Arabian Gulf

Little Bahrain and Its Very Big Problems

Sex! Drugs! ATM bombs!  A long-running violent uprising against the government!  What’s not to love?

When I first visited Bahrain in February 2011, just a few weeks before the mass uprising that would happen later that month, immigration stamped my passport with a big, “BUSINESS FRIENDLY BAHRAIN” before waving me through the mostly empty airport.

When I returned two years later in February 2013, there was no mention or either business or friendliness as they scanned my passport for evidence I might have been a human rights worker or a journalist come to document the government’s thuggery.

While before 2011, Bahrain was known for its liberal mores and as a decaying 80s party spot (or, if from outside the region, not known at all), it’s now synonymous with sectarianism, fighting, Molotov cocktails, and weekends protests.  Bahrain might be a tiny place, but its problems are far bigger than its geography implies.

Welcome to Bahrain: the party island where the party might actually kill you

Think “Persian Gulf” and you think austere Saudi beards or out-of-control, ultra modern Dubai music videos.  Bahrain is somewhere in between and has the distinction of being one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the Gulf.  As such, it’s got less of the cultural immaturity of other new  Gulf states still finding their footing in the modern age and more of the hang-ups of a country that’s been around to have serious internal grudges.  Underneath Bahrain’s land are two resources that guaranteed it a place at the heart of the Gulf: an oasis and easy-to-grab oil.

Until the 1930s, the Bahraini oasis and its relative isolation from attack made it one of the biggest ports in the region.  One group, the Qarmatians, in their brief but awesome run as rulers of the island, set up a republic, sacked Mecca, and stole Islam’s Black Stone from the Kaaba before they ran out of energy and fell apart.  After that spate of piracy, Bahrain spent most of its history under domination from imperial powers, ranging from Iran to Portugal to finally Britain in the 19th century who were keen to ensure that no Persian Gulf Tortuga established itself there.

All by its lonesome.

To get an idea of how key Bahrain was in the pre-oil era (and to understand just how unimportant the Gulf in general was before oil), it was the residence of Britain’s colonial Political Agent, who, as a sort of latter day Roman proconsul, managed the Gulf on Britain’s behalf.  In other words, while Bahrain was the most important place for the empire in the Gulf, it was so unimportant in the grand scheme of things that Britain assigned just one dude and a small staff to it.

It was under Britain that oil was first found in the 1930s, sparking the oil rush in the Persian Gulf in general.  That oil rush, along with its long history as a settled place, helped Bahrain develop culturally into the closest the Persian Gulf has to a modern nation-state.  Trade unions set up; political parties were established; the British worried about communists taking over the government.  By the time the British withdrew in 1971, Bahrain’s power struggles were already in play.  To ensure things remained complicated, as the British left, the Americans sailed in.

Throw in some sectarianism and you get the drift

As a tiny place, Bahrain’s struggles were always local.  In the 1970s, Bahrain’s central government struggled to tame the many forces that sought different visions for the country.  In the beginning, while the Shi’a/Sunni divide existed as a result of Bahrain being a borderland between Shi’a Iran and Sunni Arabia, it was further subdivided between those who sought a republic, a communist utopia, a democracy, a traditional sheikhdom, and all kinds of other political models.  While in the 1970s the wider Gulf wasn’t much worried about politics as they started to build their societies, in Bahrain power was in flux.

Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution threw another wildcard into the mix, introducing Shi’a political Islam as yet another future for Bahrain.  In 1981, some Shi’a attempted a coup to seize the country.  From then onwards, the leftists, Arab nationalists, republicans and democrats started to choose sides between the two sects.  The USSR’s death in 1991 pretty much ended the Bahrani communist party (along with every other minor communist party worldwide) and the left merged to become part of proto-modernist secular movement seeking some kind of democracy.  With Shi’a political parties pushing for one set of things, modernists and secularists pushing for another, and Sunni traditionalists propping up the government, the result was a series of ploys, plots, riots, and lies as each side jostled for the best power position.

The 1980s weren’t all bad, though.  Lebanon’s civil war sent many banks scurrying to Manama to set up shop as Beirut cannibalized itself.  Much of the capital was built during this time (and shows today) and the country set itself up as a party spot for bored businessmen stuck in Saudi Arabia or other dire Gulf states.  Before Dubai took the model and went nuts, it was Bahrain that you wanted to party in.

But for all the fun of the 1980s, the 1990s were a decade of stagnation, occasional bombings, and intifada.  Opposition groups rightly pointed out that loyalists were getting the plum pickings of oil revenues and jobs and formed a coalition of Islamists, secularists, and democrats who sought to turn Bahrain into a more accountable constitutional monarchy.  The government decided that was a terrible idea and cracked down.  From 1994-2001, Bahrain wobbled.  Hardly anyone outside the region noticed as the roar of the stock market and the killing fields of Bosnia crowded out what news came from Manama.

To put an end to the uprising, the Emir, Hamad al Khalifa, offered a series of compromises that changed the country from an emirate ruled by an emir to a kingdom run by a himself.  This was accompanied by a few concessions that gave power to a handful of opposition figures.  It was bullshit and everyone knew it, but exhausted after seven years of protesting and willing, in typical Gulf style, to give anything a go once, the switch bought several years of relative quiet.  Until Mubarak fled in 2011 and the Bahraini opposition thought to have another run at revolution.

Crowded, hot, and angry.

Being caught between Saudi Arabia’s paranoia, Iran’s ambitions, and a part of the world that’s having trouble growing up is not a nice place to be

For Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is a bell weather for its own Eastern Province where quite a few Shi’a live – and where quite a few Shi’a are not happy with King Abdullah.  Once upon a time Bahrain served as a base that marauded Arabia.  That might have been a thousand years ago, but Bahrain’s geographical location could let it do so yet again if it were to fall out of Saudi Arabia’s orbit.

