TWO THOUSAND years ago, Arab control of the overland route for caravans up the Arabian peninsula, which linked India with the west, brought great wealth to south Arabia. But after the Romans learned of the sea route to India, the old caravan road came to be used only by pilgrims on their way to Mecca; and the slackening of the western demand for the goods in which Arabia had specialized, such as frankincense from the Hadhramaut, further impoverished the country. Arabia was to give to the world the prophet Mohammed, founder of the third great monotheistic religion, and to supply the troops for the conquests of the Islamic Empire; and she has always retained her unique significance as a sanctuary for the Moslems. But her long night of material decline had begun.

It now seems, dramatically and suddenly, about to end, and with the likelihood of improved economic conditions comes the threat of changes in a way of life that has been essentially the same since time immemorial. The foundation for economic betterment was laid by Ibn Saud, when in 1901 he recaptured the ancestral kingdom from which his father had been cast out, consolidated his position until his realm reached its present wide frontiers in 1934, and brought stability to the peninsula.

King Ibn Saud's only income in the early years was from the Zakat, or poll tax on increase of flocks, crops and so on, plus a modest subsidy from Great Britain during the 1914-18 war. In January 1926, however, he was proclaimed King of the Hejaz, which he captured from the Hashimite family (who had ruled it from the time of the prophet Mohammed), and thus obtained the profit accruing from the pilgrimage to Mecca. Statistics in Arabia are meager and often unreliable, and the close identification of the privy purse with the state's income does not add clarity to an understanding of economic affairs. Calculations are now made in the new Saudi riyal, a silver coin of 11.664 grams, 916.6 fine, equivalent to the Indian rupee, with which it was made exchangeable at 1s. 6d. to the riyal. According to one estimate believed to be approximately correct, the revenue which the pilgrims brought to the Saudi coffers averaged 18,000,000 riyals, and was by far the largest source of income. Customs dues probably brought in another 2,000,000 riyals. The Government lived precariously on these revenues. It was seldom able to pay debts it had contracted -- e.g., for arms from India, for wireless and telegraph installations, and through Dutch and other loans.

By 1932 the total obligations of the Saudi Government had, according to one calculation, become at least £219,000 (gold). In this situation Ibn Saud, lord of a hitherto "forbidden" land, master and guardian of Mecca for the Moslem world, took in 1933 a decision of the highest importance. In May of that year he granted the Arabian American Oil Company (formerly known as the California Arabian Oil Company) of Delaware, a concession valid for 60 years covering 250,000 square miles in the eastern part of the kingdom. The area was subsequently expanded north and south. The Standard Oil Company of California and the Texas Corporation jointly own all the shares in this company in equal proportion. The royalty is at the rate of 4s. (gold) per ton of oil produced, and production is now at the level of 600,000 tons a year in spite of setbacks during the early war years. The main strike in what promises to be a most prolific field was near the east coast, opposite Bahrein Island. A refinery with a capacity of 2,500,000 tons a year has been constructed five miles from the port of Ras Tanura. Some of the crude oil produced is treated at a local topping plant with a capacity of 120,000 tons a year, while the remainder is taken to Bahrein for processing in the refinery of the Bahrein Petroleum Company. An increase of at least ten times the present production is expected, and the construction of a 1,200-mile pipe line to the Mediterranean at a cost of $165,000,000 has been under consideration by the United States Government, the Arabian American Oil Company, the Gulf Exploration Company and the Governments of the countries concerned. This vast project would hardly be commercially sound unless a minimum of some 6,000,000 tons of oil per year were expected.

Needless to say, many changes followed this startling development in the life of Arabia. The company used aircraft in its survey work, and thus planes repeatedly flew over tribesmen who had never before seen even a motorcar. The company has opened up desert tracks, bored water wells in mid-desert, occupied temporary camps in the remoter recesses of the desert, and employed on machinery men who had never previously handled anything more mobile than a camel. It has started schools for its Arab employees, introduced modern medical treatment, encouraged by example new building and western standards of living, culture and dress, brought into being flourishing new subsidiary businesses and changed the tempo and objective of the life of many Arabs. An actual physical change can be seen in many of the younger employees of the company, men used to the lean diet of the Bedouin camps and unaccustomed to daily muscular exercise. After six months on the rigs, with a regular meat diet, they now have an altogether different appearance.

The central Arabians were already one of the fittest people in the world, survivors where only the fittest could survive, able to march in the blazing midday sun barefoot over stony wilderness, with only a handful of dates and small draughts from their leather water bag to sustain them, able to ride their lurching camels if need be 90 miles at a stretch, to wear winter and summer the same single ragged shirt, to go without food or water all the daylight hours in the fasting month of Ramadhan, even when it falls in August. These men, finest of the Caucasian type, and of quick intelligence, now given advantages in medical treatment and a more liberal diet, with opportunities for western education, may have descendants to startle the western world.

