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Robert Lacey is a British historian noted for his original research, which gets him close to - and often living alongside - his subjects. He is the author of numerous[…]

Saudi Arabia is flush with oil wealth but rooted in a strict religious tradition partially responsible for a small extremist subculture that produced most of the 9/11 terrorists. Given this environment, Saudi King Abdullah must maintain a delicate balance between tradition and modernity in order to grow the economy and prevent religious violence: here’s how he’s tried to do it.

Question: What distinguishes Saudi Arabia from other Middle Eastern countries?

Robert Lacey: Saudi Arabia is unique in the whole world in that A, it has the largest reserve of oil in the world, which gives [it], you can imagine, enormous power, and B, it contains the holy places of Islam, the cities of Mecca and Medina that every Muslim, 1.8 billion Muslims are supposed to visit those shrines in the course of their lifetime. These are on either side of the Arabian continent and in the middle you have Riyadh and the House of Saud, the princely family, which controls both these sources of economic power and religious power with their own very puritanical interpretation of Islam. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that is named after its ruling family. When I first went there it thought Saudi Arabia meant southern Arabia—[but] no, it means Arabia as conquered, ruled, pulled together by the House of Saud. Six, seven thousand princes and as many princesses of course, but we don’t see so much of them.

Question: How has King Abdullah affected Middle Eastern culture?

Robert Lacey: Coming into New York today to do this thinking what a lovely, beautiful autumn day it was I couldn’t help thinking of the accounts I’ve read of 9/11 and the tragedy of 9/11, which was of course terrible tragedy and we are still living with the effects, but in a weird way 9/11 was a very good thing for Saudi Arabia because 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. The mastermind of course, Osama Bin Laden, was and is a Saudi and although it took a time for the Saudis to acknowledge this they were responsible in many ways for the hatred and bitterness and intolerance and anger that produced 9/11 and they’ve trying since then. Certainly King Abdullah has been trying to make amends, more than make amends, to turn the country in a new direction, like for example, taking the intolerance out of textbooks. In traditional Islam there is a great fear of non Muslims, infidels. That turns into hatred. I mean it’s a phenomenon we know in Arab cultures. Trying to get more dialogue between the different faiths, I remember going to Madrid last year to see the king meet rabbi’s, religious sheiks, bishops, Christian pastors, Buddhist monks, to create a spirit of religious dialogue, but he, the king of Saudi Arabia could never convene a meeting like that inside Saudi Arabia. There would be revolt at the idea that he was bringing these foreign religious figures to the Holy Land and that was a big fact in 9/11. 9/11 was really a Saudi quarrel played out in Manhattan. Osama Bin Laden wanted to attack what he called the near enemy by which he meant the House of Saud who he sees as westernizing and corrupting the old and traditional Holy Land and so he did that by attacking the far enemy, which is America, who has sustained Saudi Arabia by developing its oil, by buying its oil and by -- with military methods. In numerable ways America has made Saudi Arabia the power that it is in the world.

Question: Will the religious influence on Saudi culture wane as it continues to modernize?

Robert Lacey: The Saudis want to take from us the best of the West, but not what they view as the worst. For example, a month or so ago in Saudi Arabia there was a radio talk show host who started boasting as radio talk show hosts tend to and he got onto his sex life before he was married and all the girls he’d seduced and talked about how he would pick them up and get them into bed and there was outrage. Now the government didn’t do anything, but ordinary viewers phoned in and a local lawyer, prosecutor took the guy to court. He was sentenced to five years in jail and 500 lashes for being profane on the radio and also for insulting Islam because any sex outside marriage, not just during marriage, but before marriage for traditional Muslims consigns you to hell, so he was admitting that he was a bad Muslim. Now not many Saudis would complain that that man’s freedom of expression was being infringed by jailing him. He’ll do his five years. He will get lashed 500 times. That’s the sort of conservatism that exists.

