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RetroSaudi: Crime


Ministry of the Interior, Riyadh

RetroSaudi continues with this piece I wrote in 1987 about crime in Saudi Arabia. My commentary thirty years later suggests that much has changed since then.


There is no crime in Saudi Arabia except on Fridays. That’s when the gruesome punishments take place that we all hear about. But floggings, beheadings and amputations cover only specific offences reckoned by Islamic law to be serious: murder, rape, theft and the like. The run of the mill villain is rewarded by jail and fines, as in most judicial systems.

The Islamic system of justice is known as the Sharia, which is the Arabic word for “the path”, or “road”. Aficionados of the Ayatollah will be familiar with this code, which is based on the Holy Koran, and on the sayings of the Prophet as interpreted by successions of scholars through the ages. Of course, the precise flavour of the version adopted by a particular country is often directly linked with the nationality of the scholar whose interpretations prevail.

There are those who argue that to adopt a set of rules made for a bunch of supersitious desert-dwellers fifteen hundred years ago is perhaps a retrograde step in an age in which computers can store the contents of the Koran on a pinhead. It’s worth remembering that one of the leading religious sheikhs, Ibn Baz, believes that the earth is flat, and that the Americans conned the world by landing Armstrong and Aldrin on an earthly desert back in 1969.

Among the more interesting rulings in the Sharia is that it’s a sin to pay or take interest, Over the years the rule has been inconsistently applied. In the good times the banks openly charged and paid interest. The government was the source of all wealth; and directly or indirectly it held huge stakes in the Kingdom’s banks. Interest was cheap and big business borrowed to the hilt to finance their factories, shopping centres and office blocks. Then the big gusher started to dry up; government contracts got scarce and the economy went badly on the slide, leaving many of the’business grandees high and dry. The total debts of some of the more notable casualties would have been enough to keep a small country like Thailand afloat for a year.

When the banks called in their loans, the debtors, in the uniquely self-righteous style of the profoundly bankrupt, went on the offensive. Invoking what the sheikhs had been preaching for years, they declared that they had been sinfully coerced into paying interest. Any part of the debt that arose through unpaid interest, they argued, should be cancelled.

Since some of these debts were years old, and had accrued massive interest, the banks threw up their hands in horror. To no avail, for the clergymen who sit in the Sharia Court predictably ruled in favour of the debtors. Overnight some of the biggest debts were sliced in half, and the banks found themselves with billions of riyals of open-ended, interest-free loans on their hands and no foreseeable chance of getting any of it back. Not so the government itself, which invested the huge surpluses of the boom years in nice little interest-bearing investments, such as bonds, throughout the sinful West.

Beneath the stratospheric heights of international finance, the Saudis are often given to boast that thanks to the Sharia theirs is the most law-abiding society in the world. Certainly crimes against the person, other than those arising through blood feuds or tribal rivalry (tribal wars were only replaced by suicidal driving as the nation’s favourite hobby within the last thirty years), are rare. But to advertise the low crime rate as a symbol of the people’s submission to the will of God, is to my mind somewhat fanciful.

The rewards of honesty

I suspect, having always been a natural opponent of the flog’ em and hang’ em lobby, that if the Kingdom truly has a dramatically lower crime rate than its neighbours, it’s because the country isn’t gripped by extremes of poverty like Egypt and Sudan. Since at least some of the wealth has trickled down to the lowest social levels (far more than in the Shah’s Iran), there’s less crime born of desperation here, except perhaps on the part of those down to their last ten million dollars. Offences against the person are rarely reported even if committed; rapes occasionally take place in western compounds, and one sometimes hears of some poor worker murdered by his mates, but these are rare, and therefore noteworthy, events.

The most common and obvious crimes happen thousands of times a day in full view of everybody, on the roads. While the citizens of Saudi Arabia may lag behind the rest of the world in the achievements of its specialist criminal fraternity, they make up for it on the road. Dangerously and flamboyantly. But that’s another story.


I never witnessed an execution in those days, deliberately. I knew where they took place and stayed well away. What I didn’t mention was that the list of capital offenses was not confined to murder and rape. It included drug smuggling and sorcery. Yes, sorcery.

I also didn’t mention corruption, which I shall write about some other time.

Fast forward thirty years, and the picture is quite different. Saudi Arabia is starting to resemble other countries in the amount of petty crime on the streets: mugging, pick-pocketing, car theft and so forth. Districts of Riyadh and Jeddah that used to be quite safe to wander through – such as Batha and Balad – are no longer so.

Back in the day, it was said that you could leave your car unlocked, and nothing would disappear from it. Not now.

Why the change? Two major reasons. Since 1987, the number of illegal immigrants – people without papers, living on their wits and scratching a living any which way, has increased substantially. So much so that the government launched a major crackdown between 2012 and 2015 that resulted in hundreds of thousands of people – especially from the Indian subcontinent – being deported.

Also there has been a massive increase in the Saudi population, with the result that today 70% of the population is under 30 years old. The economy has been unable to provide enough jobs for these youngsters, which has meant that there are many people with plenty of time and little to do. Some have resorted to petty crime. Others have gone to Syria to fight for ISIS.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the Kingdom is not exactly awash with sources of entertainment, so young males get their kicks where they can – through stimulants such as captagon, and for those who can afford it, suicidal drifting – as in driving cars on two wheels – on highways outside the cities.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has resolved to make his country more fun. There’s talk of cinemas and entertainment zones to persuade the young to stay at home rather than disappear to the fleshpots of Dubai whenever they can. I’m sure that will help, though what’s on offer in Dubai far exceeds such innocent pleasures as going to the movies.