Meanwhile, Iran officially would love everyone to embrace its Islamic Revolution.  A natural expansion point is Bahrain with its Shi’a majority.  Iran has said again and again that it’s not involved in the simmering rising.  But it’s reasonable to assume, like much governments say, that’s a lie. Iran has every incentive in the world to destabilize Bahrain.

Meanwhile, other Gulf states like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates feel deeply insecure in a region where they historically have been dominated by either powers based out of western Arabia, Iraq or Iran.  With vast natural resource reserves, these states have double downed on alliances with the United States in hopes that that will provide border security while ruthlessly crushing internal dissent.  No one state may wobble; they are all built on the same foundations of sand.

Saudi Arabia brings the fun. The Saudi-Bahrain bridge takes about twenty or so minutes to cross.

And the Bahraini opposition has hardly given up

Bahrain is the only place in the region where the Arab Spring is alive and fighting.  As a small country with a relatively low population, it teeters on a knife’s edge, and only outside support has kept the current king in power.  Demographics matter and not in regards to the majority/minority game.  In a small country with a small population, the actions of a few hardcore activists carry more weight than in bigger places.  When a few hundred protesters seal off a neighborhood in Bahrain, that’s 10% of the country.  When a few thousand decide armed struggle is the way forward, that’s a country-wide civil war.

With Saudi forces in place and UAE police back-up, Bahrain’s outnumbered government can hold the line.  Bahrain is more or less occupied by these forces and the United States naval base.  While U.S. soldiers have nothing to do with the Shi’a uprising, they do force Iran to keep its support to a level that the king and his allies can handle.  The last thing Iran needs is to provoke the U.S. in the delicate on-going nuclear negotiations.

Bahrain’s rebellion smolders.  I was there two weeks back; I saw a neighborhood sealed off by police and army units while an attack helicopter circled, proof enough that things have not gone as quiet as the world media’s silence implies.

But a splintered opposition makes it all the harder to achieve real change

Bahrain, like all the Gulf states, went immediately for the sectarian card as soon as the Arab Spring began.  Any opposition to Gulf regimes was a Shi’a/Iranian plot to destroy Islam and the country.  This wedge has worked for now.  Sunni secularists don’t protest with Shi’a Islamists like they once did.  Fear and hatred has grown between the communities, stoked by a relentless state media that has witch-hunted protesters on Facebook.   Shi’a, meanwhile, have split between the old guard that favors a constitutional monarchy and radical, younger groups that want full democracy, Shi’a theocracy, or something in between.  For the young Shi’a now having grown up with street battles and burning tires, the al Khalifa royal family has no future in their country.  “Death to Hamad” is their battle cry.

Alas, Bahrain will not likely decide what happens to it

Left alone, on a long enough timeline, the al Khalifa family would eventually be pushed into the sea.  But they have big friends.  Powerful geopolitical interests of much bigger states wish to see the status quo continue.

To lose Bahrain could provoke a full-fledged rebellion in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and threaten world oil markets.  No Gulf state or Western power wants that.  To that end, Saudi Arabia’s military provides the edge needed to keep the demographic destiny of Bahrain from taking place.  The West will look aside; saving Bahrain’s opposition from the king’s guns is not worth the trade off of potential chaos in what would certainly be a flawed democracy.

Iran, meanwhile, can use Bahrain as a pressure point but not as a potential conquest.  Such a thing would be a red line guaranteed to trigger a U.S. counterattack that would destroy the Islamic Republic.  So Iran may support its choice opposition a bit, but not so much they throw the balance off and create uncontrollable chaos.

The king could reform the government and mollify the opposition as he once did.  But alas he does not control his own fate and is a fine demonstration of when leaders don’t really matter. To go too far will upset key allies in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, both of whom hate and fear democracy.  With royal factions in Manama who feel the same way, if King Hamad tries to go all enlightened on everyone’s ass, these anti-democrats will have Saudi military support in any coup they launch.  No matter what kind of man he is, King Hamad will not be allowed to be the first Gulf ruler to introduce democracy.

With underground democrats multiplying and organizing, the absolutists in the region’s royal courts must hold the line firmer than ever before.  Once upon a time, a ruler might have been asked why there was no democracy in his country and reply, “Islam,” and be convincing.  But no more.  The  carrots of heaven and free stuff have worn thin; now they must try the stick of the secret police prisons.

If state power weakens in Saudi Arabia, as it likely will if oil prices continue to flatten, Bahrain is the first raggedy edge that would unravel the entire political fabric of the Persian Gulf.  When that fire is lit, it will burn brightly.  There are better ways than this; nobody seems much interested in them.

Saudi Arabia’s Power Play (Or, the Childishness of Kings)

I’ve let my contempt for Saudi Arabia’s current governing system be known – several times.  This is because it’s a personality-centric system driven by personalities that most of you wouldn’t want to invite to dinner.  In such systems, psychology matters when understanding certain events.  Let’s take a walk through, shall we, and understand Saudi state psychology.

Mixing politics and religion is never a good idea

The primary role of religion is to answer the unanswerable; the primary role of political leadership is to organize societies into groups that can both fend off other organized societies and concurrently enrich a certain elite.  That second part there is important – political systems tilt towards earthly rewards for those at the top.  Heavy is the head that wears the crown, may as well have some virgins thrown in to alleviate, you know?  So goes the thinking.

Glaring for a reason.

Politics inherently perverts religion because the goals are entirely different.  One cannot strive for all the answers to the universe on the same day as one plots against a neighbor.  Those are very different conversations.  Because politics focuses on the earthly and immediate, any system that mixes the two pollutes religion with politics, rather than the other way around.  If a system becomes too religious, in invariably collapses because it takes the eye off the main balls – defending society from other societies and enriching the top elites.