You know they have beach resorts in Saudi Arabia, private beach resorts behind high walls. Recently a number of them feel that too many young girls are wearing bikinis, too many loud parties, too many fathers feel their daughters are getting picked up by unsuitable men, so they’ve invited the old religious police in to keep order. It’s impossible in Saudi Arabia for a young single man to go into a shopping mall on his own. You’re only allowed in if you’re a young male or even an old male, with women, with your family because otherwise the fear is quite rightly that you know shopping malls are where young people meet to pick each other up. Young Saudi men will complain about this, but if you say to them, “Oh, I see you -- so would you like… You’d like the right to go into a mall without being stopped by a security guard.” “Would you like your sister to have the right to go into a shopping mall and meet strange men?” “Oh, no”, they say. “Oh, no, no, my sister is going to marry someone that my family approve of, that I approve of.” So you know it’s only… I mean 1938 was when oil was discovered, another ten years before the money really started to filter through, so you know what are we talking about, only 50 years has western style life been in this country and the reaction of it, of people to it, is still very suspicious and still very conservative.

Question: Is this a 1950’s America style situation where cultural norms differ from reality?

Robert Lacey: Saudi Arabia is living in the 1950’s in many ways. Well actually it’s living in the fifteenth century. In Islamic years Saudi Arabia is now in the year 1430—America didn’t even exist then as a Western state, and in Europe we had The Inquisition. There was no religious tolerance in 1430 in Europe. You belonged to one particular religion, the Catholic religion, and if you erred from that you would get burned, so when people get upset about—and I can understand it—public executions in the street Saudi Arabia, beheadings: I’ve seen in my time there three I think. You don’t see them every day and happily I’ve always arrived afterwards, but people get upset about that, although 70, 80 of those a year, that’s about the number of people that get executed in death rows in America. People say it shouldn’t be public, well you know, all gas chambers in America, electric chair chambers have viewing galleries and people forget that when Timothy McVeigh was executed in this twenty-first century the American government rounded up 250 relatives so they could come and watch the man being executed on television, so let’s not get too superior about these Saudis. And you know one of the upsides of this very fierce capitol code and moral code is that when I’m living there, which I still do, I can go out in the street any time of day or night to any part of any Saudi city totally safely. There is no, no go areas where you’re going to get mugged. There are areas where you might find drug dealers. You won’t find red-light districts in Saudi Arabia. I mean there may be prostitutes somewhere, but you know that’s something the Saudis don’t want. The idea that in European cities -- well in American states that you would legalized prostitution, that I think you’ll never going to see in Saudi Arabia. After all, they are the Holy Land and so they’re aware that they are judged by Muslims all over the world. At the moment for example, we’re talking now end of 2009, they’re very worried about the pilgrimage coming up, the swine flu. They’re going to the most incredible lengths to avoid any sort of epidemic because A, they don’t want pilgrims to suffer from it, but B, they don’t want the Muslim world to say you can’t keep us healthy when we come on pilgrimage.

Question: If a new global oil reserve or other energy source is discovered, where does that leave Saudis?

Robert Lacey: Saudi Arabia would be lost if an alternative energy source to oil were discovered in the near future. That would actually pull the carpet out from under the Saudi economy because the Saudi economy is based for the next 20, 30 years on the revenues from oil. They’re trying to diversify. Also from oil and gas you can make petrol chemicals and most people would think that even if we find alternative sources of energy we still need plastics in the future, so Saudi Arabia is working very hard to develop that, but the other thing it’s trying to do and this what King Abdullah is trying, he is trying to create a sort of Arab Silicon Valley around the scientific research establishments that have started to be setup. At his new university for example, there are not just laboratories for research. Every single research discovery then goes to a business workshop. I mean this is an American model and there are economists and businessmen there who right from the moment of the first inkling of some new technology or discovery are working out how to bring in capital and turn that into enterprise because jobs will have to be the salvation of Saudi Arabia in the future and, you know, it’s a big question mark.

Recorded on:  October 20, 2009