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The difference between conditions in Saudi Arabia and Iran helps explain why the entire crescent can be so difficult to understand and predict. Unlike the Shah, a stern, remote and isolated figure, the huge Saudi ruling family, with its estimated 5,000 princes, has its roots in the lives of its people. Its members are married into the families of commoners all over the country. They take their places in the chain of command below nonroyal superiors in the civil service. Saudi rulers take their "desert democracy" seriously: even the lowliest citizen can approach King Khalid or Crown Prince Fahd with a complaint at their daily majlis (council).
Another important difference between Iran and Saudi Arabia is that Saudi rulers maintain tight links with the country's religious leaders. Since the early 19th century the House of Saud has had close contacts with the puritanical Wahhabi sect of Sunni Muslims who dominate the country's religious life. Opinions of the ulema, the leading religious authorities, are sought on major issues. Their power was demonstrated last year when they successfully demanded the razing of an entire modern city that had been built for pilgrims near Mecca on the sacred Hill of Arafat. The ulema ordered it destroyed because it desecrated a holy place, and the government reluctantly agreed. The royal family also endorses the ulema's determination to enforce strict Koranic law on Saudi citizens. Two Britons recently were arrested and deported after being found with a lone woman at a seaside picnic. In September, three Saudi men were beheaded after being caught having sexual relations with a woman in a tent. Thus, with the Islamic law so rigidly enforced, it is most unlikely that the religious leaders would ever lead a resistance movement against the House of Saud.
To protect as well as they can their oasis of stability, the Saudi leaders have used the power of petrodollars to help shore up moderate regimes around them. They yearn for consensus rather than polarization and try to soften up radical Arab regimes rather than fight them. They annoyed the U.S. and Egypt by going along with a condemnation of the Camp David agreements at the Baghdad summit meeting of Arab states; but they did so in return for an easing of radical Arab retaliation against Egypt. The West was disappointed at the Saudi performance at last month's OPEC meeting, where they went along with a price increase that will reach 14.5% by year's end. To some extent the Saudis appeared to be caving in to pressure from radicals, but the Saudis argued that with the dollar plummeting and eroding the real income of OPEC countries, it was hard for them to make a convincing argument for another price freeze.
Recent disagreements with the West notwithstanding, Saudi policy remains as anti-Communist and anti-Soviet as ever. There appears to be no basis for recent reports that the Saudis are thinking of establishing diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, although Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev may well have written the Saudi leadership proposing