The Arabian Peninsula is sparsely populated, and the population is mostly distributed over the coastal outskirts and mountains of Yemen and Hejaz. In total there are around 85 million inhabitants, nearly two-thirds in two states: Saudi Arabia (34 million) and Yemen (28 million). In some states, foreigners constitute very large minorities, or even the vast majority of the population (Qatar 90%, United Arab Emirates 75%).
Historically, until 1918, the area was, on the one hand under Ottoman rule in the north and west, and on the other hand under British rule all along the coasts of the Arabian Sea and the Gulf. The British were driven out of South Yemen by the national liberation struggle in 1967, and they granted independence to the emirates they controlled in the 1970s. In North Yemen a kingdom had conquered its autonomy vis-à-vis the Ottomans in 1904. North Yemen and South Yemen merged in 1990. From 1899 on, starting in the Nedj region in northeast, Abdelaziz Ibn Saoud gradually his control to the majority of the peninsula, and created the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
The importance of the region is largely linked to its hydrocarbon resources. In 2018 it was estimated that the peninsula had one third of the world’s proven oil reserves, and a quarter of the world’s gas reserves. The oil rent led, especially after 1973, to the constitution of a considerable financial power.
With the notable exception of Yemen (especially the Democratic Republic of South Yemen between 1967 and 1990), the States of the region have always been allies of the Western powers. In recent decades these States have been the biggest arms buyers on the planet, with Saudi Arabia managing to have the third largest arms budget in the world after the United States and China!
The heads of the Saud family have proclaimed themselves “imams of the Wahabis”, a particularly harsh and sectarian version of Islam. They presented themselves as “defenders of faith and tradition” against modernist and progressive currents in the region (supporters of the Muslim Nahda (renaissance), liberals, Arab nationalists, communists), while the progressive movements of the region were fought and crushed in the years 1960-70 then again during the Arab Spring of 2011.
In recent years, the regimes have attempted to present themselves as "modern", by promoting cultural and especially sporting activities. In Saudi Arabia this policy is embodied by the crown prince Mohamed Ben Salman known as “MBS”, who follows the example of the strong man of the United Arab Emirates, Mohamed Ben Zayed, aka "MBZ".
Their anti-Iranian alliance, consolidated under the US presidency of Donald Trump, has also resulted in the normalization of diplomatic relations of Oman, the Emirates and Bahrain, with Israel. They were soon followed by Sudan and Morocco. Security cooperation between these regimes, the Saudis in the lead, and Israel is very old (it existed in the 1970s!). The Arab spring 2011 only accentuated a movement of reactionary "holy alliance" including: Saudi Arabia; its vassal the Bahraini monarchy; its Emirati ally; Egypt; Morocco which had the full support of Trump’s America (but what will happen to Biden?); the active complacency of the British and French, especially with regard to the war in Yemen.
In Yemen, the popular movement of the Arab Spring demonstrated the deep popular aspirations for more democracy and less corruption; A national conference for a new Yemen was called. But it was quickly sabotaged by maneuvers and alliances of the various forces. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, already active in "reducing" the experience of the Yemeni Arab Spring, intervened massively. But this operation turned into a quagmire.
The assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on October 2018 by MBS henchmen, was catastrophic for the Saudi leader’s image, as was the failure of the blockade of Qatar organized by MBS and MBZ. However, these kinds of external difficulties are secondary. Oil monarchies in general, Saudi Arabia in particular, face much deeper internal contradictions. The oil rent is certainly still there, but these regimes must necessarily think of the post-oil era, as they are strong in their financial power, but dependent on hazards that they cannot control.
In the rentier model, the indigenous population was able to benefit from social advantages (free education, social security), but that were distributed quite unequally. Phenomena of unemployment appeared, particularly for young graduates and especially for women. Because of religious conservatism, while the education of girls has progressed significantly throughout the region, there remain very many professions, and a fortiori many positions of responsibility, that are refused to them. MBS and MBZ want to be "modernizers", but the absolute autocratism of the former limits his capacity for reform, and the latter rules over a "state" largely built by outsiders and literally on sand.
Center for Studies and Initiatives of International Solidarity CEDETIM (Paris)