Saad al-Fagih argues that Saudi Arabia is teetering on the edge of major changes. This is a chapter in the E-book 'The Future of the Middle East' co-produced by Global Policy and Arab Digest, and edited by Hugh Miles and Alastair Newton. Freely available chapters will be serialised here and collected into a final downloadable publication in the spring.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is, to the untrained observer, a bastion of stability in a sea of turbulent revolution. But if one delves just a bit deeper, one will soon realise that it is on the cusp of a major crisis which could lead to the very downfall of the kingdom. This is due to the disintegration of the main players that bind the kingdom together. The Ulama class which the royal family used to rely on has long been emasculated. With a senile king on the throne, it is riven by political fissures. This combined with a collapsing economy, a costly war in Yemen and confused foreign policy adventures means that the Saudi royal family is fast losing the core of its power. The royal family has for so long skilfully managed to control various components of the Saudi society and kept the Kingdom’s integrity, but now due to the reckless actions of Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) this integrity is slowly but surely unraveling. Things would have continued as before had it not been for the kingdom’s subjects awakening from their long slumber. Saudis are great users of new media and live in an interconnected world that is no longer willing to accept the norm. And this is the point; Saudi citizens are no longer willing to accept the old order. As this chapter will show, all the elements are there for Saudi Arabia to undergo a major change which might lead to the collapse of the current regime.
The royal family is the sole power broker in Saudi Arabia. They appoint high officials, shape policy and take the country in the direction they want. Whilst it is true that the Ulama, the religious classes, are still present, they have long been rendered impotent. Currently they are appointed and sacked at will and by so doing the regime has lost an important tool to tame the people.
However, fissures and cracks within the royal family are no longer managed effectively. During the conflict between King Faisal and Saud in the 1960s the royal family resolved internal disputes in a disciplined way. Under the capable Muhammad bin Abdel Aziz, the dean of the family, the dispute was managed and he could appoint the heir incumbent. The family also kept their harmony and discipline during the era of King Khalid, Fahd and Abdullah. But this discipline has perished with the arrival of the senile King Salman on the throne. Under his kingship power has been divided between two figures; Muhammed bin Nayef (MBN) and Muhammed bin Salman (MBS). No one in the family has any greater power than the post he holds.
On paper MBN, the Crown Prince, the heir incumbent, is the most senior royal post and in theory the most powerful after the King. He fits the mould of the classic Saudi royal family member turned politician. He is shrewd and subtle and knows how to operate in the shadows. He follows a tried and tested Saudi policy. He also has considerable clout in the West due to his success in defeating Al-Qaeda in the country. And yet whilst he is in control of the Interior Ministry his remit does not extend to the economy, Foreign Ministry, national security or defence.
These briefs rest in the hands of MBS who the king in his dotage has designated his favourite. This is a typical characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease sufferer: the king has showered him with important positions leading to an extraordinary accumulation of power.
MBS is ambitious to the point of recklessness. He knows that his time is limited and his fortunes depend on the longevity of the King Salman. His power can be swept away the moment MBN inherits the throne. Thus, he is on an urgent race to trump MBN and secure his position permanently before his father’s demise. He knows very well that MBN will end his ambitions decisively and so is taking advantage of his royal favour.
As a result of securing his power indefinitely, he has taken dangerous decisions which have not been liked by the royal family nor the people. Example of such actions include the floating of Aramco, imposing heavy taxes and reducing salaries. MBS has completely re-jigged the Kingdom in ways it has never operated. To secure western support he has also clipped the wings of the Ulama, moving away from Islamist authority and reducing the remit of the religious police in the Kingdom. In short, to prove his “progressive credentials” he has taken on the very linchpin that secured the kingdom’s authority in the first place - Islam. Indeed, he is tinkering with the raison d’être as to why the Kingdom exists.
He has also moved closer to Israel openly and secretly. In a controversial move he allowed a retired army officer, Anwar Ishqi and a team of Saudi officials to visit Israel. He worked with the Egyptians and Israelis to turn the Tirana Straits into international waters making it easy for Israeli shipping to pass through. This is aside from the secret and unofficial meetings that he or his representatives had with the Israelis.
