As events in the Middle East unfold in an ever more chaotic and violent fashion, America finds herself on the precipice of a cataclysmic "clash of civilizations" with the Muslim world. While I believe that much of this conflict could have been avoided, I nevertheless remain convinced that it behooves us all to learn more about the peculiarities of Islamic Culture in order to generate more informed opinions about our involvement there.
It was with this in mind that I recently obtained a copy of The Saudis, by Sandra Mackey. Saudi Arabia, as the location of the two holy cities of Islam, remains the ultimate focal point of this conflict and the land where crucial events will occur which will determine the ultimate outcome of this war.
Mackey is both an excellent writer and the wife of an American physician who practiced at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh during the oil rush of the 1970s and again during 1980s. The Saudis represents a personal history of her life there and an adept analysis of the social, political, and cultural conditions of the kingdom. She weaves her numerous experiences with a sober discussion of hard data and statistics to draw a variety of important conclusions about both the contemporary conditions in Saudi Arabia and about its future challenges.
As a preface, I should emphasize that I am not herein engaging in an adulation of Saudi Arabia. In our current political atmosphere, any sympathetic portrayal of the Middle East is immediately exposed to accusations of "sympathizing with the enemy". Saudi Arabia is not a utopian society by any stretch of the imagination. On the contrary, the numerous social and political defects of that land have been commented upon ad nauseam by a myriad of neoconservative writers.
It was with a consciousness of these frequent attacks on Saudi Arabia that I perused Mackey’s analysis with the intent of hopefully gaining a more balanced perspective of Saudi society. If we are to make any progress in our current conflict, it will ultimately occur within the framework of knowledge rather than distortion.
Upon finishing her book, one idea stood out. Namely, Saudi Arabia is not a totalitarian society. While it is portrayed by its Western critics as being a benighted land of authoritarian oppression administered by an absolute monarchy, its king actually rules within the rubric of two overwhelming constraints.
First, is the Islamic religion itself. Although Islamic law is administered in a heavy-handed fashion that would be totally unacceptable to a Western population, Mackey skillfully shows the extent to which Islam provides a commonly-agreed upon set of rules which are apart from, and above, the monarchy. The basic tenets of Islam are accepted by the overwhelming majority of the population as being the dictates of God. As such, the Saudi royals are strictly constrained by Islam and are virtually powerless to enact laws which contradict it. Islamic law grants citizens certain privileges and rights which are thus literally beyond the authority of the monarchy to detract. And the royals are well aware that any attempt at such detraction would either be completely ignored by the populace, or would meet with almost universal, violent resistance. This is not a condition commonly found in a totalitarian society (and it also demonstrates why Western leftists have always been antagonistic towards religion, since it exists as an independent source of ideas and power apart from the leftist god of centralized government).
In many ways, this condition loosely resembles the concept of "natural law" which was so precious to our own Founders. The signers of Declaration of Independence noted that men are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." In making this claim, the Founders were stating that there is a force (the Creator) that exists apart from and above the government. The rights thus granted to the people are beyond the power of the government to legitimately infringe.
Over time, this concept has been systematically undermined by our governing elites. As secularists with delusions of grandeur, our governing classes have done everything in their power to erode this notion and to imbue the populace with the idea that government is the ultimate authority. Tragically, our government has come to define the limits of its own power…a situation which our Founders consciously strove to avoid.
The second great limitation on the power of the Saudi monarchy arises from the peculiarities of Bedouin culture. Since the vast majority of the Saudi people were, within living memory, desert dwellers, this culture still has a powerful influence on how they live their lives and interact with their government. The Bedouins cling to a ferocious individualism that is grounded in egalitarianism and an exaggerated sense of honor. Their culture disdains claims of class privilege and is careful to acknowledge each man’s rights within his family and tribe. There are intricate rules which accompany this culture, and these rules are stringently followed by the monarchy lest they run afoul of the universally accepted beliefs of the Saudi people.
In reading Mackey’s description of Bedouin culture, I was reminded again of our own frontiersmen. In colonial America, the inhabitants of our frontiers were notoriously independent and jealously guarded their rights from any encroachment by government. They were armed and dangerous. Attempts to infringe upon these rights and privileges by government were ignored or met with violent resistance (the Whiskey Rebellion being the most prominent historical example).
It goes without saying that our government has done everything in its power to defang this frontier culture in America and transform the American people into a more docile populace who will obey government dictates without offering inconvenient resistance.