Of course, Saudi Arabia has mixed the two to pure madness

And has created a powerful state psychology hinged on the belief that any culture or religion outside its own is hellfire waiting to happen.  Saudi security forces most likely believe all the tripe they’ve been fed and see anyone but themselves as infidels and impure.  This makes pretty much everyone on Earth the enemy.  Only Saudi royals rise above the fray and embrace infidels to save their kingdom.  Several of them – Prince Bandar especially – are quite aware the existence of the kingdom is contingent on outside support.

This creates a mentality of zero-sum thinking

Saudi state psychology is grappling rather frantically to find footing in the wake of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal.  No, that deal’s not finished, and much may fuck up before the day is out, but the precedent – that the two supposedly intractable foes can agree on principles – is a massive threat to Saudi Arabia.  Anything that strengthens a heretical power – Shi’a Iran – concurrently weakens Saudi Arabia.  For those who believe the world should be more like them, there’s no reason for co-existence except when absolutely necessary.

Saudi Arabia would like to see the end of Shi’a Islam – not forcefully necessarily, but through mass conversions as millions wake up and realize Saudi Arabia and not Iran has always had the true version of Islam.  The Iranian state is in the way of that; it stands to reason that its collapse, reduction or weakening would benefit Saudi Arabia’s religious designs.

Classy ads from classy people.

Conversely, Saudi Arabia sees Iran engaged in the same game – one for the souls of all Muslims.  There can’t be a formal peace that says, you’re good, I’m good, we all good.  Even if war is eradicated, the struggle for the soul of Islam will carry on through debate, schooling, and religious foundations.  Whoever has the most money will stand a good chance of carrying the day.

And so Saudi Arabia seeks to shore up its power base by encouraging its neighbors to stop existing

In 2011, I asked my Emirati students if they liked King Abullah’s idea of a unified Gulf Co-Operation Council, which would in essence just be a “Greater Saudi Arabia.”  Some of them said they were cool with it, since they were all good Muslims and what could go wrong?  Others wanted to keep their country.  Regardless, the proposal was met with tepid, “Oh, you,” responses from most Gulf capitals, rather than outright “no.”

Now the idea has come up again.  Saudi Arabia has greater incentive than ever to absorb the Gulf states, which would, at a stroke, give it about 2/3rds of the world’s oil reserves.  Even with America coming back into the game as an oil producer, such control would force the world to make sure Saudi Arabia stays stable and protected.  Virtually any incentive to see the royals go would evaporate.  It’s a helluva insurance policy.

As if anyone wants to go quietly into the night

Oman responded with a polite, but firm, fuck off.  The Sultan probably knows his branch of Islam, Ibadism, would get short shrift in this new mega-state.  With a state history much longer than Riyadh’s, Omanis also have a sense of self that wouldn’t be so easily swallowed.

The minority vote.

As for the other states, all of them fledgling in identity (save Bahrain), the idea most likely chills their leaders to the bone.  To say no is dangerous; Saudi Arabia will only see that as a threat.  But to say yes is more so; it means the end of their indigenous development programmes, some of which are decidedly un-Islamic.  The careful nation-building that’s been under construction for over 40 years will come crashing down; moreover, if Saudi Arabia does spiral into chaos, it means these states will be sucked down into it.

It speaks volumes about Saudi Arabia’s state psychology

The rather remarkable arrogance of the move is classic Saudi royal family.  “We’re big, we’re rich, and nobody should threaten that,” is the thinking.  Co-existence with Iran is quite possible if Saudi Arabia adopts an identity based on plurality and tolerance.  But there’s approximately zero signs of that happening right now.  If anything, they’re battening down the hatches and getting even more intolerant, seeing everything as a conspiracy to undo their shaky power.

It’s also self-defeating 

Even if Saudi Arabia gets away with this power grab, it will only be a success if the United States allows it.  The U.S. could easily neuter it in its early stages just by expressing disapproval.

But say Saudi Arabia manages despite that. All they’ve acquired is a set of states with low populations and high expectations and economies based on massive capital inflows.  They don’t gain strategic depth – Iran could invade the Eastern Province just as easily as Dubai.  If anything, it means expensive semi-occupations, where Saudi Arabia has to keep on bribing their new subjects at levels even greater than their former leaders to ensure their loyalty.  And if one of them decides to quit this federation, how long ’til a contagion of revolution, secession, and state disintegration takes root?

So why bother?

Because Saudi Arabian state psychology won’t allow its leaders to sit still while Iran’s suddenly brought in from the cold.  Any idea must be entertained, even if it’s a bad one.  Alas, it’s the equivalent of a hungry kid grabbing up all the treats and gobbling them down early to prevent anyone else from eating them.  Hardly an ideal scenario for running a state in the 21st century.

Saudi Arabia is going to make MERS a lot, lot worse

The Scientific American had a lovely article about how MERS, the Saudi version of SARS, is going to kill a great deal more people than it ought to. As I’ve already noted, Saudi Arabia is a horribly run place. This MERS outbreak is a glaring example of how incompetent the government there really is. (

For the record, I currently reside in the United Arab Emirates, a neighbor of Saudi and a country facing many of the same problems but to a far lesser degree.

We’ve already been over how jobs in the Gulf countries are typically bribes for locals. While you’d think the health sector would be immune, you’d be wrong. Part of it is because terribly trained doctors and administrators come to work in the Gulf. But another part is the fact that the health care organizations responsible for tracking a pandemic must be by their job description part of the government.

Here in the emirates, this results in redundant idiocy and sluggish services. To be absent from work, even with a sniffle, I must provide a doctor’s note stamped three times – by the doctor, the hospital, and finally the Ministry of Health. Yes, I said “stamped” – as if we’re sending secret love letters back and forth in Wuthering Heights.

