Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, Washington DC
November 3, 2014
Saudi Vulnerability, Rulers and Merchants Common Objectives, Emulate Christians, Eliminate Terrorism
CDHR’s Commentaries and Analysis
Dynamics Triggering Saudi Vulnerability
CDHR’s Analysis: Transforming the Saudi state from an absolute system to an inclusive, open and accountable modern polity requires reforms which the autocratic monarchy is unwilling of carrying out.
When it rains, it pours in a land where it rarely rains. This metaphorical phrase describes the Saudi state’s current affairs best. Never in its history has the vast Saudi desert kingdom and its autocratic and theocratic ruling dynasties, Al-Saud and Al-Alshaikh, been more vulnerable, isolated externally and destabilized internally than now.
The Saudi monarchs’ enduring domestic stability and external influence can be attributed to their draconian domestic rule and their possession of large quantities of oil reserves which they have used effectively as a weapon to buy loyalty and achieve their objectives domestically, regionally and globally for the last fifty years.
The Saudi monarchs have been in a position to blackmail oil producers and consumers for decades; consequently, they have been viewed as invincible and irreplaceable deal makers and as the primary protector of Western interests in Arab and Muslim countries and beyond. As clever as they are, the Saudi rulers made good use of their exorbitant and fortuitous oil revenues to spread their ideological influence (the globally loathed Wahhabi doctrine), extract favoritism and purchase protection for themselves and for their vast kingdom from Arabs, Muslims and from powerful Western democratic nations for decades.
However, due to domestic, regional and global developments which the autocratic Saudi rulers cannot control or even influence in some cases, their best days seem to be ebbing and there is no one to thank for that other than those who created the illusion that the Saudi ruling family is matchless and invincible. For decades, industrial democratic countries of the West, specifically the US, have committed themselves to defend the Saudi state from external aggression and domestic unrest in exchange for the secure flow of oil at manageable prices.
The Saudi rulers are now surrounded by raging regional political and social upheavals known as the “Arab Spring” or more to the point, violent revolutions against absolute regimes some of whom were less tyrannical than the Saudi monarchs. Immediate threats to the Saudi regime (state) will most likely be a spillover from their Southern and Northern neighboring countries, Iraq and Yemen, both currently mired in political, religious and ethnic wars.
In Yemen, a civil war is being fought between pro-Saudi Sunni Yemeni tribes and anti-Saudi Zaydis (Houthis, an off shoot of Shia Islam and former rulers of Yemen), who are reported to be supported by the Saudi’s regional main competitor, Iran. A similar war has been raging in Iraq between the majority Shia population and a pro-Saudi Sunni minority, which the Saudis are reportedly financing for fear of the establishment of a Shia-dominated democratic and stable Iraq which could potentially produce more oil than Saudi Arabia.
Within Saudi Arabia, demands for drastic reforms, including political participation, codified rule of law, equality for women and religious minorities and for transparency and accountability are persistent and continue to gain support, thanks to the social media of which the Saudis are the most active users in the world. However, the Saudi rulers and their power base, the extremist religious establishment, are adamantly opposed to any reforms that might hint at undermining their absolute rule.
Furthermore, the Saudi regime has been weakened and more isolated due to major policy disagreements with its most trusted and longtime protector, the US, as exemplified by their differences over Syria and the US overture toward Iran. The Saudi regime has been further weakened by decreasing global demands for oil and a significant drop in oil prices recently. This is due to other countries producing more oil, consumers are conserving and exploring other sources of energy.
Given these facts and irreversible developments, it’s safe to conclude that Saudi Arabia has lost its mantle of invincibility as the most dominant supplier of oil and as irreplaceable protector of Western interests. The time when the Saudi regime was in a position to dictate its terms to oil producers and consumers seems to be fading. Losing control over its most sustaining asset-domination over international oil production, marketing and pricing-reduces the Saudi monarchy’s role as a major player in regional and global affairs.