Mackey’s narrative offers abundant concrete examples of situations where the Saudi monarchy is sharply limited by the religion and Bedouin culture of its citizens. These limitations demonstrate that the Saudi polity is far more complex than we have been led to believe by its neoconservative critics. Several of these limitations are of particular interest to the libertarian reader:
For a variety of reasons, the Saudi government has long desired to take an accurate census of its citizens. In particular, the monarchy would like to have the data for planning various government programs and to have an idea of how many guest workers can be allowed in the kingdom without numerically overwhelming the citizenry.
But the government has never dared to actually perform a census.
Furthermore, there is among the Saudis a strong cultural tradition that closes a man’s house to prying eyes, including those of census takers.
In essence, Bedouin culture enshrines a man with final authority over his household. It is considered an egregious insult to a man’s honor to have his personal demesnes entered by other men for the purposes of gathering information concerning the members of his family and his property.
Since the Saudi monarchy is constrained by the traditions of Bedouin culture, it dares not affront its citizens with such an undertaking.
Contrast this with our situation here. Many Americans have grown to dread the census taken each decade by our federal government, as it has become continually more odious and intrusive. Having no concern for our privacy, the feds have flouted the Constitution’s consent to use the census only for head counting and have expanded it to compile data on almost every imaginable facet of American life. Those who fail to mail in their census forms are treated to home visits, which grill citizens about everything from the number of bathrooms in their house to the distance of their daily commute to work.
To add insult to injury, the census bureau prominently advertises the jail terms and fines which may accompany any failure to fully comply with their demands.
So it is reasonable to ask which government is more respectful of its citizens and their privacy…and which government regards its population as mere serfs whose "place" is to obey official directives without dissent?
#2 The military draft
The geopolitics of Saudi Arabia is dominated by one simple reality. Namely, the nation sits atop the largest proven oil reserves in the world, has long borders, and harbors only a tiny population with which to guard them. This has created considerable angst amongst the rulers, who fear the greedy eyes of neighboring nations.
The government has attempted to enact a variety of policies to ensure its national security and has often been tempted to resort to a military draft in order to provide adequate manpower for its armed forces.
But once again, this idea has run headlong into the desert culture of the Saudi Arabian people.
As the decade of the 1970s drew to a close, the manpower projections of the 1974 defense plan were obviously falling short. Although every time an external crisis arose there was talk of a military draft, everyone knew it was politically unacceptable to institute and impossible to administer.
The Bedouins’ fierce independence views involuntary servitude as an intolerable attack on a man’s dignity. Any attempt to institute such a policy would lead to social upheaval and threaten the monarchy.
And even among those who join the military voluntarily, the issues of Bedouin culture remain:
There is no military tradition in Saudi Arabia and little commitment to the concept of the nation state. As fiercely independent individuals who survived on the desert for centuries with nothing but their own wits and fortitude, the Saudis are not about to submit to the discipline of the army. Family and tribe remain the center of any Saudi’s existence, and for this reason it is difficult to keep the military recruits the country does have at their posts. Unit assignments are haphazard, as the commanders respond to the special requests from relatives or people in positions of power to place a particular man in a particular post.
The contrast between the educated, status-conscious officer corps and the troops is no more graphically depicted than by the street vignette in which I saw an officer impeccably attired in his tailored uniform standing next to a private who was making his last stand for independence by refusing to put shoelaces in his combat boots.
Again, contrast this with the situation here in America. While our frontier ancestors once clung to a spunky individualism which rendered them unruly and unpredictable militiamen, our government has long since ground that attitude out of our national psyche. On numerous occasions, America has instituted a draft (often even in peacetime). Many of the wars fought with drafted soldiers were only tenuously linked to our national survival. More often than not, America’s wars have been murky affairs carried out at the behest of unseen special interest groups for motives entirely ulterior to those stated to the populace at large.
So which nation is more respectful of its citizens and their right to avoid involuntary servitude? Which government fears the fierce independence of its people? And which rulers view their populace as cannon fodder for military adventures arising from the mists of its Imperial politics?
Sadly, America comes up short.
#3 Access to leaders
One of the key differences between authoritarian and responsive governments is the ease with which the common citizen can gain access to his leaders in order to petition for redress of grievances. This was felt to be so important by our Founders that they included it in the Bill of Rights.
Saudi Arabia’s traditional tribal structures, and the egalitarian demands of Islam, have combined to create an interesting tradition which addresses this issue.
But access to the king is not limited to the ulema and the sheikhs. At the king’s weekly majlis, his lowliest subjects kiss his cheeks, then his nose, and finally his shoulder as they press their crumpled pieces of paper with their requests on his majesty. And every Saudi realistically expects the king to deliver.
The majlis is a deep-seated tradition which guarantees every man the right to personally meet with the king and make requests about whatever concerns him. Sometimes it involves money, sometimes it is about a government policy with which the citizen disagrees, and sometimes it is to ask for the king’s opinion on a personal matter. This access is considered the right of every man, and the king could abolish or ignore it only at his peril.
