My former life as an Army officer afforded me a myriad of opportunities to travel and see the world. My journeys to Iraq and Afghanistan may have added to the rich tapestry of my life experience, but they are far from what I would consider “enjoyable” adventures. Despite these experiences, I continued to immerse myself in the culture, language, and political affairs of the Arab World. For my efforts, I was rewarded with the opportunity to travel the middle east and work with the State Department for over a year. Digging through my records, I’ve uncovered some of my older pieces of writing on the matter (circa 2013-2014). Hopefully, it provides some interesting insights into the region.
Objectives of my Trip:
The purpose for my trip to Saudi Arabia was to assess the long-lasting United States partnership with Saudi Arabia, both in regards to the Kingdom’s large Oil Reserves as well as its role as a significant partner in our counter-terrorism efforts in the Arabian Peninsula.
Coordination was made with the [US Embassy in Riyadh], who coordinated for our embassy briefs in addition to a brief with the U.S. Land Forces at Eskan Village. In order to prepare for my trip I read the Congressional Research Service’s Papers: “Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations (February 14, 2014)”
Note: The article, “Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations” has since been updated. Current issue is June 13, 2017.
Upon first arriving to the Kingdom, I entered the country with a number of preconceptions in my mind regarding its religious conservatism. Throughout my stay,
however, I did not see any examples of this conservatism despite the obvious divisions between the sexes. One of the best places to observe this phenomenon is the Mall. At Kingdom Tower (where one can buy a ticket to get a scenic view of Riyadh), one can see how much effort is put into separating men from women, the food court is divided into the common area and a “family” area; all lines at the various food vendors are split into two, one for men and one for women, separated by a small divider; and security guard steadfastly guards the stairs and elevator to the “women’s only” floor of the mall. Though I never saw an example of harsh punishments in the city and we spent the majority of the time vainly on the watch for the Religious police, we did not see them during our time in the country. The mall was an example of how separate the sexes are in the Kingdom, and I can only imagine how our experiences in the Saudi Arabia would have significantly differed if we were women.
Reflecting on the last sentence there, I can only say to myself: “Wow, thanks Captain Obvious.” The division the sexes and oppression of Women in the Kingdom is both shameful and cruel; and while there are reformers, real change appears to be nowhere in sight in the foreseeable future.
Another preconception was that typical stereotype of the “Rich Gulf Arab.” This stereotype was most certainly not applicable in Saudi Arabia, as opposed to observable cases in locales like Qatar. Yet here, in many places one could see working-class Saudis and even poor people on the streets (this was more evident in Jeddah than in Riyadh). I had occasion to socialize and speak with my a Saudi Colleague from [my time training with the Omani Royal Air Force] and his friend. What I gleaned from this conversation is that Saudis have gone through great lengths to hide their unemployment and housing issues. One Saudi Man claimed over 80% unemployment and 70% homelessness in the Kingdom (My opinion, is that this man did not mean actual homelessness…but was in fact referring to home ownership). I am under the suspicion that these numbers are slightly inflated as this gentleman made it clear that he was one of these youthful Saudis seeking reform and would take great pleasure in a regime change; decrying the empty promises of the government and echoing the sentiment that only the royal family shares in Saudi Arabia’s great oil wealth. The economic briefing at the embassy quoted a more “reasonable number” for unemployment set at 11%.
As with many Gulf Nations, Saudi Arabia is attempting to address its unemployment
with its own flavor of “Saudi-fication” of the work-force. This, by all accounts, is a legitimate effort on the Saudi Government’s part, but falls short of proper implementation. The best example is the educational exchange program that sends young Saudis to western institutions. Regrettably, when these Saudis return to the Kingdom, the job market is not prepared to absorb these individuals’ skill sets, and so many find themselves occupying positions that are not suitable to their education. On a cultural note, many Saudis find themselves without work because they go abroad and study subjects that are not in demand by the market…something akin to a History
Major forced to drive a taxi due to lack of demand for such professionals.
Saudi Arabia is aware of the future, but they (much like Kuwait) are not utilizing good
business acumen to promote diversification. They are, interestingly enough, looking to solar power to meet their internal energy consumption needs, but their goals are set far too high at the moment. Additionally, they are looking to develop a non-existent auto industry in the kingdom. The problem at the moment is that Automotive Sheet Aluminum is being produced on the West coast, but the Saudis are pressuring auto-makers to build factories on the East Coast…a difficult sell to Western manufacturers as the most sensible economic decision would place factories as close to the aluminum as possible to reduce costs. When one takes into account that over 90% of government revenue comes from oil, and that Saudi Arabia spends a great deal in wages (the
government of Saudi Arabia is huge…the Ministry of Interior alone compromises about 3% of the population and the Ministry compromises about 40% of the Saudi Government), the future of Saudi Arabian economic fortunes appears precarious.
To place those figures into perspective, Saudi Arabia’s population is over 32 million. 3% of that figure is falls short of One Million people working for the Ministry of the Interior (~970, 000!). Again, to lend further perspective: The United States Department of Interior says they employ around 70,000 people (That’s about .002% of the total US population).