This has gotten a bit better, with all three stamps now being provided by most hospitals, but is still an asinine procedure that saps time and energy from the real health problems in the country. Hospitals are overcrowded and slow – in fact, I’m sitting in one right now as I write this, trying to get a general physical.  I don’t think any hospital here has ever had a mass casualty event or, for that matter, faced down an epidemic.  I shudder to think of those poor souls who show up expecting treatment after a building falls down.

It’s not that Saudi is going to wholly cover up MERS, although, because the annual Ramadan pilgrimage is coming up and could potentially cause mass infections should one dude cough on the Kaaba, an incentive to play down the disease does exist. That may cause local bureaucrats to engage in some wishful thinking and fail to report symptoms they might spot.

But really, the problem will be the bureaucrats’ work habits. Imagine you’re the WHO, freshly dispatched to Saudi to monitor, report, and sort MERS. First you have the immigration nightmare because you may not be Muslim and you’ll need special papers to get in. You may also be a woman, so you’re double fucked. If the king makes this a priority, it shouldn’t take more than a few days to sort as the disease continues to spread.

After arriving, you encounter the morons. You’ll need one guy to open a door or unlock a computer file or give a report, and he’ll be off eating goat (not a joke – in the National Bank of Abu Dhabi last year I found an entire floor of staff eating goat on rice, not sorting my loan problem) or he’ll have gone home or he’ll be doing God knows what and you’ll stand there, like an idiot, waiting for him to arrive. This will be your new normal.

Meanwhile, all the data you get from the local hospitals will be inaccurate, incomplete, or won’t arrive on time. It’ll be easier to start completely over.

The king and his princes might throw a fit and get a lot of this moving a lot faster. But only after that happens will it dawn on you that most of the local staff have no fucking clue what they’re doing. A few bright doctors and administrators will feel like a Godsend, and when you complain to them that a country as wealthy as Saudi should have an online record system that works, they’ll shrug and say that’s just how it is in the kingdom.

While you waste time just doing the basics, MERS goes unchecked. Tasks that should be simple will be monstrous.

It won’t matter how much the king wants this or that done. He won’t be in the room as you try to stop MERS. His lackeys will scare the hell out of people but will only get them to run a lot faster rather than do anything useful. And this will be the result of the nature of Saudi society – the loyal are rewarded over the efficient. Worse, the efficient will be worn down by Saudi and either give up or quit, thereby leaving the system in the hands of the retards on whose support the regime relies. At no point will an efficient person be allowed to embarrass or surpass a loyalist, so no change is possible.

I’m not saying the world will end because of MERS or because of Saudi.  But I am saying this same disease would be far less lethal in an developed country.  Because of Saudi Arabia’s underlying problems, it will kill a bunch of people who might otherwise survive.

In 2009, the Gulf was scared shitless by H1N1. I know because I was here. But they only did so after the rest of the world had their panic. They could follow the models other countries adopted. This time, MERS is local. There’s no one to follow. And the Saudi government’s natural idiocy is going to get a lot of people killed as they struggle to suddenly discover an efficient healthcare system.

And herein lies Saudi Arabia’s massive challenge.  The king and his inner circle are practically the only people who can wake the system up and get it to perform at even a basic level.  But they can only be in so many places at once.  They might be good men; they might sincerely want to stop this or that or make the world a better place, and yet there are still only so many hours in the day.  They can really only focus on one problem at a time, swooping in to save the day.  This was all well and good in pre-modern days, since problems were simple and solutions equally so.  But in the new, globalized, multi-threat environment of the modern age, Saudi’s king is already overwhelmed.  Take his eye off the Shi’a in the east and he loses the kingdom’s oil reserves.  Focus on Syria too much and Iran suddenly ends up with an atomic bomb.  Fret about MERS a week too long and suddenly a palace coup has ousted the whole damned royal family.  Forget about education, proper hospitals, and the country’s infrastructure – he’ll have to just slap a “Good enough” stamp on them and call them done.

The United States has massive problems, sure.  But it has a system that can handle them.  People do their jobs effectively and with minimal corruption.  The U.S. can fight two wars, have a few natural disasters, a recession, a huge drug problem, and a dysfunctional Congress and still not miss a beat. The U.S. can rely on its people to do what they’re supposed to; employees who don’t do their jobs lose them.

Saudi is the opposite.  Only the eye of the king can move things in Saudi Arabia.  MERS is no different.  The king can’t be everywhere and sure as hell won’t be tagging along with WHO as they face the mindlessness of the health care system.  So it will take much, much longer to contain and stop the spread of MERS than it otherwise would.  And as threats multiply with globalization, the system will increasingly buckle under their weight until it finally breaks.

  • MERS: The silence of the Saudis (
  • New death from MERS virus in Saudi Arabia (
  • Saudi Arabia reports additional MERS coronavirus death making it the 31st fatality worldwide (
  • Saudi Silence on Deadly MERS Virus Outbreak Frustrates World Health Experts (
  • New death from MERS virus in Saudi Arabia (
  • MERS cases likely around globe, found in Saudi because country tests, official says (

Why Saudi is Fucked

Towns of hejaz arabic

Notice all the brown. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even the name sounds foreign.  Hear it properly in Arabic, with its deep, swallowed sounds at center of the word, سعيدي and it’s hard to imagine a further away place.  Saudi Arabia is, on the one hand, on the frontiers of Western imagination, a closed off, secret place associated with hot weather, sand dunes, and terrorists.  It can seem baffling to an outsider, a walled off portion of the world beyond normal rules and comprehension.  But like all human societies, the rules of geopolitics still apply.  Figuring it out – and guessing its next move – is merely a matter of getting your facts down.