While the fortified walls that have shielded the Saudi monarchy from collapse are not falling yet, the cracks are burgeoning, getting wider and are likely irreparable without major redesign of the foundation of the Saudi political, social, religious and economic structures. However, transforming the Saudi state from an absolute system to an inclusive, open and accountable modern polity requires reforms which the autocratic monarchy is unwilling and incapable of carrying out for fear of expediting its demise.
Yemen: Outlook For A Revolution In Progress
CDHR’s Commentary: Centuries of homegrown subjugation and repressed social, political, economic, gender, regional, tribal and religious abhorrence have taken an ineffable toll on the Arab people. Epochs of religious and political totalitarianism, poverty, social injustices and backwardness led to the unstoppable and irreversible revolts known as “Arab Spring.” For the first time in their history the Arab masses have claimed the right to determine their destiny regardless of consequences.
Like other social revolts, the Arab Spring is going through normal phases. The first stage is unity among most segments of society with the aim of ridding themselves of the “common enemy,” their iron-fisted despots. The second stage is venting, albeit savagely in some cases, as exemplified by the ravaging strife in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen itself. The third stage of the violent Arab Spring will be to establish a new order based on collective consensus and to move on as transformed people with common interests and objectives that they initiate instead of being subservient to their states’ absolute rulers and dysfunctional institutions.
Like their counterparts in some other Arab countries, the Yemenis are going through these stages of the Arab Spring. Having united to overthrow the repressive and divisive regime of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a segment of the population, the Houthis, who had been marginalized under his rule, revolted against the regime that succeeded him, but continued to marginalize them. Although the Houthis comprise a small percentage of the population, they have been able to achieve remarkable gains which would not have been possible if it were not for the approval and support of many other Yemenis, including the country’s armed forces and other security apparatuses.
Despite their legitimate grievances, the Houthis’ struggle against their former and current central governments was immediately attributed to Iran’s interference in Yemeni domestic affairs. The Saudi ruling family is the cheer leader in characterizing the Houthis’ uprising to attain their rights as an Iranian-instigated, financed and armed movement aimed at strengthening Iran’s grip on Yemen. The Saudis have long dominated Yemen’s internal affairs through purchasing the loyalty of powerful tribal chieftains.
As demonstrated by today’s (11/2/2014) development in Yemen, the Saudis, their allies and defenders have been proven wrong in their contention that the Houthis are foreign agents. For the first time in Yemen’s history, genuine statehood seems to be in the making, largely due to the Houthi uprising. The 13 major Yemeni political parties, including the Houthis, agreed to send a communique to the President and Prime Minister of Yemen as follows, "We, the political parties, ask President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah to form a competent national government ... which is committed to the protection of human rights, rule of law and neutrality in the management of affairs of the country." These parties represent most Yemenis of all political, regional and religious backgrounds.
Given this development, it’s not the theocratic Iranian Mullah’s influence in the new Yemen that the autocratic and theocratic Saudi rulers should be concerned with, but with the Yemenis, Houthis and others, seeking freedom and social justice. The control over Yemeni foreign policies and foreign influence in Yemeni internal affairs are not going to be dominated by Saudi-paid chiefs or by Iranian-leaning supporters. However, today’s development in Yemen is only an embryonic step that will face formidable domestic and regional challenges and may fail unless the Yemenis, women and men, support it and steer it in a direction that will benefit all Yemenis, regardless of gender religion, region and ethnic background.
Instead of trying to derail the Yemenis’ hard earned fledgling unity and political gains, as they have done in other Arab countries, the Saudis and other oil rich monocracies of the Gulf should support them, especially financially. In the long run, stable, employed and more educated Yemenis will better and safer neighbors than poverty stricken, divided, under educated and oppressed people are predisposed to be.
