I came across a curious news item the other day on Reuters about an industrial development project in Saudi Arabia, and it rang a few bells. The plan is to build a “new industrial city in the south of the al-Ahsa district in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province”, a project helmed by the state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco, and being seriously considered in spite of how cash-strapped everybody is thanks to falling oil prices.
Reportedly, the new city will consist of “energy-related industries, such as support services for power generation and transmission”, and even renewables like solar power. What, you might ask, is so curious about Saudi Arabia trying to move away from over-dependence on oil and combat the burgeoning problem of unemployment? Nothing at all. Well, expect for the location. The Eastern Province is where most of Saudi Arabia’s oil is, so it’s logical to locate energy industries there but, as James Dorsey reminds us, that province is also where most of the Shi’as in Saudi Arabia are located, too!
If you’ve read “Yamani: The Inside Story” (1988) by Jeffrey Robinson, a biography of Saudi Arabia’s legendary oil minister Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani (1962-1986), you’ll learn that one of the points of dissatisfaction the Saudi regime had with the original Aramco was that it was developing the Eastern Province and providing essential services and even schools to the local Shi’as. Curious, then, that ‘Saudi’ Aramco is now finally walking in the footsteps of its enlightened predecessor. Could we be seeing a clean break from the past? Could the logic behind the new industrial city be more political than economic?
We can only hope. There’s been a rising tide of “Islamic State”-inspired violence targeting the Saudi Shi’as and specifically in the Eastern Province and a hefty amount of civil unrest too amongst the Shi’as themselves since the 2011 Arab Spring, to cite Dorsey again. Any accommodation with the Shi’as is obviously going to fall short of full-fledged political and religious rights if Saudi history is any guide. Handing out jobs is one thing, handing over entitlements is something else. But the Saudis, to their credit, are quite a pragmatic bunch and tend to stymie social unrest in the more far flung regions of their kingdom through economic and administrative inclusion – sharing the oil wealth, government postings and even sanctioning marriages between prominent families.
This is no small feat, if you know anything about this part of the world. The late Iraqi dictator did not shower his country with oil wealth, even with his own native Tikritans, and Gaddafi was so busy sharing his oil wealth with his African friends he (deliberately) neglected his own people. If you go down south, to Sudan before its own south went independent, oil wealth wasn’t evenly distributed either and, not to be outdone, the regime in South Sudan has been keeping all of the proceeds to itself as well. The less oil-rich but more urbane parts of the Arab world haven’t fared much better. They’ve never been very keen on the provinces in general, with endless shortages in essential services like water and electricity, not to mention jobs, investment and democratic representation. Walid Jumblat once complained how a poor Maronite village in the mountains in Lebanon would have to wait something like 15 years to get legislation passed to have a road built so that farmers can sell their produce in the cities downhill, and even after the legislation is passed, the road still doesn’t get built.
Construction projects do take an awfully long time to get completed in the Gulf – I know, I used to live there – but they do get done, completely transforming a place once finished. My father used to work in a sleepy little town than only had one decent foreign place in it to eat – a Pizza Hut run by Indians serving Italian food full of chilli peppers – but the government insisted on building a harbour there, and now there are foreign restaurants and malls as far as the eye can see.
So, it could be that the Saudis are taking heed from the other, more liberal Gulf Arab states and overcoming their sectarian instincts. It could also be that they are learning that ideologising religious differences has a price, in the form of blowback. My initial impression, when the Shi’a mosques in Saudi Arabia (and Kuwait) were attacked, was this was not the work of IS. They would no doubt love to take the credit for it, as self-appointed guardians of the Sunnis, but the timing was too non-coincidental. Anti-Shi’a hatred was being whipped up thanks to the Houthi onslaught and Saudi-GCC military response. (There were such “revenge” during the first days of the Iraq War, against Western interests, always following the ebb and flow of popular tempers). Who needs an ‘organisation’ like IS to carry out such attacks? And even if IS did order the attacks, they probably relied on local volunteers for the job.
We would all prefer that proper civil society organisations represent and resolve societal tensions, as researcher Sultan Al-Qassemi does, but in the meantime there’s no harm in relying on what social resources you have. And Al-Qassemi argues, tribal loyalties in the Arabian Peninsula have traditionally outweighed religious allegiances. More than that, wise Arab rulers would often pre-empt the possibility of sectarian tensions emerging through that tried and tested tactic of mixed marriages. There are whole tribes made up of Sunnis and Shi’as that resulted from this foresighted approach. To quote Al-Qassemi: “One of the strongest bonds between two families in the Gulf was that of Kuwait’s Sunni Al-Sabah and the Shi’a Al-Kaabi of the semi-state of Arabistan in the Al-Ahwaz region, in what is today Iran’s south-western Khuzestan Province.”
Which brings us back to Dorsey’s article. Just as the Saudis are worried about Iranian influence in the Eastern Province, the Iranians are likewise scared about Saudi influence in the Khuzestan, where at least 90% of their oil comes from. If Arabic tendrils can reach that far into Iran through bloodlines and tribal bonds, in a destabilising fashion, there’s no reason why they can’t extend into the ‘enemy’ camp in a more positive way that promotes stability.
If the Saudis are shifting gears and helping out their minorities it might not be long before the same happens on the other side of the fence. (Better late than never). If both countries can understand that they can hurt each other by equal measure, and I think they both do, especially now that they have a common enemy in IS, a tribal marriage of convenience could even be round the corner. Again, we can only hope!
Emad El-Din Aysha received his PhD in International Studies from the University of Sheffield in the UK and taught, from 2001, at the American University in Cairo. From 2003 he has worked in English-language journalism in Egypt, first at The Egyptian Gazette and now as a staff writer with Egypt Oil and Gas