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Volume 21, Number 1January/February 1970

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Birth of a Bureaucracy

Written by Vincent Sheean

Vincent Sheean is probably one of the world's foremost reporters and is certainly one of its more prolific writers. Between 1926 and 1963 he turned out 26 books, ranging in nature from his brilliant—and recently reissued-Personal History, one of the most famous and important books of the 1930's, to Dorothy and Red, a touching and penetrating look-at two other greats of that period, Sinclair Lewis and Dorothy Thompson.

Vincent "Jimmy" Sheean was born in 1900, became a reporter at 18 and an author, of An American Among the Riffs, at 26. In between he molded and developed the style that would mark his work thereafter—sensitive, subjective observation combined with hard work and objective research. In those years he also began to cover and record such turbulent events of the 1920's and '30's as the rise of Stalin, Chiang Kai-shek and Hitler, the collapse of the League of Nations, the Riffs' uprising in Morocco, the early battle for Palestine between Zionist and Arab and the Spanish Civil War.

In those years Sheean, like his friend, competitor and contemporary, Ernest Hemingway, developed an extraordinary range of friends among the great men who were shaping, or would shape, history, many of them rulers in the East. One was Gandhi, whom he met during a tour of duty as, an intelligence officer in World War II and later enshrined in Mahatma Gandhi, written several years after an assassin killed Gandhi before Sheean's eyes. Another was Nehru, also the subject of a book (Nehru: Ten Years of Power). A third was King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, a man he first met 10 years ago, and the subject of a book scheduled for publication this February.


Visitors to Saudi Arabia, who grow more numerous all the time, are faced with the name of the present sovereign of the country wherever they turn. King Faisal, son of 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud, is the third of his family to have the title and power over the greater part of the Arabian Peninsula, uniting it—substantially—for the first time since the days of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors.

The visitors are still not as numerous as they are likely to become in a subsequent and easier age. It is neither cheap nor easy to visit Arabia. But those who come cannot avoid noticing what is being done to improve the lot of the people—schools, roads, ports, airlines, buses, consumer goods and public health. Wherever they look they see the name of King Faisal, and if they shouldn't, notice, someone is sure to tell them that the work they are witnessing is done at his order and in fulfilment of his desire.

His actual name is given, whether he likes it or not, to a great number of schools and other public institutions to which it is difficult to refuse that sanction. This goes from military academies to hospitals, from a school for girls in a village to a hostel for Muslim pilgrims. The work now being done for blind orphans, boys and girls alike, and for the deaf-and-dumb children, which fascinated me last winter when I visited the institutions, is done by order of the King and on money he insisted on appropriating for the purpose. So is the multi-million-dollar desalination project at Jiddah; so is the imposing dam which is now arising on the Wadi Jizan near the borders of Yemen, also on the Red Sea; so is the continuation of work on sand stabilization—arresting the ceaseless shift of the centuries—in the Eastern Province and elsewhere. Faisal's name and activity, his will to raise the whole level of life for his people, are evident in dozens of enterprises now going on in every part of the vast, almost empty peninsula.

After repeated visits to the kingdom during the 1960's I was finally moved, this past winter, to ask His Majesty something over which I had long wondered.

"You have started more works of public improvement than almost anybody of whom I have knowledge," I told him, "and almost all of them in this decade. It is a staggering work even to think about. What I have wondered is whether you can keep up, steadily sustain, an interest in each of these works. When you have seen its beginning do you follow the progress of the development? There are so many things that seem to be a kind of world in themselves. Can Your Majesty find time to watch over all this, that is each work and all the work, along with all your other duties?"

Faisal lifted his head and gave me a good healthy stare, accompanied by a broadening grin. His smile is rare and perhaps for that reason it seems to illumine his whole rather austere face.

"You seem to think I'm the only man in this kingdom who does any work," he said. "That isn't true. We have many devoted public servants here and their number is increasing. And, of course, I'm human, completely human. I can't do more than one man is allowed to do in a day. It is written in the Koran, 'God does not place on any person a burden greater than he can bear.' There are others who can be trusted to carry out work once it has been well begun."