In December 1934, Ibn Saud granted a concession to the Saudi Arabia Mining Syndicate (registered in the Bahamas) to explore for all minerals, other than oil, within limited areas. This company has leased an area at Mahad al Dhahab, approximately 250 miles north of Jiddah, the port for Mecca on the Red Sea. There it first exploited the tailings of an ancient mine containing some 250,000 tons of ore, and later began to exploit new underground ore estimated at not less than 420,000 tons, assaying 10 cwt. per ton, the concentrate being shipped to the United States for smelting. Production on the tailings averaged 33,000 ounces of gold per year, and it is proposed to increase the output of ore to 350 tons per day. Silver, copper, lead and zinc have been found, in addition to gold. There may be other concessions. Ancient mines are numerous in northern, central and southwestern Saudi Arabia. Sir Richard Burton, Eduard Glaser, J. Halévy and Charles Doughty, writers and travellers in the past century, have all recorded the presence of mines, and Bedouins point out others.

In the train of these developments came others. The planes of B.O.A.C. land regularly at Jiddah, and aircraft have brought distinguished visitors to Riyadh, Ibn Saud's capital in central Arabia. Such an event would have seemed unthinkable only ten years ago when the Wahhabis, puritan followers of the precepts of 'Abdul Wahhab, still regarded everything not mentioned in the Koran as forbidden and hateful. Ibn Saud had at one time encouraged such religious fervor, but he found that it tended to get out of his control. Now fanaticism is retreating before reason, and the twentieth century is moving into the seventh; proud aloofness and prejudice are submitting to necessity. As early as 1933 Ibn Saud had been able to establish a health service under Levantine doctors, bring into being a small regular army (now trained by British and American officers), start schools and otherwise begin to modernize the administration.

Departure from the old standards and old ways of life entails the use of quantities of western goods; in particular, Arabia quickly showed herself to be avid for modern arms, aircraft and transportation. When war came in Europe in 1939, oil royalties, and advances against them, were improving Saudi Arabia's ability to pay for western products. But her revenue was not yet large enough for her requirements, and by 1940 the country was again in a precarious financial condition. In the budget of 1941, debts totalled £1,150,000 in spite of outside assistance, and a deficit of more than £3,000,000 was expected for 1942.

Wartime conditions caused reduction in revenue from pilgrimage, and also diminished royalties from oil and gold. The currency situation remained extremely complicated owing to Arab hoarding, and to smuggling out of the country. For political and religious reasons, certain remedies, such as adoption of a paper currency, were not feasible. In response to Ibn Saud's appeal, Great Britain helped with goods, food and clothing; and more and more assistance in kind had to be given through the Anglo-American Middle East Supply Center in Egypt.

A mission headed by the Saudi Arabian Finance Minister Abdullah al Sulayman went to Washington in the summer of 1946 to negotiate the terms of a credit from the Export-Import Bank. Formalities had not been completed at the time of writing, though the Bank had announced its approval of a credit of $10,000,000. The money will be used to speed up the modernization of transport and agriculture.

In the spring of 1942 a United States Agricultural Mission, led by the consulting engineer of the Saudi Arabia Mining Syndicate, toured Saudi Arabia and produced an optimistic report for the Saudi Government. It showed that Arabia is less handicapped agriculturally than is often supposed. There are chains of oases, many wadis containing agricultural settlements, and even some tree-clad mountain sides. Rotation in grazing areas and afforestation of a simple kind are already practised. The report suggested that the country could be nearly self-sufficient in wheat and rice, and could increase its export of fruit, wool, sheep and camel's hair. It was estimated that agricultural production could be at least doubled within the period of about ten years which would be required for sinking artesian wells, constructing dams, eradicating insect pests, improving soils, introducing better variation of crops and better strains of livestock, importing bees for pollination and honey, and setting up pumping machinery. The mission noted the abundant supply of edible fish in Saudi waters, never subjected to exploitation.

Saudi Arabia imports some 50,000 tons of cereals annually from India and Egypt, as she probably has done for centuries. The mission, whose tour was not exhaustive, showed that something like 50,000 acres could be added to the areas at present cultivated, to achieve self-sufficiency. The most promising agricultural districts are at al Hofuf, not far from the oil-producing area, in the province of al Hasa on the eastern coast, and at al Kharj, in Nejd, the central province, where the water held in limestone beds is being used for an irrigation scheme undertaken by the Saudi Government. The southwestern province of 'Asir is already comparatively rich in fruit-growing, and further agricultural development is possible there.


What is likely to be the course of events within Saudi Arabia now that her isolation is coming to a close? There are interesting and unprecedented factors in the situation. Never before has a "forbidden" land, populated by a virile, intelligent, religious and determinedly independent people, suddenly opened its doors to the full flood of western progress and, let it be added, of western materialism. The nearby countries offer no guide to the future of Arabia. Egypt has long been an international meeting place. The Levant has always been in the closest possible contact with Europe. 'Iraq has had constant commercial and cultural exchanges with Persia, India and with the western world.