Arabia’s really fucking hot

Arabia is one of the most God-forsaken places on Earth. It’s a super hard place for humans to live, and ranks with Antarctica in its desolation.  That the word “Arab” and “desert” are nearly synonymous is no accident, and Arabic as a language still feels constrained to the sands, as if it’s only natural in a hot, dry place.

Its complications stem from that.  Arabia is divided into three topological zones – the vast, shitty sandy deserts, the slightly less miserable but equally dry mountain ranges, and the handful of relatively temperature mountain clusters.

And its geography makes water hard to find

In the sandy deserts, life is almost impossible.  Thanks to the oases and wells scattered under the surface, people have made do for thousands of years in clusters of tents and small villages.  The mountain ranges trap some moisture and allow a bit of pasture, but are only marginally less rough than the desert sands.

Because it was so hard to find even water, let alone food, the scattered peoples of the desert spent a great deal of time and energy finding and securing both.  They had less time to think about esoteric ideals, like wondering if rape was bad or if bad was even worth worrying about at all.  Culture was based upon chauvinistic strength as each group of people gathered into family-based tribes.  Tribes that went against this grain were quickly wiped out.  Literally, only the strong survived.

Around particularly large oases, towns and villages formed.  But if that oasis dried up, that community was fucked and everyone either fled or died in rapid order.  Water security was so difficult to guarantee that as soon as a civilization got going it fell apart because of lack of rain. The famous Iram of the Pillars (located in western Oman) was once a major trading city, but died a quick death as soon as its well went dry, consigned to the dust heap of legend.

Yemen was an exception, but may as well have been an island. Its power could never extend into the desert wastes.  Patrolling, supplying, and securing the desert was a vast sink of money and it was far better for the kings of Yemen’s various dynasties to fight one another or to go looking for slave girls in Ethiopia.  It’s for good reason that Yemen’s early history is far more tied up with the Horn of Africa than it is with Arabia.

These three zones made it goddamn hard to take over the whole thing

Arabian geography is not disposed to social or political unity.  In the west are a series of mountains in varying degrees of miserable and tolerable.  These were relatively easy to travel through and unify, but so poor it was often not worth it.

In the central and eastern deserts, communities clung to oases and wells, surviving by networks of traders bringing goods in and out.  Only in two places – Oman and Bahrain – did proper civilizations form.  Bahrain had a lovely fresh water oasis that remains in use to this day.  Oman had a set of mountain ranges that trapped moisture and recharged wells all along its coast. Both, however, were isolated by the deserts and found it far cheaper to communicate and expand via sea.  It’s no accident Oman’s empire went into Africa, to Zanzibar and Tanzania, rather than geographically closer central and western Arabia.

Imagine you’re in charge of two buildings.  You can’t call or signal the other building because they can’t hear or see you and you don’t have a phone or the Internet.  You have to physically send someone over there to find out what the fuck they’re doing and to tell them what they should be doing.  But it takes six months to get a message back and then forth.  Your messenger may well die along the way, too, and it’d take months to find that out.  Meanwhile, your second building is paralyzed with indecision – they’ve got calls only you can make.  How long until that second building says fuck it and starts doing things on their own?  How long until your appointed manager decides he can get away with start his own company and pocketing the profit himself?

Arabia is the same way.  The west, the Hejaz, was connected to the old centers of civilization up north via roads and trade routes.  An army from Syria or Egypt could come down to Yemen by land and reasonably expect not to die of heat exhaustion on the way.  But eastern Arabia may as well be on Tatooine inside George Lucas’s head.  In between, it’s even worse, more like Frank Herbert’s Dune, full of nasty shit that itched to kill travelers.

Islam created a resource where before there were none

Prior to Islam, hardly anyone bothered with Arabia.  Alexander the Great thought of conquering it on a whim before he died in Babylon.  Rome sent troops and then, like a drunk sobering up during sex with an ugly person, pulled out as soon as they got a good look.

English: Kaaba at the heart of Mecca. As the n...

The sacred Kaaba at the heart of Mecca. This thing is a major cash cow. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Persia often just said, “Mine” in regards to the Gulf coast and nobody felt like disputing it.

Islam, therefore, proved to be a boom to this otherwise unfuckable landscape.  One of Islam’s main stipulations is that you must visit Mecca before you die if you can afford it.  As Islam gathered converts, more and more came to Mecca and dumped heaps of cash on an otherwise unappealing place.

The holy city, therefore, was the first must-have resource Arabia ever possessed.  Suddenly, regional powers had a reason to invade.

And invade they did

Nobody but a Muslim power could benefit from Mecca’s pilgrims and the legitimacy the city bestowed (Nothing says “God loves me” like being charge of a holy city).  Attack from the east was physically unfeasible (although, be it noted, not impossible), so only powers with bases in Syria and Egypt could move into the Hejaz.  Unfortunately for Yemen, they often kept going south until they reached Aden.  But they dared not waste their time trying to extend themselves over the whole peninsula.  Not only would their armies likely die out, but there was nothing of value out there.

Meanwhile, in the desert, the natives remained restless

Competition in the sands was fierce.  Fighting over wells and water resources sucked up most of their time.  Tribes lived by raiding one another and any settled communities to get manufactured goods like coffee pots and weapons.  But while they accepted Islam, this hardly made them any more peaceful or enlightened.  Their isolation from the mainstream discussions about Islam kept them from developing their religion in line with Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran.

This isolation also convinced them of their superiority as a culture, especially as they noticed that nobody but their culture group could survive in their desert.  All their bad (and good) habits were eventually declared to be bestowed and sanctified by God, from cousin fucking to woman whipping.  Nothing shut up the kids when they dared question their parents’ values by saying God wanted them to marry the hideous unibrow in the family.

And so it went until the 20th century

Without technology, people couldn’t get at the water deep underground.  Without water, they couldn’t afford to build cities and develop industries where they could manufacture goods for trade.  Without trade, they couldn’t get the technology to get the party started.  It was a thrilling cycle.