As for the punishments for which Saudi Arabia is famous, the number of executions has increased substantially over the past three years, which reflects the draconian penalties for acts that the government considers terrorism.

There has also been an increase in prosecutions for white-collar crimes such as fraud and forgery, some of them involving banks and high-profile businessmen, of which the most spectacular has been the dispute between the privately owned Saad and Gosaibi groups. The recent arrest of the head of the Saad Group – as reported here by the New Yorker – undoubtedly raises the stakes.

Had not Maan Al-Sanea’s incarceration been followed by the mass round-up of prominent princes and businessmen in Mohammed bin Salman’s recent corruption crackdown, I suspect that his case would be attracting far more attention today.

These are busy times for the Ministry of the Interior, whose headquarters (above) hovers over Riyadh like some all-seeing alien spaceship.

Will things settle down soon? Not, I suspect, until Saudi Arabia has gone some way towards resolving its political, social and economic challenges.

And a doubling of the price of oil might also help.

Mr Grumpy looks on the bright side

A couple of weeks ago, at a family party, my elder brother, in his understated way, told me that I was in danger of becoming a GOM. By this he didn’t mean Grand Old Man, in which case he, as a renowned academic, would have qualified way before me.

In fact, on the basis of my blog, which he visits occasionally, he believes I’m becoming a Grumpy Old Man. Au contraire, I replied, you just haven’t been reading the right posts. In at least one post in five, I’m all sweetness and light. Well OK, maybe one in ten over the past eighteen months.

In my defence, it isn’t every year that America elects a president intent on blowing his country to smithereens, and the will of the British people is subverted by lying politicians and Russian bots.

But yes, dear brother, there’s plenty to smile about. So to balance things out a bit, here are a few positive thoughts guaranteed to put a spring in the step.

David Attenborough is still making wonderful TV. No matter that the old boy is too decrepit to mess with komodos or tickle gorillas any more, the new series of Blue Planet is magnificent, even if it does spend quite a lot of time warning us that if we keep chucking Tesco bags into the ocean, we’re all doomed.

Donald Trump will eventually expire. By that I mean that his presidency will sooner or later end, unless the lunatics in the asylum manage to make him dictator for life. In that event, the demented heffapsycho still has a limited shelf life.

We’re still in the European Union. And will be until March 2019, unless the bleeding obvious jolts enough Members of Parliament out of their career-protecting ideological delusions and persuades them to call a halt to the whole thing.

Another Ashes series is coming up. I’m talking about cricket, in case you weren’t sure. Once again the unstoppable England cricket team will crush the Australians like cockroaches on their own turf….won’t they?

The England football team is on the up. After two triumphant goalless draws against Brazil and Germany, we will once again carry all before us in the upcoming World Cup….won’t we?

There has been no mass shooting in the United States for at least three days. This wonderful news surely justifies the arguments of the US gun lobby. If they can go three days without a massacre, maybe we in Britain should go gun shopping. Anything to Make Britain Great Again.

Britain still has a National Health Service. Just about. No matter that all those foreign doctors and nurses are leaving in droves because they don’t think we appreciate them anymore. Sooner or later they’ll be replaced with local talent. No matter that later could mean many years, and that in the meantime we’ll have to put up with longer waiting lists, higher mortality rates and fewer hospitals, the NHS still stands, and that’s a good thing, right?

80% of us are too old and ugly to be groped. For those of us who don’t live in India or Egypt, are over thirty, have nothing to do with showbusiness or politics, don’t work in an office and aren’t female, what joy it is to walk the streets with nothing to fear, apart from muggers, acid attackers and random shooters.

Ken Clarke is still a British MP. I don’t like his party, but that’s irrelevant these days, because it doesn’t exist any more as a coherent entity. As long as old Ken is still around in Parliament, calling out the liars, the hypocrites and the plain stupid among his fellow MPs, there’s always a chance that the Brexit nightmare can be consigned to history.

And the best news of all is if we hang around long enough, we’ll all be in thrall to artificially intelligent masters, who will have no time for Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Kim Jong Un, Robert Mugabe, Vladimir Putin, Boris Johnson, Caliph Baghdadi, airport security, jobsworths, officious gatekeepers, intrusive mortgage lenders, inflexible traffic wardens and Harvey Weinstein. The moment we step out of line, Computer will say no.

You see? Lots of things to be cheerful about. So with smiles on our faces, we must get on with our lives, and realise that things could be a darn sight worse.

Is that OK, brother?

RetroSaudi: Guns’n’poses

This episode of my RetroSaudi series is about guns. I wrote the piece that follows before the two Gulf Wars, and, even more critically, before the conflicts in the wake of the Arab Spring resulted in a massive proliferation of weapons in the region.


The first Saudi I caught sight of when I arrived in Saudi Arabia was a spindly little fellow in an outsize helmet lounging at the bottom of the steps beside my British Airways Tristar. He was leaning against a semi-automatic rifle that was almost bigger than himself. He looked about as menacing as a museum curator and as bored as a cinema usher. That image has stayed with me, except that in my imagination the gun has gotten bigger and the soldier smaller.