Monarchy and Merchants Collaborate To Control The Saudi People
CDHR’s Commentary: The staggering and avoidable unemployment rate among Saudis is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. It’s estimated that unemployment among Saudi youth is 30% and much higher among women. It’s not only uneducated Saudi women who cannot find jobs, but 60% of women with Ph. D. degrees cannot find or are denied employment because of their gender. This is not because there are no jobs to be had, but most jobs in the private sector are given to an estimated 9 million foreign nationals, men and women. According to Saudi figures, only 15% of the private sector employees are Saudis, while the other 85% are foreign nationals, the majority of whom are impoverished and maltreated Asian laborers.
The arguments used by Saudi merchants and their royal business partners to justify their economic and political exploitation of the imported cheap laborers and the unemployment of an astounding number of Saudis are profuse. They argue that the native people are not well-trained, are untrainable, want more money for less work, are culturally lazy and prefer to work in the public sector (government) where many of them are compensated for merely showing up at work, signing in and then disappearing. While some of these allegations might be true, the reasons behind high unemployment among Saudis, especially women, are entirely different than the mostly self-serving and profit-driven excuses contrived by merchants.
The real reasons are political and economic, objectives shared by the merchants and the government.
As evidenced by their near zero investment in developing a national workforce and in the economic growth of the country, the Saudi merchants have proven that their overriding obsession is to maximize their profits at the expense of society’s well-being and long term economic security. The ruling princes share the merchants’ devious objectives, but for political reasons rather than to siphon more public revenues to fatten their bloated bank accounts and investments abroad. In other words, neither the merchants nor the royals want to invest in human development, a strong, self-reliant and well trained workforce that could pose threats to their total political and economic control.
Given the unprecedented uprising in the Arab World against political and economic disenfranchisement, the Saudi merchants’ and ruling Princes’ policies and practices are likely to lead to public retaliation. Rendering millions of educated and aspiring men and women idle, unproductive and reliant on government handouts will not achieve the government’s and merchants’ dubious and dastardly intended objectives: a submissive society. As a Washington political insider and expert in Middle Eastern affairs diplomatically put it, “To be sure, $100 billion in subventions from the palace and the promise of 60,000 jobs can help postpone, for a time, the demands of unemployed Saudi youths. But political freedom, transmitted across borders via cable TV and the Internet, has proved to be a seductive idea. In the end, it will not be assuaged by economic bribes or police-state suppression.”
Under normal conditions, the private sector is the trade and financial backbone of society. In Saudi Arabia, under the State’s current outright political and economic arrangements, the private sector is a burden on society and could be considered a looter of public wealth. The Saudi merchants (with the blessing of the government) continue to fail to provide jobs for Saudi citizens. The merchants have shunned investing in the development of domestic industry which could create meaningful long term employment for citizens. Instead, the merchants import most of their merchandise from foreign lands and import millions of poverty-stricken, underpaid and maltreated laborers to sell their goods to Saudis, the majority of whom are unemployed and many of whom live at or under the poverty line as designated by the United Nations. Despite their meager income earned under deplorable conditions, foreign workers transfer an estimated aggregate of about SR300 billion or $80 billion to their home countries annually. On the other end of the spectrum, Saudi royals and merchants siphon and invest billions of dollars of public wealth in foreign countries.
Given the self-serving historical cooperative relationship between the Saudi monarchy and prominent business families, such as the Saudi Bin Laden Group, it would not be surprising if the business community and the government have colluded to prevent the development of a strong and financially self-reliant workforce as well as preventing the growth of a diversified domestic economy. The question is why would the Saudi government and its partner business community continue to pursue such a suicidal path, given the recent and ongoing unprecedented uprising in the Arab World against oppression, lack of accountability, of economic opportunities and of political participation?
Having manipulated the political and economic affairs of the country since its inception more than eighty years ago, the ruling family calculates that it might be safer for the monarchy to continue its intimidation and marginalization-based policies despite the unparalleled threats it faces internally and externally. The monarchy may have concluded that this is a safer path to take rather than sharing real power with their citizens, a step which could expedite the fall of the ruling family. Apparently the ruling family still believes that what has worked in the past-oppression, intimidation and handouts-will continue to work in their favor.