People did try to unify the place, but found that rather hard

Tribes organized and battered one another, occasionally achieving supremacy but always collapsing under their own weight and infighting.

And it all boiled down to the lack of water and food

A successful tribe, having driven out their enemy or, better yet, butchered them all, naturally divided the spoils amongst themselves and their allies.  These spoils were, more often than not, water and food.  This increased their survivability and made them prone to winning the next battle, since they were in better health than their enemies.

A tribe could snowball this and end up with quite a bit of territory.  But a critical breaking point was invariably reached.  Either the tribe overpopulated, and found themselves ironically weakened by all their success, or their own members started to get greedy, causing infighting rival tribes took advantage of.

Had a tribe gotten super lucky and actually put together a near-kingdom, they’d quickly pose a threat to the nearby great power occupying Mecca.  That great power would then roll into the desert, smoke out a few oases, and retreat again, leaving the tribes in disarray to start over.  So even if a tribe got to the point of nearly settling the interminable wars of the interior, some foreigner would roll in and screw it all up.

Because reading and writing outside of religious studies weren’t priorities for the tiny populations of the desert, history in the interior is fuzzy.  We know for a fact that this happened at least twice to the Saudi family, who built two kingdoms in the 18th and 19th century and then saw them collapse from internal squabbling or Turkish invasion.

English: Saudi Arabia

Saudi’s various regions. The ever-so-creatively named Eastern Province is where Saudi’s oil is located. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Meanwhile, outsiders carved up those bits worth carving

The Ottomans in the Hejaz developed rail lines to Mecca and Medina to help facilitate the cash flow brought by pilgrims from all over the Muslim world.  Until the 1930s, this was the only reason for a great power to bother.  When Britain fought Turkey in World War I, it outsourced the Arabian front to Arab tribes since Mecca had almost no value to them as a Christian power.

Britain, meanwhile, grabbed the east the same way as the Persians in antiquity – by sailing in and saying “Mine,” taking over with minimal effort.  A Political Agent in Bahrain oversaw the entire Gulf and his main duties seem to have been to complain about the weather and remark on how boring his post was.

But oil changed the game quite suddenly

In the 1930s, geologists found Arabia’s second must-have resource.  By this time, the Saudis had gotten lucky and had set up another proto-state, even securing Mecca and Medina. The collapse of the Ottoman Turks meant no outside power was hovering overhead, ready to intervene.

The new imperial power in town, Great Britain, had a different set of priorities entirely.  Seeing no value from Arabia, Britain desired only quiet frontiers with its mandates in Jordan and Iraq.  Anyone who ruled the interior had to provide that.  The Saudis took the hint, and when some of their more hardcore warriors, the Ikhwan, started to raid British territories, the Saudis turned on them with a vengeance and wiped them out.  Britain was duly grateful and sought not to interfere in Saudi’s nascent kingdom.

With Britain keeping neighboring powers out, the Saudi family got critical breathing space.  When oil was found, it duly set up companies and oil derricks.  Britain was not bothered with grabbing any of this up – they’d found plenty in Kuwait, Iraq, Bahrain, and Iran, all British holdings at the time.  Only the U.S. was willing to invest in the horrible Arabian desert.

And so the state of Saudi Arabia was born

Without oil, Saudi would no doubt have collapsed yet again into anarchy, given enough time.  Water and food are simply too scarce there to allow a proper state, which have to have dense populations, to survive.  But oil allowed the Saudis to buy up heaps of technology to come in and change the environment while at the same time buying off the tribes, families, and regions who otherwise might have challenged them.

The fact that they had more money than God made everything possible. Rebellion was a thing of the past.  The tribesmen, ever hungry, were happy to be given free meals.

And free meals led to free everything else

With each passing year, the Saudi family had to up the ante for their subjects.  By the 1970s, it wasn’t enough to just be fed, and the Saudis started to build free houses, offer free education all the way through university, and set up free health care centers.  With their small population and massive oil income, they could import all of this from the outside world.

As Britain withdrew from the Middle East in 1971, America stepped in to secure oil supplies.  Once more, Saudi could count its borders safe as America’s fleets and armies guaranteed their integrity.  In addition to oil income, which they did hardly any work for, Saudis could also write off national defense.  Everything was easy street.

But the nature of their ruling system meant they could change little else

The Saudis were blood-stained conquerors who’d won their kingdom by killing everyone who stood in their way.  Upon finishing that, desert tradition required them to dole out the spoils to their new subjects.  Rebellion was stifled so long as these spoils arrived on time and in sufficient quantity.  Change of leadership was out of the question for everyone concerned.

So the culture got frozen in time

The Saudis, too, had not gone through the same process as other Arab and Muslims states.  These had encountered foreign cultures, fought and lost wars against them, and learned a great deal about what works and what doesn’t.  Saudis, many of them illiterate, had little to no memory of their failed proto-states and knew only that God have given them oil and with it shitloads of money.  They could be forgiven for suffering from cultural and religious arrogance, even xenophobia.

The ruling system was therefore entirely based on the supposedly supreme values of the desert.  Although the ruling family always came first, they had to delegate, and so power was dispersed to those most conservative and most traditional.

Quickly, this resulted in myth-making and fantasy as Saudis basically made up their own history to justify their modern decisions (and they must have been quite pleased their ancestors were mostly illiterate fucks who might otherwise have contradicted them).  What was already a hardline form of Islam became totalitarian, seizing radio, TV, press, and education.  It then started to spread to other countries, believing their superior culture needed only to be exposed to the ignorant masses to establish supremacy.

In the meantime, technology made a shitty environment rather palatable

English: Kingdom Centre, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia....