Any uniformed official worth his salt wears a gun. Even firemen, provided they’re Saudi. Foreigners with guns are a definite no-no, unless they happen to be embassy guards, like the troop of muscle- bound marines who see to it that another bunch of hapless American diplomats don’t fall prey to a squad of revolutionary guards.

To a Briton coming to Saudi Arabia today, meeting so many guns would perhaps not be as shocking as it was to me in 1981. I had come out of a country in which naked shows of force, such as tanks ringing London Airport during an IRA scare, were so rare as to be deeply disturbing. At least to those of us on the mainland. But the Kingdom lies sweating in a ring of fire. To the north, Lebanon and Israel; to the west, Eritrea and the Horn of Africa; to the south, the feuding Yemens, and to the east Iran and Iraq. With half the hatred in the world festering on their doorstep, who can blame the Saudis for being a little nervous?

Surprisingly few ordinary citizens seem to own weapons. “Seem” because although ownership of firearms is restricted in Saudi Arabia, they’re legal and rife in the Yemen. Since the border between the two countries is ill-defined in many places, and therefore as leaky as a sieve, there are not only many Yemenis but also many guns surreptitiously stashed away in Saudi Arabia. A recent house-to-house sweep in Jeddah flushed out a truckload of armaments.

In Haj 1987, as the Mecca riots erupted, the local press announced in bold type that no shots were fired on the Ayatollah’s demonstrators by the security forces. Probably true, but what they forgot to mention were eye-witness reports about people leaning out of the windows of the apartments overlooking the action taking potshots at the rioting Iranians. A sharp-eyed American friend swears that on the official film of the riot you could see little puffs of dirt whipped up by the impact of bullets hitting the ground. Being a Vietnam veteran, he should know.

Most likely the bullet wounds another friend saw on the Iranian bodies (as they lay at Jeddah Airport ready to be shipped home) were caused by small arms.

What worries the Saudis most are the modern semi-automatics, like the Kalashnikovs that flooded the south during the Yemeni civil war in the early sixties. In 1980 such weapons allowed a tiny band of fanatics to hold the Grand Mosque in Mecca for many days, despite being vastly outnumbered by a rattled force of Government troops.

Out in the desert, the bedouin have carried weapons for centuries, but their firearms are usually more suited for suicide than offensive action; many started life in the hands of the British around the time of the Indian Mutiny. Every two or three years the authorities announce a weapons amnesty, but it’s a meaningless gesture to the gnarled old sheikhs, for whom the family flintlock is as much a status symbol as an instrument of destruction. Not so a hundred years ago, when armed robbery was a popular pastime among the bedouin, particularly if the neighbour’s camels happened to be there for the taking.

Surprisingly enough, you can buy antique guns in the Jeddah souk. True, the article for sale is usually seventy years old, and a Yemeni copy of an Afghan copy of a Lee Enfield, but if you could find all the necessary bolts and pins to make it work, it would probably fire. It’s debatable who would be most at risk, the firer or the fired upon.

The use of more modern weapons among private individuals is more discreet. Another friend was recently driving down a narrow road in Jeddah and came up behind a gleaming new Mercedes saloon that was dawdling along in the middle of the road. My mate honked his horn and signalled with an unmistakable gesture that he was in a hurry and would the gentleman kindly get the f**k out of the middle of the road?

The Mercedes slowly came to a halt at an angle, preventing my friend from passing, and a man in a white thobe calmly stepped out of the car, sauntered up to my friend’s window, pointed a pistol at his head and ordered him out of the car. Keeping my friend in his sight the man made a short call on his radiophone; within three minutes the police arrived and slapped an on-the-spot fine of a thousand riyals on the poor fellow for speeding! The gunman happened to be a high-ranking prince.

A final, salutary, tale – which may or may not be true – to place in perspective the somewhat threatening tone of this passage. The US Embassy in Jeddah used to be ringed with armed Saudi guards twenty-four hours a day. Such a dopey lot they were that one night the marines decided to highlight the shortcomings of the security arrangements.

When dawn broke and the guards finally woke out of their collective slumber, they reached for their weapons and found them gone. An hour later they were marched off at gunpoint, perhaps to be given freefall lessons over the Empty Quarter without the benefit of parachutes. Their bashful commanding officer called in to the Embassy to collect the weapons.


Sadly, things got a bit more dangerous subsequently. The US embassy moved to Riyadh, and the compound guarded by the sleepy soldiers became a consulate. In 2004, during a wave of attacks by Al-Qaeda on both Saudis and expatriates, the consulate was attacked and a number of people killed. There were other attacks on ministry buildings and western compounds, resulting in many deaths over a three-year period. One of the compound attacks was the event depicted in the movie The Kingdom.

When I returned to the country in 2008 after a long absence, the difference was striking. Concrete blocks and blast shields protected ministries, embassies and hotels. Western compounds had watchtowers with armed guards. The major embassies, especially the US embassy in Riyadh, were fortresses. Soldiers armed to the teeth would patrol the grounds.

Had I written a piece about guns then, I wouldn’t have seen the funny side. People were still nervous about their safety. I knew Americans who kept their passports and open first-class airline tickets with them at all times so that they could make a quick exit. Others would rarely venture out of their hotels except to go to work. On one trip from Riyadh to Dammam, my passenger refused to get out and stretch his legs at a gas station, because he was a afraid that someone might shoot him.

