The Magazine

What to Do in Riyadh

You're only two hours from the Emirates--get on a plane.

Dec 10, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 13 • By LEE WOLOSKY and MAX BOOT
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Does all this construction make economic sense? Local officials insist that it does; the sky's the limit. So far they appear to be right, but at some point the market will be saturated. Even when the inevitable downturn arrives (and it could easily be triggered by a slump in the price of oil), the future of the UAE still seems bright because Dubai and Abu Dhabi offer such a welcome investment, tourism, and residential haven in a region better known for war and extremism. The freedom, opportunity, and stability are unrivaled in this part of the world.

If you want to see why so many rich Iranians, Iraqis, Saudis, Kuwaitis, and other Middle Easterners have poured their resources into the UAE, all you have to do is hop on a two-hour flight to Riyadh. Traveling to Saudi Arabia is like going back through time to a drearier era of economic stagnation and repression. You know you're not in Dubai anymore when the first thing you see at Riyadh's airport is not the duty-free Hermès shop but a line of at least 30 men kneeling in prayer next to the gate. We don't recall hearing the muezzin, the call to prayer, once in Dubai. In Riyadh we heard it five times a day, and each time it sounded, large numbers of Saudis streamed into mosques that are notable for their ubiquity and size.

One of the most striking things about spending a few days in Riyadh is the paucity of contact with the fairer sex. Not a single woman was employed in our business hotel; even the maids were men. There were few women to be seen in public either. When they do make an appearance it is of course in a shapeless black abaiya (gown) topped off with a hijab (head scarf) and burqa (face covering). Aboard an Emirates flight from Dubai, we watched one woman clad in this outfit eating her dinner. It was quite a production, with every morsel of food and every drop of drink having to be lifted precariously beneath her burqa. Mustn't lift the veil even an inch lest, presumably, some lascivious male be turned on by the sight of a dainty jawline.

That was one of the few times we saw a Saudi woman eating, since all restaurants, public buildings, and even private homes are strictly segregated. Women are never supposed to mix with men to whom they are not related. In one of the more barbaric applications of this antediluvian code, a 19-year-old Saudi gang-rape victim was recently sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in jail for being in a car with an unrelated male when the attack occurred. Last week, her lawyer was disbarred for objecting too vociferously to this mind-boggling outcome.

While aware of this gender apartheid before visiting the kingdom, we had failed to appreciate how pervasive it is. Just as in apartheid South Africa and Jim Crow America there were separate entrances for whites and blacks, so in many Saudi buildings there are separate entrances for men and women. The public library has men's and women's sections. So did a Starbucks near our hotel.

Women are discouraged from working, and when they do work, they are put in separate office areas. Only 7 percent of Saudi women are employed--a tremendous waste of human capital. The official rate of unemployment among Saudi men is 13 percent, though the actual figure is probably higher.

This points to another fact that we hadn't appreciated sufficiently before visiting the kingdom: While Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy country (it is projected to earn $165 billion this year from oil exports), little of that wealth trickles down to the Muhammad in the street. Average per capita income is only $13,800, considerably less than in Israel ($26,800), to say nothing of the UAE ($49,700). Of course there are super-wealthy Saudis whose gaucheries make global headlines: Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, chairman of the investment firm Kingdom Holding Company, made news while we were visiting by becoming the first individual to purchase for his personal use Airbus's new A380, the world's largest passenger jet. But there is also a substantial underclass among Saudi Arabia's 25 million people.

Most Saudis get only indirect benefits from their country's oil wealth, to the extent that the government uses its revenues to fund public projects. Saudi Arabia is not, contrary to the public perception, a cradle-to-grave welfare state. Its people get free (and low-quality) health care and education, and that's about it. Many of the social-welfare functions that in the West are run by the state are still reserved in Saudi Arabia for tribes, families, and religious organizations.

Riyadh, capital of the country with the world's largest oil reserves, doesn't feel opulent--nothing like Dubai. There are few skyscrapers, and the roads are full of clunkers. There are some fabulous palaces and public buildings, to be sure, but also lots of modest homes and shops. Camels wander through the desert just a few miles outside of town. And Riyadh is the kingdom's centerpiece; many other areas are downright destitute.

Part of what holds Saudi Arabia back is the puritanical Wahhabist theology taught in its mosques and schools. The kingdom's emphasis on religious purity produces too many graduates who cannot compete in the modern world except in the art of suicide bombing.