All them goddamn lights ain’t cheap. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Air conditioning, deep well pumps, desalination, cars, airplanes – all of it made the environment less important than it had been.  Riyadh, once just a barely-there oasis (the g-string of the Arabian world) barreled into a multi-million person city, complete with malls, parks, highways, and airports.  Babies that used to die of heat exhaustion in the tent went on to adulthood.  Families that had two dozen kids expecting only five to make it instead sent them all off to free university.  The population exploded and cities appeared from the dust.

The east-west divide became far less important strategically as roads and air links allowed the Saudi government to send directives at little cost.  All modern technology was used to justify and sanctify Saudi culture and to degrade both foreign cultures and any Muslims who didn’t follow the Saudi way of life.  As we’ve seen, the buckets of cash allowed Saudi to think God really did favor them.

And a weird fucking place was formed

Saudi Arabia has all the trappings of a proper country – a single language, ethnic group, religion, etc.  It’s physically united through roads and airports and its national army can travel to and fro without harassment.  It has all the ministries a country should.

But scratch the surface, and you’ll find the desert.  In order to keep power, the Saudi royal family has, with each generation, needed to keep bribing at higher and higher levels.  By the 1980s, food, housing, education, and healthcare weren’t enough; disposable income for toys, hookers in Thailand, and maids from the Philippines was the next step.

Alas, Saudi culture doesn’t mesh well with much besides living in a desert tent.  Few Saudis knew how to do much more than pray, live in the desert, and judge people for not praying the right way.  As immigrants set up businesses and industries, it was obvious Saudis had no idea how to do these jobs properly.

So Saudi’s government made jobs out of thin air, allowing Saudis to work for – well, the government itself.  Short hours and long holidays helped empty out the office and nobody expected anything to actually be done.  Can’t read or write?  No problem! In the Ministry of Education you need only find the door.  (Oh, it’s that one over there). It was just another way of giving handouts to key tribes.  A job was a bribe; in exchange, you were loyal.

This worked for a long time because oil meant Saudi didn’t have to compete in anything

From the 1970s until the 2000s, Saudi didn’t have to be good – or even competent – at any of its supposed industries or businesses.  Everything needed could be imported from abroad.  Technology was overseen by foreign experts who took fat, tax free paychecks.  Businesses of strategic importance were managed by immigrants.  Saudis themselves needed only visit the ATM, as far the government was concerned (and the ATMs were probably installed by guys from Pakistan).

This isn’t to say individual Saudi citizens weren’t gifted and intelligent people – many of them took advantage of the free university education offered and became bright people in their own right.  The problem, these gifted folks weren’t enough to run the country. The vast majority of citizens had no incentive to learn how to do anything except spend money and give lip service to their religion and culture.  It created a skills gap of epic proportions.

The result is that the Saudi economy doesn’t know how to do anything

Saudis don’t have the education level to run their own country.  Massive numbers of immigrants keep the system humming along.  Those few qualified Saudis that exist won’t be promoted over more loyal or better connected Saudis who don’t know a goddamn thing because the royal family doesn’t value proper education.  Properly educated people would notice the Saudi ruling system is bullshit and making things worse; even well-educated Saudi royals have probably noticed that.

The staggering ignorance still doesn’t matter – for now

So long as oil remains the primary income and immigrants remain willing to come into the country to work for tax free salaries, Saudis can get away with knowing nothing and doing less.  Their regional security is still secured by the United States – Iraq’s foray into Kuwait ended the era of cross border invasions in the Middle East for at least this generation.  So they can be isolated, dumb, and indolent.

But the oil money isn’t going as far as it once did

Oil money is used by the government to purchase loyalty.  But the price is being inflated rapidly.  Food, housing, healthcare, and education weren’t enough even in the 1980s – fun and entertainment had now entered the equation.  The level of fun and entertainment have become inflated with each passing year, as well.  One car’s not enough – most people want two cars.  And not Nissans anymore.  They want Landcruisers.  Oh, also, they don’t want to pay for gas.

It’s gotten so bad that it’s predicted, by the 2020s, Saudi may actually need to import oil to cover all its losses in the energy sector.  With gas, electricity, water, and air conditioning all subsidized, it’s no wonder Saudi is a horrifically wasteful place.

As salaries for worthless government workers go up, too, so also do prices in the Saudi economy.  The workers produce nothing and don’t increase wealth – only the oil income does that.  Inflation ravages and so the government has to pump ever more generous paychecks into the system.

The Saudi government says it realize this

Economic diversification and Saudization are the key words of the past decade.  Attempts to reform this or that, to globalize education, to make Saudi workers more productive run up against the hard expectations Saudis have spent nearly forty years developing.  Saudis want a lot and to work little.  They refuse in large numbers to take jobs that offer anything less.

King Abdullah ibn Abdul Aziz in 2002

King Abdullah waving and saying it’s all cool.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And it all stems from the fact that the most important value to the Saudi royal family is blind loyalty through blind piety

God wants the Saudis in charge, and if you love God you must love the royal family too.  Fuck everyone who says otherwise because they’re for sure going to Hell. This is the basic theme taught by the Saudi education system.

People who fail to follow these rules face immediate and harsh punishment. They’re not just going against the king, but against God, so honestly, to many religious people, no punishment is severe enough.

And so the Saudis have fucked themselves

To reform, Saudi must open the door to critical thinking to allow creative problem solving.  Alas, when you open that door, you can’t shut it again.  Critical thinking will notice asinine habits of Saudi society – like women being unable to drive, like people working very little but getting a whole lot because of family connections, like setting up farms in the middle of a sandy desert.  It will notice all these problems stem from the bribes doled out by the ruling family and that the central problem is the royal family itself.