Gradually things calmed down thanks to a very effective anti-terrorism effort by the Ministry of the Interior.

But over the past four years, the gun has raised its ugly head again. This time at the hands of ISIS supporters, who have launched repeated attacks with a seemingly sectarian motive against the country’s Shia minority in the east. There have also been attacks against the police. I wrote about one such attack in Al Hasa in my Postcard from Saudi Arabia series.

Guns continue to be a fact of life. If the borders were porous in 1987, they are by no means secure today, despite the wall the Saudis are building to the north of the country, and despite that fact that the border guards in the south are battle-hardened thanks to the current Yemen conflict. The sheer volume of weapons circulating in Syria, Iraq and Yemen among those motivated to harm for one cause or another means that the Saudis have an almost impossible task preventing some of these weapons getting through their borders.

The number of attacks has declined dramatically over the past year, but alertness is still the order of the day.

Also a sense of perspective is called for. Around eight thousand people are killed on Saudi roads each year. Compare that with 10 killed and 40 injured through terrorist attacks in 2017.

And if you happen to be an American working in the country, you might do well to ask yourself where you have a better chance of falling victim to a random shooting: in Saudi Arabia or the USA?

RetroSaudi: The Company Town

Well No. 7, 1938

“When the huge ship dropped anchor at sundown, it astonished everyone. It was nothing like the other ships they had seen: it glittered with coloured lights that set the sea ablaze. Its immensity, as it loomed over the shore, was terrifying. Neither the citizens of Harran nor the workers, who streamed from the interior to look, had ever seen anything like it. How could such a massive thing float and move on the water?

Voices, songs and drums were heard as soon as the ship neared the shore; they came from the shore as well as the ship, as all the Americans in the compound flooded outdoors. Music blared as small boats began ferrying the passengers from the now motionless ship. There were dozens, hundreds of people, and with the men were a great many women. The women were perfumed, shining and laughing, like horses after a long race. Each was strong and clean, as if from a hot bath, and each body was uncovered except for a small piece of colored cloth. Their legs were proud and bare, and stronger than rocks. Their faces, hands breasts, bellies – everything, yes everything glistened, danced, flew. Men and women embraced on the deck of the large ship and in the small boats, but no one could believe what was happening on the shore.

It was an unforgettable sight, one that would never be seen again. The people had become a solid mass, like the body of a giant camel, all hugging and pressing against one another.

The astonished people of Harran approached imperceptibly, step by step, like sleepwalkers. They could not believe their eyes and ears. Has there ever been anything like this ship, this huge and magnificent? Where else in the world were there women like these, who resembled both milk and figs in their tanned whiteness? Was it possible that men could shamelessly walk around with women, with no fear of others? Were these their wives, or sweethearts, or something else?

The people of Harran stared, panting. Whenever they saw something particularly incredible they looked at each other and laughed. They clicked their teeth sharply and stamped their feet. The children raced ahead of them and arrived first to sit by the water, and some even dove into the water to swim towards the ship, but most of the people preferred to stay behind on the shore, where they could move around more easily. Even the women watched everything from afar, though none of them dared to come near.

This day gave Harran a birth date, recording when and how it was built, for most people have no memory of Harran before that day. Even its natives, who had lived there since the arrival of the first frightening group of Americans and watched with terror the realignment of the town’s shoreline and hills – the Harranis, born and bred there, saddened by the destruction of their houses, recalling the old sorrows of lost travellers and the dead – remembered the day the ship came better than any other day, with fear, awe and surprise. It was practically the only date they remembered.”

Abdulrahman Munif – Cities of Salt, trans. Peter Theroux

Nothing I’ve read more powerfully imagines the impact of the oil era on the people of Saudi Arabia’s east coast. The American compound in Munif’s fictional Harran was actually called Dhahran. And it was at the nearby fishing village of Al-Khobar that the locals would have flooded out to view the ship.

The third piece in my RetroSaudi series is about Saudi Arabia’s first company town, built by the consortium of American oil companies who founded the Arab-American Oil Company, or Aramco for short.

I first wrote about Dhahran in 1987, around the same time that Saudi Arabia completed the final stage of its acquisition of Aramco. When I first visited what the Americans called the camp, it had become a small town, and very different from the cacophonic sprawl of Jeddah, where I was living at the time.

Here’s what I wrote then.


A flat brown landscape broken by the occasional rocky hillock. Rusting cars and bits of machinery abandoned like relics of a war. Pipelines half-buried in the sand. The occasional ancient dump-truck lumbering down a superhighway. The land stained with heat and dirt. A few miles from the Bahrain causeway you come to the gates of what looks to be a large compound typical of many “camps” built by foreign companies to insulate their employees from the local environment. But this is no ordinary compound. For a mile out lies Well Number 7, where, in 1938, a strike of 7000 barrels an hour trans- formed a charmless patch of waste ground into the most valuable piece of real estate in the world. And changed everything.

Dhahran is Aramco, a company town. The Arabian-American Oil Company built Dhahran around Well No.7 and its successors, and so created a place like no other in the Kingdom. By creating Dhahran and thereby founding the first colony of foreign guest-workers, America laid the foundation stone for the Tower of Babel Saudi Arabia was later to become. The town is a tribute to that singular talent of the Americans to reproduce their own environment in the most unlikely places (remember Alan Sheperd playing golf on the moon?).

