Cracks in the Saudi system

King Salman: which way will he jump?

Short of nuclear war, it is difficult to envisage a more cataclysmic event in the Middle East than the collapse of Saudi Arabia. The centrality of Saudi Arabia in Islam, in the global economy and in the region itself, would make turmoil in the kingdom more than just another addition to the growing list of disintegrating Arab states.

Aside from the effects on world oil supplies, the collapse of Saudi Arabia would probably also hasten the fall of other Gulf monarchies, could easily provoke another revolution in Egypt (where the Sisi regime depends heavily on Gulf largesse) and cause turmoil in some of the world's poorest countries as millions of expatriate workers suddenly returned home, jobless. In addition to all that, it would have profound but unpredictable consequences for the future of Islam.

Looking at the kingdom and its archaic ways, one word springs to mind: unsustainable. It's obvious from any realistic assessment that at some point something will have to give. The monarchy is sandwiched between religious obscurantists, from whom it draws much of its claim to legitimacy, and more open-minded citizens demanding equal rights for women, freedom of speech and the right to enjoy yourself without fear of arrest by the men from the mutawa.

Of course, people have been talking about the unsustainability of the Saudi system for a long time. It's more than 20 years since Said Aburish wrote his book, "The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of The House of Saud". To recognise that the status quo can't last for ever is one thing, but to predict how and when the dam will eventually burst is something else.

So far, largely as a result of their enormous wealth, Saudi rulers have been pretty successful in postponing the day of reckoning, as Giorgio Cafiero and Daniel Wagner explain:

"Saudi Arabia is a classic rentier state. In exchange for the absolute acquiescence of its 29 million subjects, the ruling al-Saud family provides services such as housing, health care, education, and a variety of subsidies – all funded by the country’s substantial oil wealth. Combined with intolerance for dissent, control over these resources has historically served as the ruling family’s hedge against instability of all varieties.

"In 2011, for example, the Saudi leadership responded to the Arab Spring revolts across the region by injecting $130 billion in the form of salary increases, public-sector job creation, and housing subsidies to minimize the potential for an uprising. Meanwhile, the kingdom’s appalling human rights record has deteriorated. Over the past four years, beheadings have skyrocketed and torture has flourished.

"However, this authoritarian rentier state model is unsustainable. Oil revenues are down, local unrest is simmering, and extremists are taking aim at the kingdom from without and within. The roots of all these problems come not from Iran but from inside Saudi Arabia itself."

As threats proliferate across the region as well as inside the kingdom, the House of Saud is having to dip deeper and deeper into its pockets. It can well afford to do so but money, rather than lack of it, is part of the problem: buying off trouble – the customary Saudi solution – doesn't work as well as it used to and as far as other approaches are concerned, the cupboard is rather bare.

In an article last week, the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (CDHR) warned:

"More than at any time in its history, the Saudi ruling family is facing domestic and external challenges and threats that can result in domestic strife which the autocratic system cannot handle even with external support, including military intervention from the region or the west."

Against that simmering background we now also have a trigger that could finally break the status quo. The rise of ISIS has turned the spotlight on Saudi rulers' long-standing (and highly problematic) pact with Wahhabism, the dominant local sect which doctrinally has many similarities with ISIS.

This has had a polarising effect and is putting the monarchy under pressure from two opposite directions. In different ways, both of these present a threat to the king's absolute rule. On one side are those calling for reform, including some of the clerics. CHDR says:

"Divisions have been developing between those clerics who oppose any change in the status quo, like the Mufti and his circle of intransigent clerics, and clerics who call for moderate reforms, like Dr Salman al-Awdah, who has 2.4 million social media followers. Additionally, other clerics, like Mohsen al-Awaji, call for a constitutional monarchy, question gender segregation, the ban on women driving and women’s dress code and call for an end to the regime’s rampant corruption ...

"When prominent clerics publicly warn and denounce the system they have legitimised, protected and served for generations, such loss of allegiance threatens the pillars upon which the Saudi state was founded and upon which it stands."

And on the other side ...

"The threats posed by these advocates of moderate and overdue reforms pale in comparison with the threats posed by an increasing number of extremist clerics and many of their followers who, for example, believe ISIS is a better alternative to the monarchy, which many consider corrupt and incapable of defending their values."

Faced with this situation, CHDR says the Saudi monarchy has two choices:

"It can continue augmenting its historical self-serving relations with the zealots, thus perpetuating its current exclusive sectarian methods of ruling, thereby risking domestic and regional threats and increasing global isolation. Or it can introduce necessary non-sectarian reforms to begin the process of including the overwhelming majority of the disenfranchised Saudi population in the functions and all decision-making processes of the state."

But which will the Saudi royals choose? "Despite King Salman’s and other members of the old guard’s attachment to the past and their dependence on the Wahhabi dogma, the odds are mounting against the continuity of the alliance as it is," CHDR says – adding that "mounting domestic resentment toward the rulers’ use of religion as a tool of oppression and terrorism makes the disintegration of the alliance inevitable."

This may be over-optimistic, however. Arab autocrats have a long history of failing to grasp opportunities for change when they arise and Saudi rulers have been carried along by inertia more than most. And even if they do opt for reform, the time for achieving it peacefully may already have passed.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Sunday, 5 July 2015