This article belongs to With a Grain of Piquant Salt column.
The House of Al Saud is built on land which is criss-crossed with tectonic fault lines which are almost constantly moving. And the al Saud way of handling these fault lines is not to improve the house by making it flexible, open and earthquake proof but to try to pour concrete down the fault line chasms. The concrete is radical Islam, authoritarianism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, oil money, corruption etc. with predictably sad results. And that is just now, what will happen in 10 years time? One way of finding out is to take a detailed look at the Saudi education system sausage machine to see what will come out on the other end. The answer is that the supply of ideology, money and people from Saudi Arabia to fuel global jihad will actually increase.
Saudi Arabia (like Pakistan), is one of the artesian wells of global Islamist terrorism and the rulers are frankly what can be politely described as robbers. To cover their thuggery, they draw on the cloak of Islam. I came across a very interesting factoid (from Juan Cole and Mai Yamani's academic work). In 1801/02, a big bunch of Saudi robbers from the Second Saudi Kingdom, supposedly operating under a fatwa which allowed them to rob and steal from the accursed infidel Shias, attacked Karbala and ransacked it. Karbala at that time and even now, was a place of pilgrimage and is a very big shrine. Given the nature of shrines, it was a very rich town.
As it so happens, a huge amount of Indian money (Lucknow) went to Shia Iraqi shrines to make canals, repair shrines and for general upkeep. So here we are, the fruit of the oppressed Indian farmer being collected by Shia rulers of Lucknow and they live up the high life with that money. Then, feeling guilty about their sins and to express their piety, they give the money to Iraqi Shrines (don't you worry, this also happened with the Sunni Rulers in India, like the Begums of Bhopal who got hostels constructed in Mecca).
Then the Wahhabi Al Saud's come rocking up with thousands of camels and rob Karbala. But then, robbing temples and shrines was quite common back then (remember Somnath?). But the crucial thing to remember is that this happened under religious cover and justification, just like what other religious terrorists do as well. Another interesting aspect, this raid by Al Saud on Karbala is not well known or even desired to be known. In my attempts to get more information, there was a deafening silence from all the avenues. Generally, you get tons of information, but in this case? Besides some academic work, not much is known about this attack.
But that religious cover by the Wahhabist sect is twinned by this institutionalised state driven robbery and we can see it when Al Saud took over the country, when the Saudi state faced the various insurrections/rebellions, when it took over the Holy Cities from the Husseni family, to the current giant corruption scheme that the 22 thousand royals (The Royal to Commoner ratio is approximately 1 royal to 1000 Saudi's compared to 1 royal to 5 million Brits) run on top of the Saudi State etc. etc.
Very simply, the idea is, the Al Saud's cream off all the wealth, the Wahhabi clerics get to define and run the religion and the 2 Holy Cities, and the local Saudi's get sandwiched between loads of oil money on one side and religious hell/brimstone from the other. Between these two oppressive and bizarre sides, are you surprised that the country which has provided most of the money and a significant proportion of international jihadi's come from this country?
So what do you do when you cannot do anything with the Royals (they are our allies, aren't they?) or the Wahhabi's (they are religious leaders and therefore untouchable). You go after the feedstock of terrorism, the common man. One way to turn these jihadi's around is to educate them in a better way and that is by modifying the education system and curriculum?
Here are some statistics on Saudi Arabia's education system from the recently released World Bank report. It is not that Saudi Arabia is not spending money on education, far from it. It spends a huge amount of money; almost 7% (average over the past 4 decades) of public expenditure is on education. Its expenditure per pupil can perhaps legitimately said to be the highest in the world.
You can't say that they are not in school either; Saudi enrolment figures are around the world average. But in terms of quality, it leaves much to be desired. Mathematics skills are below average. And based upon an econometric formulation, the authors determine that despite a full generation worth of very high investment in education, the returns in terms of academic levels in Saudi Arabia are atrocious, especially when measured in secular, global and scientific terms such as mathematics skills.
So what do they study? 76% of students study humanities. Which may be fine for civil servants, car dealerships, religious teachers etc. but you do need some mathematics and science bits somewhere. (here's a mind blowing statistic for you, public sector employment in Saudi Arabia as a proportion of total employment is over 80%!). And about 50-60% of the curriculum can be termed as religious education. Both rather unsuited for what a modern knowledge based scientific economy needs.
But don't think this state is because they are illiterate, they aren't, only 1 in 5 is illiterate. Even in the case of females, and it is only 30% illiteracy which is pretty good. While women outnumber men in school and college, the female labour participation is poor (in 2003, it was 20.2% compared to about 40% in Asia and 35% in Latin America). And the youth bulge is growing, the current fertility rate, albeit dropping, is still at about 6 children per Saudi Women. So we have a large number of students and a bad curriculum. What can you do? In normal countries, you have governments, parliaments, judiciary, media, non-governmental organisations, etc. which can help to change the direction of the education system.
Well, I said that the Wahhabi's control the education system, so they need to be checked. But how? That's the question, who will bell the cat? They control the judicial system, they control the ministry of Islamic Affairs, all the mosques, they control the religious police, the three huge Islamic Universities, the Ministry of Hajj, the Ministry of Religious Endowments, the Ministry of Finance, and all forms of communications whether it be radio, TV or the printed word. And of course, there is no democracy.
So you cannot force changes to the education system via the normal mechanisms of politics, democracy, judicial reform, media campaigns or religious authority because this group of Wahhabi's rule the roost. And the royals will definitely not say anything to the Wahhabi's because their rule is predicated on the Wahhabi approval. So nothing much can happen despite the recent efforts to set up independent universities.
So you end up with a rapidly growing student population, whose education is under the control of these Wahhabi's, being taught subjects that are spectacularly unsuited to the modern world, being ruled by grasping corrupt rulers, and with no hope that their education system can be reformed. So when you have unemployed or underemployed youth, with their heads crammed full of religious fundamentalist nonsense, what do they do?
Off they go to do the inner struggle business in the country, in the neighbourhood or around the world. With the sad result, like in Pakistan, the supply of jihadi's will increase not decrease. And the ironic fact is that these jihadi's are actively turning against the Al Saud's for the past 30 years. For example, Osama Bin Laden and company actively hate these al-Saud's just like what Juhayman al-Otaibi did in 1979. Poetic Justice or chickens coming home to roost?
All this to be taken with a grain of salt!