Dhahran boasts tidy sidewalks, neat little houses, bowling alleys and supermarkets. It has long American cars whose drivers chew gum and wear baseball hats. It even has the occasional traffic jam. Until recently it was closed to Saudis, and its American inhabitants lived their lives in the American Way, unobserved and unrestricted. Even women drive in the camp, a privilege unheard of elsewhere in the country.

Nowadays things are changing fast. Since the state became an increasingly dominant partner in Aramco (the company is now 100% Saudi-owned) this exclusivity has broken down, and many of the owners now live in the camp. But a number of its more arcane traditions remain. As a non-Muslim Aramcon you can still buy pork in the camp supermarket, a privilege much envied by the rest of the pig-loving expatriate population. Those who are found to have bought more than their allotted pork ration in a given month suffer the ultimate penalty: their personnel records are marked PV, and they are banned from further purchases of the unclean animal for a set period, depending upon the gravity of the offence. PV, of course, stands for Pork Violator, perhaps the most wonderfully misleading acronym yet invented by an American bureaucracy.

Next door to the camp lies the University of Petroleum and Minerals, to which was recently added the prefix King Fahd, presumably at the behest of an anxious dynasty that needs constantly to be reminded that not a slab of concrete is laid in the Kingdom that is not directly or indirectly attributable to the dynamism and generosity of the ruling house. Even before the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques (no doubt reluctantly) allowed his name to adorn this distinguished academic institution, the UPM campus was spectacular and impressive. Today it remains an example of architectural excellence rare in its consistency; the Saudis tend to build something beautiful and then ruin the effect by erecting a monstrosity next door. UPM is tasteful throughout. Its academic standards are high, and the best of those who don’t make it to the foreign universities come here.

As a place for foreigners to live, the area ranks second only to Jeddah as the most desirable posting in the Kingdom. For Aramco employees, with their special privileges, it’s the only place to be. The climate is more forgiving than in the interior, pleasantly cool in the winter, steamy in the summer. The authorities are rather heavy-handed in the Eastern Province, particularly in religious matters; this is largely because Iran, being so close, exerts a strong gravitational pull on the area. Most of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite Muslims live on the east coast, and the government is constantly on the alert for signs of unrest among followers of Khomeini. Strange institutions known as “Societies for Elimination of Vice and Propagation of Virtue” keep a stern eye open for improper behaviour, and every so often circulate broadsheets to local employers warning them not to allow their employees to walk about displaying their genitals (in other words, tight trousers for men, and anything other than a loose black garment, known as the abaya, for women).

Inside the Aramco camp, however, the oilmen and their families don’t concern themselves with such niceties. For them life goes on as it has for the past forty years. The women, wearing shorts, cycle to the ballpark to watch their kids play softball; the men take their Chevy Blazers up to the Rolling Hills Country Club, unload the golf clubs, and set out for an afternoon of relaxation on the. fairways and greens (which are, in reality, browns) of Aramco’s eighteen-hole course.

Whatever the Saudis might think and say about America, Dhahran is living proof that the expertise that helped the Kingdom pack five centuries of development into fifty years is not to be dispensed with just yet.


There are many other legends about Aramco in the days when it was an exclusively American enclave. Every new family was given a leaflet called “The Blue Flame” with detailed instructions on how to safely distill their own spirits at the back of their houses. Those who did were not always as safety-conscious as the booklet advocated. They included a householder who happened to be away one evening when his prefabricated house exploded. Legend has it that the camp engineers constructed a new house on the site by the following morning.

These days backyard distilleries and pork violators are ancient history. I actually think I was wrong to suggest that pork was available after the final stage of the Saudi takeover. It would have been inconceivable that the new masters would have allowed such idolatrous practices.

The inhabitants of the Aramco camp, by the way, were not the only people with access to the unclean meat in the 1980s. We inhabitants had our own source, in the shape of a downtown Lebanese butcher who, if you asked him for “special meat”, would disappear to the back of his shop and produce choice cuts. It tasted pretty good, though rumour had it that it was actually warthog from the south of the country.

In other respects the Aramco camp has not changed much. The relaxed rules for women remain in place, and an increasing number of them work for the company. The golf course is now green, and internal traffic police still patrol the streets to enforce speed limits that would horrify drivers outside the camp with their stringency.

The company itself, now known as Saudi Aramco, has grown from strength to strength. Not only is it one of the foremost petrochemical businesses in the world, but it’s become the go-to project manager for prestige construction projects such as the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology near Rabigh in the west.

The American influence has waned. Most of the stalwart managers and technologists have retired after long careers in Dhahran. Those senior Americans who remain are in advisory roles. Saudis run the company, and it gets its expertise from wherever in the world it can find it, while still going to great efforts to develop its national workforce.

The topic of the moment is the forthcoming flotation of 5% of the company. Fine in principle, but Saudi Aramco’s governance has always been somewhat opaque. The percentage of the oil and gas revenue it generates that finds its way to the royal family, as opposed to the spending ministries, has always been a closely guarded secret. I await with interest to see how they deal with that little conundrum as they prepare for the open governance that will be required of a public company listed on one of the world’s major stock exchanges.