By ignoring the transformative changes that have occurred in the world and in Saudi society since the establishment of the Saudi state, the monarchy is setting itself and its people on a destructive path. Despite the ruling family’s and Saudi merchants’ myopically heavy-handed policies and practices aimed at keeping the Saudi population financially and politically chained, unemployment and lack of financial security, coupled with political discontent among the people, especially youth and women, constitute a ticking bomb waiting to explode.
The Root Causes of Savagery Must be Eradicated
CDHR’s Commentary: Condemning, bombing and claiming that the behavior and actions of the ruthless operatives of the Islamic State, ISIS, are un-Islamic will achieve nothing more than the prolongation of human suffering at the hands of those who are competing over who is a true Muslim and is best suited to lead the Ummah, the Muslim community. Only when the root causes of savagery are eliminated at their roots, forbidding practices like rape, beheading, ethnic cleansing and other grotesque acts like this will cease to be the norm.
Only when the majority of Muslims reject (by actions not words) the lethal ideologies and the practices of wealthy oil men who use religion to create, cultivate and benefit from extremism and terrorism, can barbarity be stopped. It’s not enough to say Islam is a tolerant, just and peaceful religion while horrific crimes in its name are carried out not only by hard core bandits, but by some rulers in Arab and Muslim countries. The Arab people and the Western powers have to decide whether the current mayhem being committed by the ISIS-Daesh (in Arabic) –are an isolated “aberration” or is it part of the political landscape of the Arab World as this article articulates?
Should Muslims Emulate Christians?
CDHR’s Commentary: Centuries ago, European Christians were mired in grisly holy and tribal-like wars in the name of God and for religious dominance. While the Christians have resolved their intra-faith struggles, Muslims are still mired in endless religious wars over dominance.
Perilously, there seems to be no end in sight for the Muslim wars unless enough Muslims, especially free thinkers (like enlightened Christians centuries ago) conclude that ruling in the name of God puts all powers in the hands of a few who use “divine power” as a repressive and lethal social and political tool to control and manipulate their populations. They use religion to turn people against each other, against those the rulers perceive as threats to their geopolitical dominance and survival, as well as to divert their citizens’ attention from their homegrown failures.
Steps that helped Christian Europe to eradicate the causes of religious wars could also help Muslims put an end to their lingering, bloody conflicts which are draining their natural and human resources and keeping them politically, socially, economically and scientifically stagnant. These included separation of church and state, limiting the power of the state, implementing non-sectarian constitutions and the codified rule of law, ensuring equality under the law and guaranteeing rights to civil society, religious freedom and freedom of thought.
Like separating church from state in Renaissance Europe, which was fiercely contested by bloated theologians and those who benefited from ecclesiastical power, separating mosque from state will be one of the most formidable challenges Muslims will ever face. It must and can be done if Muslims are dedicated to preserving the integrity of their religion and saving it from continuing exploitation and use as a tool of oppression, divisiveness, intolerance and backwardness by the very few who claim to be divinely chosen defenders of Islam. Like other religions, Islam has to become a private belief system separated from the political system. As it is being used now, Islam, unlike other beliefs, is a value system which controls every aspect of its adherents’ lives, livelihood, perceptions and conduct.
Despite the difficulties, the possibility of reforming Islam is gaining momentum. More Muslims of all stripes and religious orientations, especially younger generations, women and minorities are beginning to ask questions about whether their religion has been perverted by authorities who use religion as a tool of oppression, discrimination and intolerance of differences. In fact, the harshest critics of Islam are bold Muslims and ex-Muslims, including former extremist clerics like Mansour Al-Nogaidan, who lost his desire for “Jihadism” and daringly declared that, “Saudi Arabia Islam needs a Reformation. It needs someone with the courage of Martin Luther.”
Enlightened, highly educated, worldly and globally-minded Muslims have to decide whether to continue with the status quo or to follow the European Christians’ footsteps, reform their religious texts and repudiate their autocratic and theocratic rulers’ “right” to enchain them in the name of God.
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