Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest exporter of oil. The petroleum sector accounts for around 80 percent of the country’s revenue, 45 percent of its GDP and 90 percent of its export earnings. Agricultural production is less than 3 percent of the economy in this vast desert. Dependence on foreign labor is high. Wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few thousand men, with around 20 percent of the national population estimated to be living below the poverty line, although official statistics are not available.
Saudi has never held national elections, maintains a tight control on media, and lacks a modern criminal justice system. It consistently ranks at the bottom of democracy indexes. Human Rights Watch cited the government for its “unflinching repression” of recent protests by the country’s Shia’a minority.
If Saudi did not have oil, its population would be poorer but not necessarily freer. A complex pursuit of geopolitical objectives that reach beyond hydrocarbon access has driven US foreign policy in the region for decades. These objectives include Israeli security, counterterrorism, Iranian containment, and commercial interests.
Jordan is not oil rich, but it is the fourth largest U.S. aid recipient after Columbia, Egypt and Israel, with the majority of assistance directed at military financing. Jordan may rank higher on the democracy scale but it has weathered growing demands for accountability without substantial reforms or external criticism.
The U.S. purchases 1 percent of Saudi’s daily oil production, but counts the country as a major arms client, with annual sales in the billions. Saudi also sits at the nexus of the standoff with Iran, Syria’s long revolution, and shifting regional alliances. Saving the Arab Spring will require more than a re-think of oil wealth.