We have come a long way from the days when King Abdulaziz and his son King Saud used to go on tours around the country and, beaming with benevolence, would throw gold coins to the throng who had come to greet them.

All thanks to Saudi Aramco, who keep pumping out the oil.

RetroSaudi: The Bedouin King

The next part of my RetroSaudi series concerns the man who, eighteen years after I wrote the piece below, became the sixth King of Saudi Arabia. After King Abdullah’s death, his half-brother Salman took the throne, and, his critics say, set about dismantling the carefully-constructed consensus politics that Abdullah and his predecessors had maintained.


His Royal Highness Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz is, as his name suggests, one of the fifty-three sons of Abdulaziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia. He is also the Deputy Premier and head of the National Guard, as newspapers and TV newscasters, who repeat the formulaic titles in every reference to the man, never let us forget.

Abdullah has a mixed reputation in the Kingdom, and it’s difficult to arrive at a balanced portrait of the heir to the throne through his public utterances. Like all speeches emanating from members of the Government, his are about as precise, original and candid as Mr Nigel Lawson’s financial forecasts.

Some say he’s a deeply religious man who, when he becomes king, will drag his country back to the Dark Ages (from which many would say it has never emerged) by a series of ultra-religious edicts. Others say he’s a prudent and practical man like his brother King Faisal, who will rescue the Kingdom from the real or imagined profligacy of King Fahad. Either way, relations between the King and his heir apparent have never been cordial, despite vigorous attempts by the media to suggest otherwise.

Fahad and Abdullah are only half-brothers, born of different wives of Abdulaziz, and Abdullah has clung on to his power base, the largely bedouin National Guard, since his appointment in 1963. Cynics say that the National Guard exists not to guarantee the security of the nation, but to serve as a counter-weight to the army, navy and air force, whose commander is none other than the next in line to the throne after Abdullah, Fahad’s full brother Sultan (“Second Deputy Premier, Minister of Defence and Aviation and Inspector-General”). The hand-picked bedouin who make up the National Guard tend to be personal and tribal in their loyalties, and therefore pledge their allegiance to their commander rather than their king, which is perhaps why Fahad has been unable to detach Abdullah from his private army.

Sultan’s forces, however, with their flashy and expensive hardware (Tornados, F-16’s AWACS and all) tend to attract the more worldly-wise and technically-minded Saudis. And quite possibly the more fickle ones too.

A clash between those who wish to keep the Kingdom entrenched in the old ways and those who wish to step into the brave, and frequently unIslamic, new world is a scenario often predicted by those who look beyond the demise of King Fahad. The forces of change are said to be represented by Sultan, and of the ancien regime by Abdullah.

Such a clash is unlikely. It nearly happened when King Saud was persuaded to give up the throne in favour of Faisal but in the end family loyalty prevailed. The Saudi Royal Family know only too well that there are any number of predatory forces waiting to exploit a crack in the family’s much-touted unity, to turn a fracture into a collapse. The Ayatollah and Colonel Gaddafi are two of Al-Saud’s more fervent detractors.

Never underestimate the ability of the Arab family, of brothers, cousins, tribes or nations, to hold together, as well as fall apart, when the occasion demands it. “Me against my brother, my brother and I against our cousins, me, my brothers and cousins against the world”.


Those who were concerned about Abdullah’s religious conservatism – and they included influential voices in the United States who feared that he would not be as pliant as Fahad – were proven wrong. After a period when he was in command but not in power – he served as de facto regent after Fahad suffered a crippling stroke – Abdullah turned out to be a cautious yet steady and pragmatic ruler. Perhaps foreign observers mistook his plain-speaking Bedouin ways for an entrenched conservative outlook.

In fact, while not going as far as some would like, he will be remembered for two key decisions that are likely to have a profound effect on his country. The first was the establishment of the international scholarship programme named after him, which sent hundreds of thousands of young Saudis to study at foreign universities. And just as many women received scholarships as men. I’ve met many of the returnees. They’re bright and strongly motivated to succeed.

The second act was to build a massive new campus for the Princess Noura women’s university. It covers a huge area of north Riyadh close to the airport. It has capacity for at least thirty thousand students a year. Needless to say, its facilities are top dollar, as I discovered when I visited it a few years ago.

By those two decisions Abdullah implanted the bacillus of change – as Churchill said when Germany packed Lenin off in a train to St Petersburg at the beginning of the Russian revolution. While he didn’t change the rules dealing with the role of women in society, by sending so many of them to university, he created the expectation of change.  As far as the men are concerned, he educated many of the young technocrats who now surround Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

It’s arguable that without Abdullah’s educational legacy, the current Crown Prince would find it difficult to surround himself with sufficient numbers of the technocratic shock-troops he needs to bring about his reforms.

Whereas King Faisal was universally respected, Abdullah was much loved by his subjects, not least for his simple manner. Some while ago I spent a year working for one of his close relatives, who would regularly return from the King’s ranch with dusty shoes. The result, he claimed, of incessant games of petanque.

His reign was not without its challenges. He had to deal with the fallout from 9/11, the second Iraq war, and the series of Al-Qaeda attacks within the country during the mid-2000s. Iran, as I foresaw in the piece above, was a constant worry. In the eyes of his successor, it continues to be so.

