Every country has citizens who lack personal ambition, and some countries have more than others. However, it is absurd to generalize like this about Saudi Arabia today, and it was not even universally true in the past. The history of Saudi Arabia contains many important national and cultural icons who, through hard work, ambition and a little luck, made a better life for themselves and their families.
Perhaps the greatest example is Sheikh Abdullah Sulaiman, King Abdul Aziz’s finance minister. Sulaiman was from a small town in the Najd region and, when he was 20 years old, he left his parents’ home to seek his fortune abroad. His parents were poor and Sulaiman hoped to find better prospects elsewhere. In Mumbai, he worked for an Arab businessman and learned about trade and bookkeeping. Next, he tried to start his own business in Bahrain. Sulaiman borrowed money for the venture and failed. Eventually, he returned to Saudi Arabia and began working with his uncle (some stories say his brother) in the king’s court as a financial clerk. Years later, Sulaiman took over his uncle’s position.
As finance minister to a king with few financial resources, Sulaiman had a difficult job. According to the stories, Sulaiman personally oversaw chests containing the king’s entire treasury. Later, he was instrumental in negotiating the oil concession. In 1950, Sulaiman, more than anyone else, was responsible for securing an equal portion of the oil profits for Saudi Arabia. He was a man of humble origins who learned valuable skills, took business risks, failed, started over and worked hard for his own success and the future success of his country. (Information about Abdullah Sulaiman, his life and accomplishments comes from “The House of Saud” by David Holden & Richard Johns, US State Department documents, oral histories and several articles in Aramco World Magazine).
In the process of writing my book about Saudi Arabia and its oil industry, I spoke with many men and women who improved their lives through education and hard work. Many of them were the first in their families to learn to read, let alone attend college, and they worked hard to achieve the success and financial stability that they did. One such individual left his family to work as a laborer for Aramco and was turned down several times due to eye problems. He persisted, found other work, went to school when he could and finished his high school degree. He took advantage of a government scholar program and went to college in the US. Eventually, he became a vice president of Aramco.
The history of business and profit in the Kingdom is not just about oil, it is also about the men and women who, in just three generations, transformed the nation into an economic powerhouse.
Ellen R. Wald
There are hundreds more with similar versions of this story. For three generations, Saudis have accomplished much in the modern economy with the help of industry and their own hard work. It is a gross misstatement to call these Saudis “spoiled children.”
One common component of Saudi success stories is a commitment to education. Saudi Arabia has been accused of having a “weak educational system” but, though it may not yet reach desired standards, it is not “weak.” Five Saudi universities are ranked in the top 1,000 globally, according to the 2018 Times Higher Education rankings. This is a significant increase from three years ago, when none of Saudi Arabia’s universities made the list. Of course, a great number of Saudis have also traveled abroad for their university education with government support. Saudi Arabia has a fairly well-educated population and the number of young adults with a university education is increasing rapidly. Saudi Arabia has one of the highest proportions of graduates in science fields in the world.
In the West, we are often given an image that Saudi Arabia’s entire economy is predicated on oil and that this will never change. One prominent American commentator said a few years ago that “Saudi Arabia can dig holes in the ground and pump out oil but little else.” It is true that most of Saudi Arabia’s wealth has come from the production and sale of oil. However, the history of business and profit in the Kingdom is not just about that oil, it is also about the Saudi men and women with ambitions and dreams who, in three generations, transformed a nation and a peninsula into a G-20 member and an economic powerhouse.
• Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Arabia Foundation, a Washington, D.C. think tank, and the president of Transversal Consulting. She also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University.