Arabia, which has changed so little since the days of Mohammed, is moving abruptly from the seventh century to the twentieth. The King has completed the first installment of the task he set for himself: the restoration of his dynasty, the revival of Islamic teaching, and the establishment of internal security. Now he must meet economic changes, and direct the adjustment of a people to an entirely new way of life, based on new standards. Islam has a rigid code and it may not be easy for its devotees to adhere to it and yet follow the industrialized pattern of the west. With industrialization go new ambitions, new work, a new way of living, a conception of security on fixed wages -- indeed, a new philosophy of life. With that change there may go boredom or disgust, and nostalgia for the olden days, when, so it seemed, there was adventure for the body and the soul. Those who were successful in the old life can hardly be successful in the new one; inevitably men of another stamp will rise to prominence. The change has not gone very far in Arabia, but already many men have a new outlook. They are thirsting for fast transportation, for fortunes, for western solutions to problems.

The nation is greatly handicapped in its new course by the lack of education among its citizens. Experts who will direct the process of industrial and agricultural development are greatly needed. To entrust planning of this kind to foreign missions is likely to cause friction, particularly in Arabia where the way of life of the people, and the autocratic habits of officials, would be very hard indeed for western experts to understand.

Few young Arabs from Saudi Arabia have gone to Europe and America for higher education and technical training, since there are few who have had sufficient preliminary education. Statistics about education are as meager as they are in other fields. An attempt has been made in the Hejaz to raise the standard of education -- of the teaching of languages in particular -- but even so there are probably not more than one or two boys a year who can benefit by technical courses abroad. The total population of Saudi Arabia is variously estimated to be between 3,000,000 and 7,000,000. Possibly the proper total is about 5,000,000, of which 2,000,000 are Bedouins. There are not nearly enough teachers to extend education to a populace of this size. It may be a long time before the schools can meet the demand of the oil companies for educated boys, and can supply trained administrative officials. The Government may, however, bridge the gap somewhat by employing schoolmasters from neighboring Arab countries. Female education on a wide scale is hardly practicable at this stage.

The relations of Saudi Arabia with her neighbors on the north are cool but correct. The frontier between 'Iraq and Saudi Arabia has been delimited, and that with Trans-Jordan defined (in the 1927 treaty with Britain), although Ibn Saud reserved decision on the question of the frontier near Aqaba.

A subdued note of antagonism runs through the relations of Saudi Arabia with both these states, however, owing to the rivalry of the two ruling families: the Saudi clan and the Hashimite family, which ruled Mecca from ancient days and counts its descent from Hashim, grandfather of the prophet Mohammed. Saudi Arabia recently gave sanctuary to Rashid Ali (al Qilani) of Baghdad, leader of a revolt in 1941 against the ruling family of 'Iraq and the Allies, and the act has done nothing to improve relations with 'Iraq. Ibn Saud maintains that ancient Bedouin laws of sanctuary justify his action. There are other incidents which rankle, on either side, among them the fact that it was men from Trans-Jordan who endeavored to raise a revolt against Ibn Saud before the late war.

Relations with Kuweit in the northeast have been improved since a Bon Voisinage and Trading and Customs Agreement was signed in March 1940. The southwestern frontier with the Yemen was defined at the conclusion of the Saudi-Yemen War in 1934 and relations are now satisfactory. The southern and southeastern open desert frontiers of Saudi Arabia remain undefined, a matter of little consequence unless in relation to oil development.

Relations with the United States and with Great Britain are on the whole cordial, though they are from time to time adversely affected by the actions of those countries in regard to Palestine. Most Saudi Arabians were hardly aware that there was a Palestine question until just before the Second World War. Now, as a result of the constant attention being drawn to that country by the Jewish refugee problem and Zionist aspirations, they have become highly conscious of it. The radio is much used in Nejd, and a great deal is said over the radio on this subject.

Saudi Arabians would undoubtedly march in support of any concerted Arab military action taken in Palestine, and relations with the concession companies would almost inevitably suffer seriously. Saudi Arabians have enlisted in the Trans-Jordan Arab Legion, units of which have been employed in Palestine, and through them first-hand news reaches even the remote oases of Nejd, where formerly politics were parochial.

Arabia, in short, is once more entering the concert of the nations, and her people look forward hopefully to greater prosperity. The adjustment which she mustmake to meet a more industrialized life is a difficult one. As we have seen, there is a head-on collision of civilizations, of philosophies, of ways of living. In a scientific age we rely upon facts and figures to give a clear understanding of human affairs; but affairs of the soul and the spirit of a people cannot be reduced to figures or measured in diagrams. Perhaps it is for the very reason that we overlook what cannot be readily expressed in officialese or by statistics, and dismiss as imponderable or as unscientific the secrets garnered in past generations, that we westerners sometimes find ourselves surprised and dismayed by the turn of events. The affairs of the spirit will play a large part in events to come in Saudi Arabia. But the strength of character of her people, and their realism, should enable them to face the future more confidently than would at first seem likely from the sharpness of the readjustment which faces them.

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  • COLONEL GERALD DE GAURY, recently with the British Military Mission in Baghdad; author of "Arabia Phoenix" and contributor to the Geographical Journal and other reviews
  • More By Gerald de Gaury