The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, considered to be the most prestigious Muslim country in the entire Islamic world, is certainly not without problems surrounding it from within and without. Most of these problems are a result of the policies of Saudi Arabia’s ruling clique itself. These apparently random-looking problems are, in fact, deeply inter-connected, and together constitute the story of the House of Saud’s undaunted quest for political and economic hegemony both internally and externally.
What started as a (Saudi-funded) campaign to dislodged Assad from the seat of power in Syria has now morphed into a serious threat for Saudi Arabia itself. ISIS is already knocking at its doors, has launched attacks inside Saudi Arabia many times since November 2014, and now has on its agenda occupation of the Kingdom itself. The ISIS/ISIL, created to fight Saudi proxy wars against Iran in the Middle East, was never intended to be a violent threat to Saudi Arabia itself. It happened only when the kingdom joined a broad coalition in October 2014 to bomb the group in Syria and Iraq.
Apart from creating proxy (anti-Shia) groups in the Middle East to fight Iran, the kingdom also attempted to damage Iran’s economy by forcing a huge drop in oil prices. Saudi Arabia was (as the most powerful member of OPEC) certainly at the helm of this year’s drop in oil prices. The purpose was to prevent Iran from settling its economy in the wake of a possible Iran-US deal on nuclear issue.
However, the plunge in oil prices has resulted in fueling crisis at home. As a result of this crisis, 35% of Saudi workers are now unemployed. An unemployed work force at home doesn’t seem to bother the country’s ruling elite. However, the kingdom is certainly taking “steps” to channel the problem in a desired direction. More than two-thirds of Saudi nationals are under the age of 30 and almost three-quarters of all unemployed Saudis are in their 20s. More than anything else, it is this younger demographic that poses the most serious challenge to the ruling elite. It is also this younger group which the kingdom hopes to “employ” in its so-called fight against Yemen.
The crisis in Yemen is, as such, as much related to the House of Saud’s quest to consolidate its position vis-à-vis Iran as to resolving, by misdirection, many domestic problems. For instance, by employing the unemployed youth, the kingdom aims to achieve two major objectives: 1) it will have enough boots on the ground to sustain a long (proxy) fight, 2) it will have the local youth’s attention diverted from the issue of radically restructuring the Saudi polity.
But Yemen crisis has led to an unexpected problem: the prospect of a Shia uprising in Saudi Arabia itself. Unemployed youth in Saudi Arabia, which are a potential target for military recruitment, mostly come from “loyal tribes.” The Shia tribes are considered to be “disloyal.” Saudi rulers are making things worse by mobilizing their loyal youths to fight in Yemen in the name of eliminating “the Shia heretics.”
The harping on a ‘Shia element’ is creating a deep sense of vulnerability among the local Shia population who are inclined to believe that the recent attacks on Shia Mosques in Saudi Arabia were not orchestrated by the ISIS. Many instead believe that the attacks were actually carried out by Saudi security agencies in order to keep the local Shia population under existential pressure. This realization among the local Shia population, which has since long been pushed to the wall within the kingdom, can have some serious consequences.
Shia resentment is deeply rooted in the injustices of the Saudi political system itself. The Yemen crisis is only giving it a new outlet. As a matter of fact, people professing Shia creed in Saudi Arabia are actually living under an “apartheid” regime.
Not only do they face discrimination, they are also forced to attend schools segregated on sectarian grounds. Even in these schools, they are not allowed to have a principal in charge from their own creed. As a matter of fact, the Shia community in Saudi Arabia is forbidden by law to work in other than manual labor jobs. The core reason(s) for this discrimination however, aren’t merely sectarian. Economic factors also influence such policies. It is ironic that the Shia population, which is forced to live in extremely wretched conditions, actually resides in areas extremely rich in oil reserves. This is why the Saudi authorities confine them to manual labor jobs related to petroleum extraction. Hence, officials see no reason to offer them opportunities for higher education. On the other hand, the recent economic crunch has also stirred a sense of dissent among the Shia workers in the oil fields. These already low-paid workers are also seeing their wages and hours cut due to the oil price drop.
Any form of opposition to such policies are not tolerated by Saudi officials. The recent case of Shia leader Ayatollah Nimr al-Nimr’s and his possible execution has created a lot of controversy in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim states. Clerics protesting in the Iranian city of Qom said that Saudi Arabia will pay a heavy price if it executes the religious leader, warning the execution could trigger “an earthquake” that would lead to the downfall of the Al Saud dynasty. A Saudi court in October 2014 had sentenced Nimr to death after convicting the anti-government protest leader of “sedition.” Nimr, a driving force behind the 2011 protests against Saudi Arabia’s Sunni authorities, was also convicted of abetting “foreign meddling” in the country — a reference to Iran. The court also found Nimr guilty of “disobeying” the kingdom’s rulers and taking up arms against security forces. However, Nimur’s real “crime” is that al-Nimr led the 2011 insurrection after the Arab Spring came to Saudi Arabia. He led Shia Muslim street protests throughout the country, demanding constitutional changes, liberties and an end to anti-Shia discrimination in the kingdom.
Jawad Fayruz, a Bahraini MP in the UK, was reported to have said “there’s no independent judiciary system in Saudi Arabia” and the case of Sheikh al-Nimr is “politically oriented.” This is especially due to the ongoing war in Yemen, where Shia Houthi rebels overthrew the president, a Saudi Arabian protégé. However, this invasion has, instead of reducing Saudia’s problems, created a whole new nest of problems, with the Saudi army representing more of a problem than a solution.
The Saudi army, which is the the ruling clique’s primary resource in settling all challenges to its rule is, in fact, itself a problem . The Saudi Army is mostly made up of “guest workers” who are either hired as mercenaries or, in many cases, made up of individuals who have been forcibly conscripted into the nation’s military. As thousands of Bangladeshis, Nepalis and other nationalities, wearing Saudi uniforms are deployed along Yemeni border, preparing for a possible invasion, reports are surfacing of mass defections.
It appears that many of the super-exploited and impoverished non-Saudi guest workers have no desire to fight on behalf of their masters. As such, if the Saudi military orders a ground invasion of Yemen, it could see its military fall to pieces. If this happens, who will the House of Saud have at its disposal to rely on? This is the most critical issue that currently confronts the ruling elite. Although the Saudi military has the fourth largest budget in the entire world, it doesn’t seem to have the capacity to wage an effective ground campaign in Yemen due to such internal weaknesses. Coupled with this is growing instability among the population of the kingdom’s oil-rich Shia regions which could soon boil over into a full-blown domestic crisis for the Saudi regime.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics.
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