In this principle—the delegation of authority—Faisal has gone far beyond his brother and father who preceded him. The regular ministries which line the airport avenue in Riyadh, the royal capital, bear witness to the birth of a bureaucracy which, however recent, is already well established and functioning better than some of the older systems on which it has been modeled. The young men of Arabia are ready and anxious to serve their government, in which civil service jobs have opened up lavishly during the past decade. Much or most of the development in this respect is new and has reached its full strength only in the five years since Faisal became King (1964). During the reign of his father, the great 'Abd al-'Aziz, who was known to the West as "Ibn Sa'ud," there was no such thing as a cabinet of ministers or a set of ministries with civil service regulations, promotions and pensions, a regular, institutionalized government in the western sense. Most of that has grown and flourished under the aegis of Faisal, first as Prime Minister and later as sovereign. He has had much advice from experts, of course, including bankers, businessmen and professors from all over the world. There are a certain number of these who can be summoned to Riyadh, even today, on very brief notice (and for adequate fees), to give their views on plans or projects. For, as fate would have it, the birth of the modern Arabian government was accompanied by a very considerable increase in cash revenues. Unlike almost every other "developing" country in Asia and Africa, the Saudi government pays its own way and is seldom under obligation to any external institution or nation, however benevolent.

The part King Faisal has played in all this would be difficult to exaggerate. There are dozens of ways—aside from the physical evidence in roads, schools and hospitals—whereby the King's private voice and private ear have made decisive alterations of destiny. I know of one man, one of the most talented executives today in that part of the world, who staked his whole future on an interview with the King and won. He had come through his school in Egypt with flying colors and felt entitled to a scholarship in the United States but was crossed off the list, he thought, because of favoritism; he came of modest parentage, his rivals from an important tribe. The King heard him, was convinced and sent him to America. He is now the head of the newest invention of state capitalism, the great consortium called Petromin, which engages in many activities concerning petroleum and minerals throughout the country.

Petromin itself is an extraordinary innovation. In a country which never had a stock market or a nationwide industrial-financial enterprise before, a Petromin-sponsored business recently put its shares on the non-existent market, that is, through banks in the cities, and the citizens of Arabia greatly over-subscribed and had to be content with taking their turns at the shares. It is true that the investment of savings has not hitherto flourished much in Arabia—men tended either to hoard, to invest in small enterprises or real estate, and sometimes to invest in holdings abroad; and, along with that, a lack of the machinery for buying and selling. This, too, is changing now, and the remarkable success of Petromin will have helped to bring about new methods.

The problems of the country, so long neglected or forgotten, cannot yield to easy, quick solutions, but there are almost countless ways in which the effort at solution goes forward. In practically every one of these cases Faisal seems to be at least the inspiration of the work and often its direct patron. Take any one of the great difficulties of the land and people—water, health, education, communications—and there is the King busy through others, those carefully chosen others to whom he delegates his immense authority in each case. He picks and chooses his instruments with an uncanny skill because he has known these men all his life, as well as their social and economic environment (tribal alliances and the like) and their points of view both inherited and individual. For example, the Ministry of Education has had to introduce a good deal of what conservative Muslims—not always approvingly—call "innovation" during the past seven or eight years. The aim has been universal literacy, which, in view of the small population of the kingdom (something between three and six million) ought to be perfectly attainable. "A hundred new schools a year" was the King's order, and the Ministry of Education was entrusted with the task. Universal primary education, even for boys, was suspect; for girls it seemed sheer revolution when it was introduced, only seven years ago. But now, after some slight disorder and a good deal of complaint, the idea has caught on and even the most out-of-the-way villages now clamor for more schools.

Some of the credit for the many achievements in education must go to the astute and devoted Minister, the Shaikh Hasan Al ash-Shaikh, a direct descendant of the 18th-century Islamic reformer Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, on whose teachings the Saudi kingdom was founded. The Wahhabite or Wahhabi movement coincided with the rise of the Sa'ud family to nationwide power and was to a great extent responsible for it. Wahhabism, if we may so call it, that is the doctrine of Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, is a sort of Islamic puritanism, and it is associated in almost equal proportions with the House of Sa'ud and the House of 'Abd al-Wahhab (ash-Shaikh), the descendants of the great religious reformer.

As it happens, King Faisal is descended from both of these lines; his father was the great king who founded the Saudi nation in 1932 and his mother was directly descended from 'Abd al-Wahhab. The reformer was always known as "the Shaikh," and his male descendants all bear that title. It is, of course, common in the tribal system (meaning simply "elder") but when used as a special honorific, almost as a family name, it is rare in Arabia. Thus the Shaikh Hasan Al ash-Shaikh, Minister of Education, bears one of the most respected names in the whole peninsula, revered by the traditionally devout and historically esteemed by all, whether Wahhabi or not.

