort to find new energy sources so that the shock of 1973-74 could never happen again.

Time magazine acknowledged the effect of the OPEC embargo and the new Saudi influence in the region by naming King Faisal as its “Man of the Year” for 1974. And that same year Saudi Arabia and the United States normalized relations, including renewed economic and military ties. The 1960s era marks the start of the uneasy relationship of the Saudis and Americans today involving oil, Islam, and a mutual interest in regional stability. It is also the time when the world abruptly discovered the fabulous oil wealth that has marked the Kingdom ever since, symbolized by the great King Faud Causeway that connects Saudi Arabia to the island of Bahrain begun in 1968, and made possible only with the riches of oil. . .


(Between the two men: 4 universities in Saudi)

                  [1] William Ochsenwald, The Middle East: A History (2004), 700.

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