18 July 2012

What is Happening in Saudi Arabia?

Right now, everybody is focused on Syria.

That is understandable. A lot is happening there and with the killing of civilians by the hundreds, widespread torture allegations, the downing of a Turkish plane, and now, the Red Cross declaring that a civil war is underway, the whole thing plays out like a macabre soap opera.

But, as my tiny readership knows, ever the optimist, I see the implosion of Syria not just as a further descent into hellish chaos but as a prelude to something hopeful, a solution involving Kurdish statehood. It is like the apocryphal Chinese character "crisis." Horror leading to a new birth. It won't be easy, it won't be bloodless and it won't be very quick. But I believe something good will come out of this carnage.

I am worried, on the other hand, about the future of a country that is almost always absent from the headlines. A country so ruthlessly autocratic that, from outside, it appears like a paragon of stability. I am, of course, talking about Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is one of the most oppressive, reactionary and misogynistic regimes in the world. It tortures, imprisons and kill its citizens. Saudi women have no social or political rights. Its Islamic police force called Mutaween, tasked with enforcing the Sharia, is so strict that, ten years ago in a school fire it stopped 15 girls from leaving the school because they did not have proper Islamic dresses on them and let them burn alive.

Its political system should properly be called the last absolute monarchy in the world. The Saudi king's legitimacy is derived from two sources. One is spiritual the other is lineage. Together they constitute a very peculiar dynastic alliance.

The House of Wahhab

The present day Saudi Kingdom was created through the early efforts of Muhammad ibn Saud who tried to unify the entire peninsula under his rule. He achieved that feat largely through an alliance with Muhammad ibn Abd-al Wahhab, an eighteenth century theologian who advocated purity of practice in Islam. He was the founder of what is known today as Wahhabi movement (its adherents prefer the denomination Salafi).

That alliance between the spiritual and the political led to a rapid expansion of the rule of the House of Saud:
The 1744 pact between Muhammad bin Saud and Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab marked the emergence of the first Saudi state, the Emirate of Diriyah. By offering the Al Saud a clearly defined religious mission, the alliance provided the ideological impetus to Saudi expansion. First conquering Najd, Saud's forces expanded the Salafi influence to most of the present-day territory of Saudi Arabia, eradicating various popular and Shia practices and propagating the doctrines of ʿAbd al-Wahhab.
Muhammad bin Saud died in 1765 but his son, Abd al Aziz, continued the Salafi cause. Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab in turn died in 1792
The alliance was not one in which the political had the upper hand, as was the case in the Ottoman system. This was more of a power sharing and a dynastic alliance whereby the descendants of the House of Saud continued to be the rulers and the descendants of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab remained in control of the ulama of the Kingdom.
The descendants of Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab, the Al ash-Sheikh, have historically led the ulama in the Saudi state, dominating the state's clerical institutions.
Just as they did at the beginning, the House of Wahhab continues to provide a much needed legitimacy to the House of Saud.

In that sense, Wahhabi Islam is an integral part of the Saudi political system. It determines its internal policies and it heavily influences its foreign policy objectives and actions. It is difficult to imagine a situation where the Wahhabi influence could be drastically reduced without undermining the House of Saud.

The House of Saud

The lineage is about the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz bin Saud, also know as Ibn Saud.  In this case, the succession is agnatic, that is, instead of going from father to son it goes from brother to brother. Which why we have had so many octogenarians as kings and crown princes.

This is the succession chart in modern times.

Incidentally, the chart does not show the importance of a specific clan within the House of Saud. In modern times, the Sudairi Seven, the sons of Abdulaziz' favorite wife Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi, exerted undue influence over royal succession. Of the seven, one became king (Fahd) and two were Crown Princes (Sultan and Nayef) but they died before acceding to the throne.

The late Crown Prince Nayef
The current king, Abdullah is not a member of the Sudairi clan, and in 2006, he created the Allegiance Council to curb the power of the Sudairi boys. Nonetheless, he had to choose Nayef as the Crown Prince.

This was especially significant since Abdullah came to power convinced that reforms were needed to relax the tight religious and political rules of the Kingdom. He knew that the current alliance was a ticking time bomb and when it exploded it would take the House of Saud down.

In contrast, the man he had to select as his successor, Nayef, was his polar opposite as he thought that the current Saudi Arabia was a lax and permissive society, a libertine's paradise.

Symbolic moves by Abdullah like giving women the power to vote in largely inconsequential local elections was met with stiff opposition from Nayef and the Wahhabi ulama. Remember the Saudi women's movement for the right to drive a car unaccompanied by a male relative? The one that was deemed "the end of virginity" by leading Saudi clerics? Well, Nayef was firmly against it. He was also against women athletes competing in Olympic events. (Within a week of Nayef's demise in Geneva I saw this title in an online publication: Saudi Arabia to Allow Women to Compete in London Olympics)

Custodian of the Vatican
and Custodian of the Two
Holy Mosques
Abdullah tried to loosen the ulama's grip on Saudi foreign policy and in the process he became (much to the Wahhabi clerics' chagrin) the first Saudi monarch to visit the Pope and to promote dialogue between Muslims, Christians and Jews.

The Shia Among Salafis

Abdullah also knew that sooner or later the Shiite minority in the Kingdom (along with their cousins in Bahrain) would have to be recognized. But to Nayef and to the Wahhabi ulama, Shia are kuffar (infidels or nonbelievers, kafir referring to the individual). In fact, this is the case for the majority of Sunni theologians.