Naturally, for the purposes Faisal had in mind, this was a God-given instrument. Few in Arabia would dream of attacking a direct descendant of "the Shaikh" (that is, Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab) for un-orthodoxy or for any deviation from the pure faith. If this Minister of Education opens a school he does so not only with the authority of the King, but also with the authority inherent in the honored name of the religious reformer who did so much to create the nation. If you were going to choose the ideal instrument for the introduction of general education in a society which had for years discouraged such a concept, or to insist on public health measures that were unfamiliar, it would be hard to find a better man. Fortunately for Saudi Arabia such a man was at hand.

Education and health—the "new ministries," as they are called—demand an increasing share of the budget every year. They increase their authority as they increase their personnel, and the recruitment of workers for their service grows with the return of students sent abroad, as well as with the advent of trained workers from other Arab countries. Indeed the influx from Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad has grown less in these past two or three years—partly, it's true, because of political conflicts, but also because the supply of teachers, doctors and workers from Saudi Arabia itself is increasing noticeably. The time may be coming when the neighboring Arab countries will no longer be called upon to provide such heavy quotas of specialists for the schools and hospitals, the universities and public institutions.

There are other ministries that don't seem to be either old or new which have also received support and encouragement from Faisal. One is the Ministry of Agriculture and Water whose energetic minister, Hassan Mishari, did his advanced studies in the United States (if you closed your eyes while he talks, you would think him an American), and has drawn heavily upon American experts for various projects now in progress, many of which have as a prime aim the rectification of past errors.

As in many other developing countries, some of the first foreign engineers who were brought in to supervise sewage, drainage, road construction and water supply projects, sometimes tended to oversimplify their planning or neglect local conditions. Combined with the difficulties of dealing with inexperienced authorities, this tendency had serious effects. Some built paved roads, for example, without adequate drainage and last winter, when it rained as it had not rained for more than 20 years, the Ka'bah at Mecca, the greatest shrine of Islam, was flooded to a depth of 10 feet. Since this was January, just before the pilgrimage, the season when devout Muslims come from all over the earth to venerate the place of their religious origin, King Faisal's sovereign anger was aroused as it seldom is. He ordered the appropriate authorities to deal with the crisis at whatever cost to the government. (Showing that there are indeed advantages to absolute authority.)

There were other errors too. The earliest desalination plant in Jiddah failed. Also, water from artesian wells was used so extravagantly that the entire water level of the capital city was drastically lowered.

To avoid repetition of such errors, new projects today have to be coordinated with all the others in their own field, so that no one scheme can obviate or negate another. The Central Planning Organization now has an overriding authority in such matters, with easy access to technicians in each field, from—literally—anywhere in the world on very short notice.

Of all the plans to develop Saudi Arabia, however, none is more fascinating, or potentially more fruitful for the future of the country, than those to encourage the settlement of nomads on the land.

The nomads—or Bedouins, as they are loosely called—constitute a large part of Arab life. But their number is really almost anybody's guess. From the Central Statistical Service of the Ministry of Finance, which has been compiling reports on them in the past three years, and the Ministry of Interior, which deals with the wandering tribes, it would seem that at least 20 per cent of the whole population is nomadic—yet even they are beginning to settle down.

Mishari, whose ministry deals with this question most intimately, is convinced that time will bring nearly all of them into the fold of the orderly village, doing agricultural work, aware of the advantages of roads, schools and hospitals. After all, the life of the desert, however romantic it may seem, is really very hard. People live longer—and better—in villages.

Like his father before him, King Faisal is very interested in the settlement of nomads. But (also like his father before him!) he cannot resist the appeal which the life of the desert seems to make to all Arabs with a trace of poetry in their being. Some years ago, in one of my earliest interviews with Faisal as King, he quoted some Bedouin poetry to me about the joys of youth in the desert. I could see in his eyes and his smile as he recited the words how the pictures of the past rose in mirage before him—how this apostle of the future is, in so many deep respects, aware of the merit of everything that has gone before

This article appeared on pages 2-5 of the January/February 1970 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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