His response to the Al-Qaeda attacks was to unleash the hounds of the Interior Ministry, which effectively cracked down on the insurgents. But he also set up institutions for inter-faith dialogue in an effort to enhance understanding between followers of different religions and sects, and went to some effort to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Back in 1987 I also mentioned Gaddafi as a concern. In 2003, Abdullah, it was widely reported at the time, survived an assassination plot hatched on the instigation of the Libyan leader.

Towards the end of his reign, Abdullah also had to deal with the Arab Spring. He responded internally by banning protests but increasing welfare handouts. Externally, his most decisive act was to send troops into Bahrain (where I was at the time) in order to snuff out the protests there.

As for my comments on the National Guard, having delivered numerous training workshops for its hospital group in recent years, I can testify to the high regard in which he was held.

Would he have approved of the changes his successor is making? My guess is that he would have supported the goals – to modernise the economy, to reduce dependence on oil and gas and to empower the women of the country – though not necessarily the methods employed to achieve the changes.

He was, after all, a cautious man. Possibly, depending on how things turn out, the last of the great Saudi patriarchs.

One final thought: In 2007 King Abdullah set up an Allegiance Council to formalise the procedure for the selection of the next crown prince. Under the rules, direct descendants of King Abdulaziz, be they sons or designated grandsons, have a vote. Given that a number of senior princes are currently under lock and key, one wonders how the Council would work if King Salman were to pass away any time soon. An issue yet to be resolved, I imagine.

Further reading: Search this blog for King Abdullah and you’ll find plenty of reading. Particularly I suggest my piece on Princess Noura University, and an article I wrote just before the Arab Spring on the generation gap. Robert Lacey is also excellent on Abdullah in Inside the Kingdom.

RetroSaudi: The Founder

My RetroSaudi series  – which features unpublished material I wrote about Saudi Arabia thirty years ago – starts at the beginning, or at least at the beginning of what we know as Saudi Arabia.

In Britain, many monarchs can lay claim to have founded the English component of the United Kingdom as a modern nation. Alfred the Great, William the Conqueror and the first Elizabeth all have a shout, depending on how you define modernity,

But in the country that is named after a family, only one person qualifies for the title: Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman Al-Saud, also known as Ibn Saud.


A fitting way to begin a series of glimpses at the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is to start with its first king. Nobody who visits the Kingdom can fail to notice the nation’s founder, pictured in his declining years, beaming benevolently from the wall of every government office and public building. A symbol as potent in this land as Lenin in the USSR and Mao in China, and no less revered or reviled, depending on whether the person thinking about him benefited or suffered from Abdulaziz’s often ruthless conquest of the Arabian Peninsula.

I sometimes wonder whether he is portrayed on those public walls as an aging, sedentary gentleman, rather than in his vigorous prime, erect in every sense of the word (he had fifty-four sons and innumerable daughters, innumerable because nobody bothered to count them), to avoid unflattering comparisons with his portly successors, the present king and his younger brothers, who appear on the walls beside him.

Certainly he was a hard act to follow. Truly a large man, physically, in his personality and in his achievements, Abdulaziz also had the benefit of the Arabian tradition of storytelling to enhance his legend. No television cameras were on hand when he recaptured Riyadh in 1902 from the Al-Saud’s deadly rivals, the Al-Rashid. We read of his exploits in the official hagiographies, heavily-embroidered anecdotes by Arab admirers, or the romanticised journals of English adventurers such as Harry St. John Philby, father of Kim.

No such rosy legends surround the present crowd. Like the first amphibians that emerged from the primordial swamp, the sons of Abdulaziz hesitantly cope with their new environment. Self-consciously attempting to adapt to the harsh scrutiny of the modem media, they try to project an heroic image for the TV cameras.

The Saudi news bulletins faithfully record every ribbon cutting, every airport greeting ceremony, every conference on sewage treatment and every police graduation day graced by one of the noble few. Alas, they have been encouraged to believe that the more public exposure of members of the family the more honour and admiration will accrue.

I don’t think so. I believe that the more sophisticated the Saudis become the more they will laugh at their ponderous rulers and their endless ceremonies. It’s a pity, because the Royal Family have done Abdulaziz proud in propagating the dynasty he founded; there are now over five thousand direct descendants. What’s more, the Al-Saud have done a creditable job in steering the Kingdom on a stable course while all around erupts in flames of conflict. They just need better public relations.

However the family chooses to project itself in the future, it’s unlikely that the official line will allow any deviation from the theme that the Arabia of today would be no more recognisable without Abdulaziz’s contribution to its history than the film industry without Hollywood. It’s hard to argue with them about that assertion.


I might have added at the time that the TV coverage of all those ceremonies was usually accompanied by a stirring rendition of Colonel Bogey, which to us Brits at least, inevitably brought to mind Adolf Hitler’s deficiency in the testicle department.

The three main men at the time were King Fahad, his half-brother Crown Prince Abdullah, and Prince Sultan, all of whom were somewhat corpulent. I didn’t mention Faisal, perhaps the most effective of the sons of Abdulaziz, who had what Shakespeare would have described as a “lean and hungry look”. More about him and Abdullah later.

I think the key message I was trying to put across was that despite the unsophisticated and often downright clunky PR, the royal family projected and achieved stability over a long period. But one person’s stability is another person’s inertia, and decades of “holding the line” have contributed to the sense that things must change – and fast.