Many Saudi leaders know they have a problem, but they have been slow to adjust. It took the May 12, 2003, terrorist attacks in Riyadh for the authorities to crack down hard on the group known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Since then, Saudi security forces claim to have killed or captured 5,000 suspected members of this movement. Only last week, the Saudi Interior Ministry announced the arrest of 208 suspected terrorists in six cells ahead of the annual hajj. Al Qaeda has not been totally defeated; its handiwork was evident when a security forces colonel was decapitated in April and his headless body left for his son to find in the entrance of their house. But terrorist activities have become fragmented and smaller in scale than they were in 2003 and 2004, when al Qaeda was staging high-profile raids in Riyadh. Cooperation with American intelligence and law enforcement agencies, once anemic, has become more robust, even if the Saudis still refuse to imprison prominent individuals implicated by the U.S. Treasury in the financing of terrorism.

The Saudi government claims it has moved to tone down the rhetoric of sermons, schoolbooks, and official publications distributed at home and abroad. (According to PBS's Frontline, one Saudi ninth-grade textbook instructed students, "The day of judgment will not arrive until Muslims fight Jews, and Muslims will kill Jews until the Jew hides behind a tree or a stone. Then the tree and the stone will say, 'Oh Muslim, oh servant of God, this is a Jew behind me. Come and kill him.'") Outsiders have to take the Saudis' word for the state of their reforms; independent verification is hard to come by since the kingdom does not publicly release its school texts and has denied Western officials access to schools.

In any event, poisonous attitudes built up over many decades cannot be changed overnight--even if the Saudi government were determined to effect a radical break, which it is not. Many members of the royal family still exhibit attitudes that raise eyebrows in the West. Prince Nayef, the hardline interior minister, for instance, once publicly suggested that "Zionists" were behind 9/11. By all accounts, King Abdullah, who took the throne in 2005, is one of the more moderate and enlightened royals. But how much change can an 84-year-old monarch implement in a tribal society that still functions by consensus? While the UAE is a youthful meritocracy bubbling with new ideas, Saudi Arabia is a staid gerontocracy in which change occurs at a glacial pace.

Saudi Arabia's modest experiment in democracy has already been aborted. Two years ago the Saudis allowed elections to some seats on municipal councils. The biggest winners were hardline Islamists, so the government has, probably wisely, put the kibosh on voting for now. Economic reform is still moving ahead: The government is privatizing some state-owned enterprises, liberalizing the financial services sector, and loosening rules for foreign investment. The number of foreign financial institutions with offices in Riyadh has shot up from 10 a few years ago to over 100 today. (American firms are losing out in many instances to Europeans and would be wise to return to what has become a more vibrant non-oil economy.)

But despite talk about possibly letting women drive and other such reforms, there is little progress on the social front. Abdullah seems determined to avoid any frontal clash with the kingdom's clerical establishment. Instead of going at the clerics, he is going around them. Dissatisfied with what is being taught in Saudi schools, he is funding 25,000 scholarships to send Saudis to study in the West. He is also building a new citadel of higher learning, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, that is supposed to be a Saudi MIT with an endowment of $10 billion. It is being constructed not by the hardline Education Ministry but by the more progressive state oil company, Saudi Aramco.

The university will be part of King Abdullah Economic City, an entirely new metropolis planned for an undeveloped spot on the Red Sea. This is only one of six new "economic cities" supposed to be erected across the kingdom. The Saudis, it seems, have Dubai envy. They still derive 45 percent of their GDP, 75 percent of their budget, and 90 percent of their export earnings from oil, and they would like to diversify more than they did during the last oil boom. It seems doubtful that they will succeed in emulating their neighbors, however, until they relax their stifling social strictures--and that won't happen anytime soon.

If anything, Saudi Arabia is going backwards. Older residents recall that the kingdom was more tolerant and progressive prior to the 1980s. The turning point was the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Islamic radicals. A 50-something Saudi journalist we met recalled that when he was growing up men and women could actually go to social events together. That's inconceivable today.

Unless the Saudi government can nudge the country toward the future at a faster pace without at the same time triggering a fundamentalist revolution, it will continue to be a serious security concern for the West no matter how much its law enforcement agencies cooperate in counterterrorist operations. Indeed, it is no surprise to learn that Saudi Arabia remains the No. 1 foreign source of funds and suicide bombers for Al Qaeda in Iraq, with Saudis comprising some 40 percent of foreign jihadists. That pattern is likely to remain unchanged as long as jihadist ideology continues to be reinforced by Saudi institutions, ensuring that the kingdom remains mired in the past even as neighbors like the UAE zoom into the future.

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, and author of War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History. Lee Wolosky, a partner in the law firm of Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP, served on the National Security Council under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.