And for as long as the Kingdom was in existence, the Saudi Shiites were persecuted, discriminated against and mistreated. Since they represent only 15 percent of the population, the House of Saud thought that they could be controlled indefinitely. But in the current climate with their Bahraini brethren being killed and jailed with actual military help from Saudi Arabia, the Shiites in Saudi Arabia may no longer remain inactive.

A week ago Saudi authorities arrested a prominent Shiite cleric by the name of Sheik Nimr al-Nimr. Unsurprisingly, protests ensued. The Saudi security personnel shot two people in the process. Since then protesters have escalated the violence by throwing bombs at official sites and buildings using a new hit and run tactic.

The Saudi Economy

Besides the obvious and intractable Shia problem, the Kigdom has two other serious issues. One is economic and the other is social/demographic.

The economy of Saudi Arabia is almost entirely dependent on oil as it represents 86 percent of its revenues. Because of that, the economy is not capable of generating enough jobs to keep unemployment at reasonable levels in the foreseeable future.
Saudi Arabia needs to provide at least four million jobs between now and 2020 to keep unemployment at acceptable levels, according to Ali al Ghufais, the governor of the Technical and Vocational Training Corporation.
The Kingdom relies on public spending to create new jobs. But doing so leads to inflation, which is currently around 5 percent:
Prof Johar said that in order to narrow the gap between economic and population growth, the country needs an intensive economic-spending plan but that this would create more inflation.
“In Saudi Arabia inflation is like a spectre and we just want it to be down all the time but for growth we must allow for it,” he said.
Public spending is also instrumental in keeping social unrest at bay.
In 2011, the government overspent the budgetary allocation by 39 per cent – raising real spending by about 25 per cent – as one-off payments in the first quarter aimed to keep a lid on possible unrest via a generous welfare package.
As the Arab revolts swept the region in the first three months, Riyadh paid out a two-month salary bonus to government employees, costing SR35bn-40bn, while also raising the minimum public-sector wage and hiring an extra 60,000 staff for the interior ministry.
Since the Kingdom continues to spend more than it earns, many analysts believe that eventually it may have to introduce income tax. As we know from the history of taxation in the West, such a shift has serious and deep implications for the legitimacy of the regime.

It is one thing to collect a religious tax called Zakat from corporations. It is a religious requirement to give away a certain portion of their revenue even if the state was not involved. But collecting income tax from individuals always gives them more say in how that money is spent and how that political system is managed. Between the House of Saud and the House of Wahhab there is little room for some form of representative system.

This economic problem is exacerbated by a social and demographic element.

Like the rest of the Middle East, Saudi population is very young. Over 60 percent of the population is younger than 40 years of age. These young people have very different aspirations than the octogenarians who are running the show currently. They want to enjoy more liberties, they want to have access to online technologies and they want to lead more fulfilling lives than being forced to practice purer forms of an ascetic interpretation of religion.

Add to this group affluent and professional middle classes who share those aspirations and who are critically important for the success and expansion of the Saudi economy and you can see the fundamental problem facing the country.

On the one side, there is an aging and out of touch political dynasty co-dependent on a reactionary religious dynasty. A rich yet structurally flawed and undiversified economy that is increasingly unable to respond to the needs and aspirations of young people and the middle classes.

On the other side, you have oppressed minorities, suppressed women, disenchanted young people and disillusioned professionals and middle classes.

Outside Forces

One of the consequences of the Saud-Wahhab dynastic alliance was to perpetuate the holy mission given to the Kingdom at the outset. Saudi Arabia is the self declared patron of  Sunni Muslims. It spends billions of dollars every year funding conservative madrassas, securing the allegiance of friendly governments, financing terrorist networks and spreading Wahhabism everywhere.

Thanks to the benevolent protection extended by the US, for several decades, the Kingdom got away with all these pernicious activities. But now that the Middle East is undergoing a serious transformation, the dynastic alliance is coming under fire from two different corners.

As Saudi Arabia has been an implacable foe of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iran harbors no illusions about the Kingdom's efforts to destabilize its regime and to reduce its influence in the region. To counter this, Iran has a simple and effective weapon, It knows that the Saudi Shia represents a formidable tectonic plate for the Kingdom. You do not need to be a Stratfor type analyst to realize that Iran is probably actively helping the Shiite minority to become a major internal problem for the House of Saud.

Besides this serious internal issue, there is a religious problem for the House of Wahhab. After decades of shifting to ever more conservative versions of Islam, the AKP government in Turkey signaled the emergence of a new version of Islamism. And now with several new Islamist governments brought to power by the Arab Spring there is a growing effort to de-radicalize Islam and turn it into something closer to Christian Democratic movements of Western Europe. Most of the newly elected Islamist governments, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, seem to subscribe to this version of political Islam. It may or may not come to pass but it certainly represents a defeat of Wahhabi policies of the last four decades.

In short, from where I stand, it looks like the Saudi system is facing a series of very critical crises and the regime is simply not equipped to deal with these issues. In the next few years, one way or another it will go through some major changes. Abdullah is old and frail, the transitions could start as early as his death.

I cannot predict what will take place and how far these changes will go. But, given the Kingdom's weight in the region, the large sums it spends to support various political and religious causes, I know that they will affect everyone in the Middle East.

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