Now, it seems, they have a smooth PR machine, but have they lost the stability? Has evolution been replaced by revolution?

Would Abdulaziz – the man who on his deathbed made his two eldest sons swear not to fight each other – be looking down in horror at the arrests of brothers and cousins?

Perhaps. He certainly would have admired the ruthlessness of the current Crown Prince. But I suspect that he would be reserving judgement until the consequences of Mohammed bin Salman’s actions become clear.

Finally, a story about Abdulaziz. When the King had the first telephone line installed between Riyadh and Jeddah, the religious sheikhs denounced this innovation as the work of the devil. He asked them whether the devil would tolerate the words of the Koran being transmitted through the phone. They had to admit that he would not. So the King arranged to call the sheikhs in Riyadh from his palace in Jeddah. And he recited the Koran. Hence perhaps the significance of the phone in the picture above, and evidence that he was not just a warrior king, but a man with political finesse when need be.

Further reading: Abdulaziz was by all accounts an extraordinary man. I’ve read a multitude of books about Saudi Arabia, but out of all of them Robert Lacey in The Kingdom, originally published in 1981, writes most compellingly about him. Still well worth the read.  For a thinly-disguised fictional account of the rise of Al-Saud, I recommend Abdulrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt trilogy, which I reviewed a few years ago. Here are the links for my reviews: – The Trench and Cities of Salt.


RetroSaudi – an introduction

Jeddah 1983

I’ve been writing stuff for fun for the best part of thirty years. That’s way before this blog started. Much of my early jottings were written at a time when I had the time. I was living in Saudi Arabia, and I wanted to record the things I saw and read, and what I felt about them.

I started with letters to friends, full of stories and descriptions. And then, in 1987, I became a bit more systematic. Our first child had been born the year before. If for no other reason, I thought it would be good to write on a set of specific subjects, so that I could show our offspring what their mum and dad were doing when they were babies.

I ended up with a set of short pieces on a wide range of aspects of Saudi life. I suppose it was at the back of my mind that they could form the basis of a book.

The book never happened, and anyway it would have been impossible to publish it while I was still in situ. The Saudis wouldn’t have taken kindly to some of the stuff I was writing. The next year I came home, got stuck into a business, and so for the following couple of decades most of what I wrote was in support of making a living. Boring stuff like proposals, procedures and marcom materials.

I wrote a fair amount of similar material in Saudi as well, plus glossy booklets extolling the work of my masters, and speeches that they could deliver at conferences.

I kept much of this stuff when I left. I stuck it in a big box where it lay, unvisited, until recently. In addition to my personal writing I had kept numerous press cuttings from the daily English-language papers. I organised the material into little clumps with labels such as “crime”, “women”, “health”, “religion” and “politics”.

Newspaper ad c1987

Over the past month, in an effort to clear my garage, I have exhumed much of what had lain buried, including the press cuttings, letters – which I’ve digitised – and about thirty of the vignettes about Saudi Arabia back in 1987. The first fruit of that labour was the last piece I posted about the time when the Saudis decided to introduce income tax for foreign workers, and then changed their minds two days later. I called it the mother of all U-turns.

When I look back at this stuff in the light of the dramatic developments in the Kingdom over the past year, culminating in the arrest of princes and business leaders accused of corruption, two things occur.

First, the pace of change was so slow that much of what I wrote then was pretty much up to date until Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman started shaking things up last year. Consequently, when things changed rapidly, almost in the blink of an eye what was previously current was now history.

Second, the life in Saudi Arabia that I witnessed was all about little dramas, not big ones. The big dramas – the Iran-Iraq war, the Mecca insurrection and the two subsequent Iraq wars, happened at times when I was not there – either shortly after or just before. Nothing deliberate about this – just the way the dice fell. But in each case, the fallout was palpable and lasting. But such changes as took place after each event pale into insignificance compared to what’s happening in the country today.

That being the case, I’ve decided to publish some of this material in a series of pieces under the heading of Retro-Saudi. I shall also include press cuttings, a few pictures and cartoons from the time, and a “then and now” commentary at the end of each piece.

Jeddah 1985

There is a precedent for this approach in the blog. Over three more recent years when I was visiting Saudi and providing consultancy and training workshops, I wrote a series of pieces in which I talked about things I encountered on my travels. If you’re interested, you can find them by searching on Postcards from Saudi Arabia in the field on the bottom right of the home page.

My purpose in writing about Saudi Arabia is not to bash the country or its people. Yes, there’s plenty to criticise, and no lack of people lining up to deliver their disapproval. I leave that field to them. Underlying everything I write is an affection for the good people I encountered, and memories of many happy years I spent there.

On the other hand, I’m not looking to excuse the inexcusable, or pretend that the dark side doesn’t exist. It did then and it does now.

I appreciate that not everybody who reads this blog is interested in Saudi Arabia beyond an understandable concern about events that might affect them. I shall continue to write about other subjects, but I’m hopeful that those of you who are not familiar with the Kingdom might find something to interest you too.

I’d also welcome comments, memories and stories, photos and any other contributions that conjure up what was and no longer is. You can either post comments to the blog, or email me at As long as your contribution is not to my mind obscene, defamatory, racist or insulting in any other way, I’ll do my best to publish it.

Watch this space.

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