Whatever else one might say about Saudi governance, this practice is not consistent with a dictatorship.
Contrast this with our situation here in America. "Face time" with our president is considered to be one of the most sought-after and difficult-to-obtain commodities in Washington. Occasionally, presidents have even sold audiences to the highest bidder for campaign contributions (Clinton’s White House lodging scandals and exorbitantly-priced coffee soirées being two prominent examples). Thus, access to the president is largely reserved for powerful officials, wealthy contributors, and representatives of well-connected special interest groups.
What hope does the average American have of ever gaining a personal audience with the president to air grievances concerning government policy? Is there even a pretense of allowing even some of the citizenry to discuss problems with him in the tradition of the Saudi majlis?
Again, the contrast is stark. Which government is more respectful of the dignity of its common people? And which system treats its citizens like serfs while simultaneously limiting audiences with its leaders to elites in positions of privilege?
In America today, the average worker now toils from January to mid-May just to pay his taxes to the various levels of government. Our government officials have devised ways of taxing almost everything imaginable, from gasoline to telephone service. As numerous libertarian thinkers have noted, the extent to which a population has its wealth confiscated by government is a good measure of the freedom it enjoys. It may be too extreme to say that Americans are now slaves of our government, but the relationship is roughly similar to medieval serfdom.
The situation in Saudi Arabia is drastically different. Mackey discusses the history of tax policy in Saudi Arabia in the context of Bedouin culture and Islamic principles. I especially noted this paragraph below, which contains a quote from the mullahs, who sound almost Rothbardian in their opinion:
Like any restriction on their freedom as men, the Saudis not only abhor taxes but question any government’s right to collect them. The prevailing attitude is summed up in the statement issued by the Ikhwan [religious scholars] in its dispute with Abdul Aziz over the tobacco tax in 1927. "Taxes, we have ruled, are completely illegal and it is the king’s duty to remit them, but if he refuses to do so we do not feel it permissible to break up Moslem unity and revolt against him solely on this account"
She goes on to describe the situation since the oil boom:
To everyone’s delight, oil income after 1973 relieved the government of the need to supplement its income from pilgrims’ receipts and limited oil revenues with taxes. The flimsy tax code crumbled. There remained some indirect taxes, such as modest and selective customs duties, a tariff of 20% on the few items produced locally, and a poorly administered social security tax on wages. The only direct tax Saudis were asked to pay was the religiously mandated zakat, or alms tax. Otherwise, Saudi Arabia is tax free.
Many critics may point to the unique oil wealth of Saudi Arabia as being the reason behind its lack of taxes. But Mackey’s narrative indicates differently. Even before oil was discovered, when Saudi Arabia was a land of impoverished desert dwellers, their government survived only on a small tax on religious pilgrims and taxes on items (such as tobacco) that were considered to be "vices".
What has kept taxes low, and allowed the nation to function with essentially no direct taxes on its populace, is the fierce philosophical opposition to the concept of taxation on the part of the population and its religious leaders. Essentially, the Saudi government has been intimidated by the ferocious independence of its people from enacting repressive taxes. This is hardly the stuff of totalitarianism.
Again, the stark contrast with our own increasingly oppressive tax system could not be clearer.
Saudi Arabia is not a libertarian utopia by any stretch of the imagination. There are numerous policies and practices there which I personally find to be alarming and distasteful.
But while it is not a utopia, it is clearly not the Mordor of the necons’ fevered imaginations.
We are currently locked in a bitter war with militant Islam. I can only see three ultimate outcomes of this conflict. First, we may eventually become exhausted, both financially and morally, by the seemingly endless struggle and suffer a profound collapse of the sort that struck the Soviet Union after years of a similar war with Islam in Afghanistan. Second, this war may degenerate into a "clash of civilizations", probably ending in a nuclear exchange and incalculable casualties. Third, we can find a way to make connections with those majorities in the Muslim world who abhor terrorism and yet who harbor a variety of authentic grievances with our foreign policy in the Middle East.
The obscenities which occurred last week in Russia do not represent the mainstream attitudes of the Islamic world. Honest attempts to redress the grievances which Muslims have with our policies would cut the barbarians off from the rest of Middle Eastern society and could pave the way for an authentic peace.
Part of this process requires that we come to understand each other in genuine terms. We must see the totality of each other’s societies, rather than merely the false portraits painted by pro-war extremists on both sides.
The reality is that America could learn a thing or two about freedom from the Saudis…as strange as that might sound.
Sandra Mackey’s book is a good first step in this direction.