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Interview With Rob Sobhani

Aired September 29, 2002 - 22:16   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: Saudi Arabia is about the third of a size of the United States, but its influence on our foreign policy and energy supplies is massive.
Well, we've been thinking about that lately, and realize our reporting needs to go much further than just oil. That's why starting tonight, CNN is launching a series of reports with this question in mind at first. Are Saudis and Americans really a world apart?


(voice-over): Mention Saudi Arabia, and this is probably what comes to mind. Or this. Or this. A land of sultans and deserts with the way of life far, far different from that of Americans. Maybe yes, maybe no.

In a special study, the research firm Roper ASW surveyed citizens of the United States and Saudi Arabia. Among the top concerns of Saudis, crime, recession, terrorism, and drugs. Sound familiar? How about the way we spend our time? Both Saudis and Americans spend about the same number of hours each day working, sleeping, studying, even commuting. The same goes for weekly television watching, using a computer, or talking on the phone.

Americans do spend much more time listening to the radio. And then there's such things as the percentage of people who at least once a week eat meals with the family, read the newspaper, buy groceries, do hobbies, and play electronic games. Americans and Saudis, very much alike.

But there are differences. A much greater percentage of Saudis say they pray at least once a week and entertain at home. While Americans claim to spend more time doing chores, cooking, and watching videos.

And our values are strikingly different. Saudis put more importance on their faith and public image. They say it's extremely important to be modest and obedient. While Americans place much more value on freedom, honesty, individuality, and yes, having fun.


LIN: Well, the al Saud dynasty has ruled the Saudi kingdom since the end of World War II, and often in conflict with the United States. There's a fascinating chronology here. And Rob Sobhani joins us from our Washington bureau to help us sort it out. He's an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, who teaches U.S. foreign policy.

Rob, thanks so much for being here tonight.

ROB SOBHANI, GEORGETOWN UNIV.: Thank you very much.

LIN: We wanted to focus on the royal family, a fascinating story here.

SOBHANI: Absolutely.

LIN: And I want you to give me a quick portrait of the patriarchy, starting with King Fahd.

SOBHANI: King Fahd, yes, King Fahd has been ruling Saudi Arabia since 1982, when his brother King Khalid died. In many respects, King Fahd is the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. He laid the groundwork for the modernization process.

And to his credit, the infrastructure in the oil and gas, public sector, telecommunications, can very much be attributed to King Fahd's vision and leadership.

LIN: And what about Crown Prince Abdullah?

SOBHANI: Crown Prince Abdullah, of course, is a half brother of King Fahd, and probably the most popular figure in Saudi Arabia today. If there's one person who can turn Saudi Arabia around, it's Crown Prince Abdullah because he's honest. He's a true Muslim, and is also a firm believer in right and wrong.

LIN: How big is the house of Saud?

SOBHANI: Well, King Abdul Aziz -- King Abdullah Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia, had 44 sons, 17 wives. You can imagine it's a very, very big household.

LIN: Good gracious.

SOBHANI: That's to say the least.

LIN: Yes. And what is so interesting, you know, when we talk about royalty in the United States. I mean, this royal family did not come into being through birthright. I mean, they were essentially Bedouins who were assigned the role, right, by the British?

SOBHANI: Absolutely. And in fact, they had a very nasty battle and fought with the current rulers of Jordan, the Hashemites. And the Hashemites lost. Abdullah Aziz won, and became the custodian of Mecca and Medina and the story starts from there.

LIN: And so, that's a bit of how they came to power, but how did they keep power? Isn't it really through money and oil?

SOBHANI: There's two pillars to the Saud royal family. Yes, it's oil, but more importantly, it's the ideology of Wahhabism. In order to get his legitimacy, the founder of Saudi Arabia and his sons since then have relied on the religious leadership for their legitimacy. And that is why it is very important, when we talk about Saudi Arabia, that when we talk about oil, we also talk about Wahhabism and Islam and the Shariat.

LIN: And what's important for Americans to understand? Because what I find intriguing about the relationship between the Saudi royal family and its people, I mean, they're not necessarily considered benevolent rulers. These are -- this a family that has controlled its population by at times, throughout the '80s during the oil boom, by simply paying them.

SOBHANI: Absolutely. And in fact, as your polls indicated, one of the fundamental concerns of the Saudi citizen today is economics. In 1980, the per capita income of each Saudi was $20,000. It's now down to $6,000. And that's why there is enormous resentment among some circles towards the Saudi royal family. But at the same time, they're looking to the royal family for a way out. And that's why Abdullah is so crucial in all of this.

LIN: But the pressure, though, on the house of Saud, though, is to keep a lid on the population, which understands that it's -- this is not a democracy. And if they can't, with oil prices depressed, though going up now, but oil prices depressed, they can't pay their citizenry, so what they allow them to do is to have an outlet that sometimes people say, well, it's fanaticism. They allow anti- Americanism to foment, to keep the population under control.

SOBHANI: Absolutely. In a country where there is very little in terms of democracy, the mosque becomes the outlet. And that mosque, unfortunately, becomes a center for fanaticism. Islam becomes hijacked.

At the same time, I think it's important to note that Saudi Arabia is different from the United States. You know, your polls indicate faith. Islam demands obedience. And that's really what your Saudis were indicating in their polls. That's where the big cultural divide is between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

LIN: And the question these days is obedience to whom, whether it's the royal family or outside forces.

SOBHANI: Absolutely. And the -- and that's why the role of Crown Prince Abdullah is so crucial, because Saudi Arabia is a ticking time bomb. 70 percent of the population is below the age of 25. They need jobs. They need education. They're not finding it.

LIN: There you go.

SOBHANI: And they don't find it soon, it's going to be not only bad for the house of Saud, but for the world economy, because Saudi Arabia's sitting on 25 percent...

LIN: You hit it right on the head.

SOBHANI: ...of the world's energy. LIN: Thank you very much, Rob Sobhani. That's exactly what we have been talking about and hearing. Thank you so much for joining us tonight.

SOBHANI: Thanks a lot.


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