And that’s when you get a revolution

A clever monarchy reforms itself out of power but keeps many of the privileges.  It does so at the pace its society is modernizing.  Britain did that quite well and so the House of Windsor continues to enjoy Buckingham Palace.  The French Bourbons, on the other hand, didn’t.

But unfortunately for the House of Saud, it’s impossible to tell just how quickly society is modernizing.  Normally, you can get the feel of things through a free press or pop culture or even the Internet.  But all those sources are controlled or regulated into oblivion, so even if Saudi’s government was watching carefully, they’d see nothing. It’s also happening at a pace unimagined before.  Britain had the whole Industrial Age to flip from an absolute monarchy to a parliamentary one.  Saudi may have just ten or twenty years.

Worse, the currency of the realm is still conservatism.  Challenging this results in quick pushback from the religious folks, who are hardly above outright rebellion.  The Shah of Iran could tell stories of what happens to a guy who modernizes too fast for his peoples’ liking.

Right now, bribes and fear keep the locals in line

If only Emperor Palpatine had used the Death Star to destroy planets and shower them with free gift cards, he’d probably have lasted a great deal longer.  This is essentially the Saudi model.  You can be arrested for anything even remotely anti-government or anti-Islam, and once in jail you’ll be raped as much and for as long as the police like with nary a peep from the press.  But smile at the king’s portrait and say sternly conservative things about Islam and you’ll get a lovely new car.

But the regions are not as united as they appear

Coat of Arms of Saudi Arabia

Coat of Arms of Saudi Arabia. Two things the whole country has in common: knives and palm trees. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Saudi is still a classic kingdom, with nobles and everything.  There’s a culture divide between east, west, and center.  In the west, long attached in some form to civilization, people are more likely to realize the Saudi system is not all its cracked up to be and that Islam has variant forms.  In the east, once under Persian influence, Shi’a Muslims are well aware their government thinks they’re going to Hell and that they sit on most of the kingdom’s oil reserves.  Only in the center – in Riyadh – where the Saudis originally came from and where people were most isolated – is loyalty most assured.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

Failure to introduce critical thinking into their culture will make Saudi non-competitive in a generation.  Oil money only goes so far; it’s a finite well that doesn’t have to run out to become ineffective.  As soon as Saudi cannot pay some ridiculous food or wedding bills to even a few citizens, they risk a cascade of complaints that could tear their kingdom apart.  So Saudi must do something.

But critical thinking will invariably challenge everything Saudi society believes in.  You can’t get a creative problem solving engineer who won’t notice working for a retarded royal cousin is bullshit.  Additionally, Saudi’s official brand of culture is afraid of everything and convinced anything not Saudi is evil.  Upon learning that nations don’t fall when couples kiss in public (or that flogging people is a terrible crime deterrent), Saudi citizens will reject the official culture and the government’s central legitimacy will be lost.

The likely future

Saudi probably won’t reform or, if it does, will reform poorly.  The Saudi royal family is supposed to be ordained by God to rule; they’re not going anywhere.  Saudi society isn’t ready to question their religion and culture in a way that doesn’t involve fighting, arrests, and civil unrest.  The incentives to change just aren’t there.  Forward-thinking royals will experiment here and there; one of them might be become a king.  But all of them will be thwarted by the system they themselves created.

What will happen is the oil money will start to fail to solve society’s ills.  Crime will go up; disobedience will increase.  It will be a Saudi form of the 1960s, but far worse, as Saudi is still a tribal society.  Tribes will pull away from the House of Saud as they are no longer bribed.  They’ll support tribes that they think will restore the artificially imposed balance.

And nobody will know what the fuck they’re doing

Tribes will lie to acquire power.  Saudi will either crush them, making more enemies and spiraling violence further, or will lose to them, at which point they’ll inherit all the same problems.  A new tribe won’t solve the fundamental issue: Saudis will want more and more and the oil money will be able to deliver less and less.  That attitude won’t change except after hard times realign Saudi society.

The odds are in the government’s favor – for now

The degree of violence used will entirely depend on the Saudi government.  Right now, they’re far more likely to shoot on protesters or murder their enemies than negotiate.  The National Guard, essentially a giant tribal bodyguard, is blood-connected to the ruling house and well-armed.  Regular army units are treated as yet another jobs-but-really-bribes scheme and are terrible soldiers.

But they’ve got a problem – the United States

Alas, America’s values have changed.  As the guarantor of Saudi security, America’s opinion counts.  If the Saudi government turns on its people, like Syria, America will threaten all kinds of high hell, enough so as to scare members of the military and security services.  The Saudi royal family, or at least part of it, could be shunted aside by these pro-American forces, like Hosni Mubarak was.

So the fight will be Saudi vs. Saudi

America will ensure nobody gets involved except Saudis.  It will also quickly pick a side; whether it favors stability or reform will depend on the personality in the White House.  But it will secure its interests, the oil exports, rapidly and effectively.  It may well end up securing just the oil fields and letting Saudi society atomize and rot further afield.  That alone would secure American interests.

There are, in other words, no good futures for Saudi Arabia

Saudi must reform, but can’t because to do so will probably destroy the royal family itself.  The only way to change Saudi Arabia fundamentally is through a deep and long lasting trauma.  It’s too late for the king to do anything.

Will it be a bang or a whimper?

Eventually, a trauma must realign Saudi society.  The question comes, how big?  Will it be a civil war?  A running terror campaign?  A 60s-style cultural revolution?  Will the House of Saud die at home or in exile?  Will they go peacefully or by machine gun?  Regardless, it can’t last.  Change is coming.  The Saudis can only hope to mitigate the disaster.

The timeline is also up for grabs.  One can guess in the next ten years or twenty that something big will happen there.  But it certainly will happen long before the oil runs out.  Saudi won’t suddenly wake up one day and find themselves broke.  Societies don’t work that way.  They’ll fall apart another way.