Saudi Arabia: A Kingdom in Turmoil

The Mideast's biggest paradox: Extremist ideology and an alliance with the U.S. ■ A modern army with not enough manpower ■ A Mideast peace initiative and a quagmire in Yemen ■ Where is Saudi Arabia headed?

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Saudi Arabia is the Middle East’s biggest paradox. It is a country where Islamic law is its constitution, the extremist Wahhabi doctrine dictates its citizens’ way of life, and its democratic institutions — like the parliament, as well as universal values such as freedom of expression and the status of women — are not part of the official or public lexicon. It also produced Osama bin Laden and most of the 9/11 terrorists. And it is considered the United States’ strongest ally in the Middle East.

In a country that possesses unimaginable wealth by virtue of its oil and natural gas, there are enclaves of abject poverty. In a kingdom with one of the most modern armies in the Middle East, there is not enough professional manpower to operate its fighter jets (so it has to enlist Pakistani pilots). This is a country with enormous diplomatic weight that wields huge leverage over Arab and Western countries, yet it has failed time after time to resolve regional conflicts.

Riyadh remains barely involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, although it is Saudi Arabia which tabled the Arab Peace Initiative that won the support of Arab countries. Its efforts to effect fundamental change in the Lebanese government ended in fiasco, and it kept its distance from the civil war in Syria — although it could have opened a front there against its archrival, Iran. And the war it launched in Yemen has been going on for four years with no end in sight. Moreover, Riyadh is directly responsible for one of the most serious internal Arab conflicts, born after it imposed sanctions on Qatar and dragged Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain with it into a needless and dangerous situation.

Does Saudi Arabia enjoy too much esteem when in reality it is no more than a gigantic oil kingdom that needs to be closely guarded lest it burst and fall apart? Can it really serve as an Arab spearhead against Iran? Or is it actually a frightened country trying to survive in an age when dependence on Saudi oil is declining?

Editor: Yarden Michaeli. Design: Nitzan Salinas, Ofir Hovav. Infographics: Nadav Gazit, Lilach Yaron, Noa Abarbanel. After Effect: Aron Ehrlich. Programmer: Igor Reznik