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Tribal Traditions Clash With Modern Technocratic Society in Saudi Arabia


Monday’s terror attack on the U.S. Consulate in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah is the latest in a series of attacks against Westerners in the kingdom since last year. Analysts say the country where Islam was born is torn by tensions between tribal traditions and the modern technocratic world.

Oil-rich Saudi Arabia has seen more change in the past six decades than in the previous 13 centuries. Jeddah, once a sleepy village mid-way down the country’s Red Sea coast, is today a bustling port and industrial city. Like most developments in this wealthiest of Arab nations, Jeddah’s dramatic transformation was financed by the oil industry, which boomed in the 1970’s.

Thanks to its vast natural oil deposits, one quarter of the world’s total reserves, the kingdom was able to develop exemplary health and welfare systems, free education and a modern military force. But in terms of social developments, the oil wealth has had little impact. Much of Saudi Arabia has remained a tribal society, ruled by a royal family with seemingly complete power over its people.

Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East analyst at the Center for Strategic and International studies and author of a book titled "Saudi Arabia Enters the 21st Century," says the country is full of contrasts. "If you go to the area along the Gulf Coast where the oil industry is concentrated, it’s very modern and people there have more exposure to other states in the west, says Mr. Cordesman. "It is perhaps more liberal. The area around Riyadh and most of the internal areas in Saudi Arabia are less exposed to the West and more conservative."

Saudi Arabia’s role as the keeper of the Muslim holy shrines in Mecca and Medina is one reason many Saudis strictly adhere to Islamic social and religious customs and serve as model to 1.3-billion Muslims worldwide. "It is an intensely conservative, puritanical Islamic country. It is a country of tribes and extended families," says Mr. Cordesman. "It is still a nation of people who do not have, in broad terms, good contact with either the West or indeed, to the extent that other Arab countries do, the Middle East as a whole."

Since 1932 when Saudi Arabia was founded, it has been ruled by one clan, the Saud family. At the turn of the 20th century Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, supported by the clan of religious reformer Muhammad al-Wahab, wrested the power from Al Rasheeds. The discovery of oil in the early 1930’s led to the 1970’s oil boom. High oil revenues have enabled many Saudis to have a lifestyle that rivals or surpasses many in the West. This in turn has lured some six-million foreign workers to the country.

Walter Cutler, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, says this Western influence has outraged many traditionalists. "I think one of the sources of unhappiness among these people is that: look, when you have this vast oil income and you develop your country, what has happened is you have a lot of western technology and a lot of westerners coming in to help develop the country. In other words, you have a very large foreign presence there," says Ambassador Cutler.

Analysts say the cause of Saudi discontent is economic as well as political. There is growing unemployment as oil revenues decline and the population grows. The average Saudi woman bears six children so the population has quadrupled in the past three decades. More than a half the population is under the age of 20. Joseph Kechichian, author of the book "Succession in Saudi Arabia," says most young men are educated in Islamic theology, culture and history but not in the skills needed for today’s technological industry.

"So therefore, you have a pool of unemployed young men, religiously educated and well motivated, some of whom have military training because they’ve served at one point or another in the armed forces, who are venting their frustrations against the establishment, the large business holders, the established religious scholars and so forth," says Mr. Kechichian.

These unemployed youths are targeted by recruiters for terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaida. But Mr. Kechichian adds that many also grew up with satellite television, foreign music broadcasts and Internet and want a more open and democratic society.

The royal house has responded to the discontent by implementing limited changes, says Walter Cutler. "What I’ve noticed is a greater openness in dialogue - here I am talking about the media in particular - a discussion of social issues that one would not have expected to find in the media when I was there in the 1980’s," says Ambassador Cutler.

But for some Saudis, the improvements are not taking place quickly enough. Analysts say the Saudi leadership must address the concerns of all the segments of its diverse society, especially the