Also, Saudi Arabia is faced with a large youth bulge (again, following the trend of its
fellow Gulf neighbors), combine this youth bulge with its educational exchange program and you have a large cross-section of the population that is energetic and hungry for reform (both political and cultural) having been influenced by western ideas while abroad. It is this keen awareness of potential change that everywhere I go in the Gulf I am asked: “Do you think revolution will come to my country.” In some respects, I view this question as a probe as to what “The American” thinks. Sometimes it is asked, fearful of the potential changes ahead…but in other instances I am left with the impression that the person asking the question is fishing for positive reinforcement…thinking that my answer that an Arab Spring will arrive in Saudi Arabia feeds their hopes of such an event occurring. Regardless, the Saudi Government is attempting to balance its foreign policy accordingly to ensure continued stability in the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia’s overwhelming fear (bordering on Paranoia) of Iran is what is currently
driving foreign policy in the country. It is one reason why continued close relations with Bahrain exist and why Saudi Arabia is carefully supporting opposition movements in Syria. Connected to their fear of internal stability, the Saudi Government is wary of which opposition movement they support, because the last thing they want is for an extremist regime to arise in place of Al-Assad, but more importantly they are fearful of foreign fighters (many of whom originated from Saudi Arabia) from returning…and with their return, bringing more extremist ideology and skill sets that as guerrilla/insurgent fighters could be used against the Saudi Security Infrastructure and the royal family. The Saudis are content, however, to see the Al-Assad regime fall first…then they will address the issues of who fills the power vacuum. In many ways, it is the Saudis’ fear of the Iranians that blinds them to any alternatives… negotiating with the Iranians and their various “Pawns” is an impossibility in the minds of the Saudi government. Our shifting focus [to other regions] is also concerning Saudis because they feel as though they will be neglected and our talks with Tehran do little to ease the minds of the Saudi Government.
As one can imagine the political landscape in the area, so far as Iran is concerned, has changed drastically. The hard-line rhetoric of a Trump regime has calmed and soothed the Saudi government, and encouraged them to continue their campaign of military intervention against the Houthis in Yemen (Shi’a, who the Saudi’s believe are under the direct influence of Iran).
Closing with our partnership with the Saudis; our three [Foreign Military Sales] programs are large organizations capable of meeting the Saudis needs. [Our program supporting the Saudi Interior Ministry] is particularly interesting and serves as an umbrella organization that includes all U.S. government agencies. [Our support of the Ministry of Interior is unique in that it is one of the only Interior Ministry that receives Foreign Military Sales funding], but an exception was made in the case of Saudi Arabia, [mainly] because it is considered a para-military organization. One of the challenges that a Security Cooperation Officer faces when working with Saudi Agencies is that these agencies have a tendency to covet thy neighbor’s things…in other words, the Ministry of Interior wants some things that Ministry of Defense has, even if they have no need for such items. [e.g.: The Ministry of Defense buys F16’s, as a consequence, the Ministry of the Interior feels a need to ask for a similar deal]. Given that the Saudi Government’s three priorities are Egypt, Syria, and Iran, and given that the U.S. and the Kingdom disagree on policy on all three counts; it speaks volumes to our cooperative security relationship that business can still be conducted despite these differences.
In retrospect, this very strong relationship is built primarily on a symbiotic relationship borne of necessity only. The Saudi government needs the support of the United States to continue to survive in an increasingly unstable environment. We require a friendly Saudi government amenable to us so that we can continue to have access to Saudi Oil.
Regional and Cultural Knowledge
Everyone is happy to describe Saudi Arabia as Medieval. This is usually in reference to its draconian penal system and harsh religious standards upheld by the Muttawah (the religious police). This description was adequately applied to the workings of the government itself: In the Country you have the King who is (surprisingly) the King, under the king are the various fiefdoms (i.e. the Government Ministries). Each of these small fiefdoms vie for favor with the king, compete for “land” and “resources,” and seek to build their own “army” which can translate to manpower and equipment. At no time did we see evidence of the religious police during our stay in Jeddah and Riyadh. We did encounter the rather inconvenient occurrence of being asked to leave an establishment as it closed for prayer and being politely asked to leave a “family” area we had accidentally strayed into at a park. Asides from that, Saudi Arabia proved far less intimidating that originally anticipated.
Travel Tips for Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia was not the intimidating trip I originally expected. That being said, ensure you obtain an International Driver’s Permit if you intend to rent a car. As this is necessary for car rentals and the RSO (U.S. Regional Security Office) restrictions currently do not allow you to travel via public transport. Riyadh was surprisingly filled with activities in comparison to Jeddah; which proved to have a more “cosmopolitan” feel, but the old city was dilapidated (signs that it was indeed…well, Old), and the museum was also being used as office space. The National Museum in Riyadh, however, was very large, well-organized, and if you are willing to put in the time, an excellent source of information on the history of Islam. If I were to plan out my trip for a longer period of time I would recommend attempting to travel to “Mada’in Saleh,” which are some Nabatean Ruins that (at least according to the images at the Museum) remind me of Petra in Jordan.
Some notes I did not include in this initial report:
When travelling in Saudi Arabia, I never felt more afraid for my life than at any previous point in past (I include my deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan in that statement). This sense of danger was not from a fear of being kidnapped or targeted by terrorist activities, but from traffic safety. Driving in the Middle East is inherently chaotic and dangerous to the uninitiated, but Saudi Arabia has taken that chaos and danger to a whole new level by injected pure, unadulterated recklessness into the mix. Like a drunk leaving the bar and driving home, cars drift and weave into neighboring lanes. Speed Limits might as well be non-existent. Lane changes are careless and last minute. If I were to perish in the Middle East, it would not be from a bomb or bullet; but from being sideswiped on the freeway at 80 miles-an-hour. Bottom Line: Be wary and cautious on the roads.
Disclaimer: These writings constitute my own observations, opinions and viewpoints seen through the lens of a military veteran and shaped through my interactions with my professional colleagues. It in no way reflects an official statement by the US Government nor are any details being revealed that could constitute a breach in confidence or security.
Thank you for reading. Hopefully you liked this light departure from current US Domestic Affairs ravaging our country. More will follow as I continue to unearth my old records. Please comment, like, and share at your leisure. You can, as always, also follow me on Twitter @streamingdan82
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