Bored young people with too much time on their hands: This is what the Saudis themselves regard as their seminal crisis, sown in the clash between borrowed modernization and threatened traditions—the root crisis from which a forest of others has sprung.
"The hijackers were a direct product of our social failures—a generation with no sense of what work entails, raised in a system that operated as a welfare state," a high-ranking government official told me. "We allowed them to grow up in pampered emptiness, until they turned to the bin Laden extremists in an effort to find themselves."
Saudis claim that al Qaeda deliberately fills its ranks with the kingdom's alienated young. Bin Laden's goal, they believe, is to topple the Saudi royal family, partly by convincing the West that its principal source of oil is fatally infected with extremism.
"We are not a nation of terrorists and fanatics. You cannot blame an entire people for a crime perpetrated by a small number of marginal individuals," contended Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz, the governor of Riyadh.
"The crazies around my age, the people who say, 'We should go out and kill Americans,' are maybe one or two percent of us," said "Mustafa," a 22-year-old I met during my tour of Jeddah's Ramadan nightlife.
But Mustafa, like so many in his age group, has no job and no discernible ambition. Estimates of unemployment among Saudis top 15 percent, and approach 30 percent among those between ages 20 and 24. Each year about 340,000 Saudi men enter the workforce, vying for just 175,000 jobs. The unsuccessful drift into an ever growing army of the bored, spending their days and nights in the prolonged adolescence of the shopping mall circuit, numbering and street cruising.
The solution would seem obvious: Replace foreign workers with Saudis. Under a policy known as Saudization, the government has been trying to do exactly that since the mid-1980s. The state grants large interest-free loans to any citizen who wants to establish a private business, and offers salaries to students willing to undertake vocational training. The goal is to replace 60 percent of the foreign workers with Saudi nationals, in jobs ranging from taxi driver to administrative manager. But two decades into the policy, foreigners still make up more than 90 percent of all employees in the kingdom's private sector.
Until recently, every young Saudi thought he could go straight from school to an executive suite. "They imagined that it would be a society of all chiefs and no Indians," Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a leading real estate developer and entrepreneur, told the Arab News last year.
Now, say economists, something has to give, starting with an educational system that fails to meet the demands of modern industry. "The companies who come to us are looking for skilled workers, business grads, engineers, and technicians," said Nasser Salih al-Homoud, director of an unemployment office in Buraydah, a quiet farming center of 350,000 in central Saudi Arabia. Few Saudis qualify.
One of his clients is Abdulrahman al-Ali, 25. "I've been trying to find a job for a year," he told me. "When I submit an application, people tell me they'll call, but they never do." The problem is his schooling: Like many young Saudis, al-Ali has a bachelor's degree in Islamic philosophy.
The fulcrum of Saudi history can be pinpointed exactly: the Persian Gulf city of Dammam on March 3, 1938, when American engineers unleashed the kingdom's first commercially viable oil gusher after 15 months of drilling. The joint venture between U.S. petroleum companies and Saudi Arabia's ruler, King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, put the fledgling nation on the global economic map.
Ibn Saud had launched his conquest of Arabia three decades earlier. Initially he led just a few dozen men against the ruling Al Rasheed clan, who had driven the rival Sauds into exile in 1891 and seized control of Nadj, the area surrounding the caravan crossroads of Riyadh, and the Al Qasim region to its north. The Al Rasheeds were allied with the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which then governed the Red Sea coast, including Jeddah, Mecca, and Medina, while the Sauds were buoyed by alliances of their own. One was with followers of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the charismatic 18th-century religious reformer whose fervor helped propel the Sauds to power and defined their view of Islam and the world. The other was with Britain, whose support during and after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I made the Saudi state possible.
During the first three decades of the 20th century, Ibn Saud's forces and territory steadily grew as he combined brilliant military campaigns with adept diplomacy—and strategic marriage pacts with other tribes—to expand his realm to its present borders.
In 1933, a year after Saudi Arabia was founded with Riyadh as its capital, Ibn Saud granted an exclusive oil exploration concession to the Standard Oil Company of California. The partnership evolved into Saudi Aramco, the government-controlled enterprise that now presides over some 260 billion barrels of oil reserves and 225 trillion cubic feet (6.37 cubic meters) of natural gas—and accounts for about three-quarters of the kingdom's revenue. This vast wealth has funded the Arab world's most modern and well-equipped military force, a monumental welfare system, a network of religious missionaries dispersed throughout the Muslim world, and spectacular royal residences in Beverly Hills, London, and the south of France.
From the moment the oil concession was granted, "modern" in Saudi Arabia came to mean American modern—and more precisely, the outsize, mass-consumer version of modern that American oilmen carried with them from the U.S. Southwest, primarily Texas. Even apart from oil, the fit was in some ways natural. Like Texas, Saudi Arabia juxtaposes a long humid sea coast and a huge arid interior scorched by extreme desert temperatures. Between its 1,600 miles (2,600 kilometers) of Red Sea and Persian Gulf beaches lie 865,000 square miles (2.24 million square kilometers) of flat desert plains and mountains, more than three times the size of Texas itself and two and a half times the combined size of Germany and France.
It would be impossible to exaggerate the shock waves that the discovery of oil sent through this landscape—and the life of its inhabitants. The Arabian Peninsula has seen more change in the past six decades than in the previous 13 centuries. As recently as 1950, Riyadh was a sleepy oasis town of 60,000 inhabitants, most of them still living in mud-brick houses. Then came the 1970s oil boom, and with it a construction binge unlike anything the Middle East had ever seen. In the estimate of its harried Urban Development Authority officials, Riyadh now houses four and a half million people, and is well on the way to becoming an Arabian megalopolis.