Saudi Arabia: Sands Of Time

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02The Balance of Power20150309

Saudi Arabia has been in the public eye recently, not least because of the death of King Abdullah. In the second part of a new series, Egyptian writer Tarek Osman examines the history of this desert Kingdom and asks why it is still so relevant and yet so misunderstood.

His journey takes him from the origins of the modern Kingdom through to the current reign of King Salman.

Having followed the dramatic events that led to the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its rise, in less than 50 years, to the status of global power, Tarek sees how that establishment was suddenly challenged. At the end of the 1970's - when Saudi Arabia was experiencing immense affluence and rapid development - a conservative religious backlash struck at the foundations of the Kingdom.

In 1979, religious extremists stage an armed takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the Iranian Revolution took place on the other side of the Persian Gulf and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. These three events, in different ways, posed significant challenges to Saudi Arabia, made the Kingdom change course and led to a more conservative balance of power in the Saudi establishment.

The 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait coincided with the return of thousands of Saudi jihadis who had been fighting in Afghanistan only to find half a million US military personnel stationed in Saudi Arabia, shoring up its defences. The following decade witnessed repeated attempts by jihadi groups to strike the US that has sullied Islam's sacred land, a campaign that culminated in 9/11, 15 of the 19 hijackers being Saudi nationals. A few years later, the "jihad abroad" was brought back home. Saudi Arabia was to endure ferocious jihadist strikes.

Having successfully suppressed extremist violence, again the Kingdom is poised for another period of shock and uncertainty as the wave of Arab uprisings and their aftermath rocks the region.

Producer Neil McCarthy.

03The Saudi Arabian Spring20150316

Saudi Arabia has been in the public eye recently, not least because of the death of King Abdullah. In the final part of his new series, Egyptian writer Tarek Osman examines the last few years of this desert Kingdom and asks why it is still so relevant and yet so misunderstood.

His journey has taken him from the origins of the modern Kingdom through the oil boom and threats to the stability of Saudi Arabia during Iraq's invasion of Kuwait to the fallout from 9/11 - where 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals - when Al Qaeda conducted a terrorist campaign inside the Kingdom.

This week Osman considers how the impact of the Arab Uprisings of 2011 was felt in Saudi Arabia. A growing youth population with high unemployment and well adapted to social media did not take to the streets as in other Arab countries. As regimes fell in the region, the late King Abdullah injected billions of dollars into welfare programmes and introduced certain reforms as a pre-emptive measure to ward off potential unrest.

But as we'll see, Saudi society - including the youth - consists of large sections who want gradual change and large sections who strongly resist it. The Kingdom moves forward internally at its own pace, whilst the region has gone up in flames with wars raging in Iraq and Syria. And, eyeing up its ideological rival Iran, Saudi Arabia has become more assertive then ever in its foreign policy the region.

As King Salman takes power the royal family comes towards the end of the line of sons of the founder of the Kingdom, Abdel Aziz Ibn Saud. Tarek considers the future of this traditional society and global banker of oil as a new generation of leaders and citizens waits in the wings.

Producer Neil McCarthy.