Thus, the royal family are faced with a dilemma, both MBN and MBS are disliked but they are leaning towards the former. In a bizarre turn of fate they are in the same situation as American voters faced with two bad choices: the recklessness of Trump or the corruption of Clinton.
If MBS goes for the throne, MBN already has a strategy in place to deal with MBS’s overtures. The royal family knows very well a public confrontation between the two groups will prove to be fatal. The ‘aura’ of the royal family will be damaged in the eyes of its subjects and once that happens there is nothing left that can uphold the regime.
Hints of these fissures are already apparent. For example, three members of the royal family have defected to Europe, Saud bin Sayf Al Nasr, Turki bin Bandar and Sultan bin Turki, and all three have criticised MBS’s policies. Some of the criticism has been from a political and economic perspective, whilst some has been of a personal nature.
What is worse, however, is that there is not a senior royal family member who is capable of handling the crisis. Among the senior members of Abdel Aziz’ sons, the only healthy ones left are Ahmed and Muqrin. The latter is politically weak due to his slave ancestry and the former is like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, hesitant to take decisive action despite his effective weight in the family. All Ahmed needs to do is to declare that the King is ill and that he will be stewarding the country on his behalf but his hesitant nature does not let him do it. In summary, there is no single person who can stop the nightmarish scenario that faces the royal family.
80 to 90 percent of the Kingdom’s wealth comes from oil revenue. Indeed, the kingdom has got used to high oil prices. However, when prices recently went down from 140 dollars per barrel to 70 and even 30, it came as a complete shock to the royal family.
In fairness, 8 million barrels at 50 dollars a barrel would have been sufficient for the Kingdom if you removed the kick backs to the royal family. Even five million barrels a day at low prices would suffice. But, the fact remains that the royal family is living beyond their means and needs revenue in the range of eight hundred billion riyals a year, and is currently short by four hundred billion riyals. The situation is so dire that MBS has started to raid the country’s financial reserves. However, it has not been enough. Thus, MBS has also begun to borrow internally, raising taxes and selling state bonds. It is indicative of the how bad the situation has become for the Kingdom.
But perhaps the most dangerous decision taken by MBS as head of the economic board is cutting the salaries of government employees. MBS has tried to do it through the back door by cancelling the bonuses and benefits government workers enjoy (including the security services and military). These cuts constitute about forty percent in a normal wage packet, which can have massive consequences in a Saudi household.
The economic crisis is also having an impact in the private sector. The government has so far failed to pay major contractors 300 billion riyals. This has led to construction workers being laid off, and the haulage, cement and other industries related to construction being forced to make similar changes or go bankrupt. Even if some of the 300 billion is paid the damage is permanent and many contractors will not recover.
It is, therefore, unsurprising that the stirrings of dissent have begun. People are aware and have gone on social media asking why the excessive profligacy of the royal family continues when ordinary people are facing cuts. As one social media user asked: how can MBS buy yachts and islands in the Maldives when ordinary people are suffering from government cut backs?
One of the country’s most prominent economists has made a solid critique of the economy which went viral. His use of the Kingdom’s official statistics to show that one trillion riyals have disappeared has not prevented MBS from playing a game to criminalise him. But dissent is continuing and will not stop.
In the last two years Yemen has become a major issue in the country. The Houthis in alliance with the former President Ali Saleh took over Yemen disrupting the power balance there. The Saudis accused them of being Iranian proxies and began an air campaign against them. However, their strategy went horribly wrong when the two partners that they were relying on, Pakistan and Egypt, refused to embark on a protracted land campaign in Yemen.
The Kingdom had also bargained on defections from the Yemeni National Army but very few did, perhaps only as few as ten percent. So instead of turning to the most reliable partner on the ground, the al-Islah movement, they relied on recruiting Yemenis in an ad-hoc manner. The Saudis are deeply suspicious of relying on Islamist movements as a means to gain ground in the region, because the success of these movements would expose the hypocritical way Al Saud uses Islam to opiate the masses so they can keep their hold on power. So the Saudis have looked elsewhere for reliable allies, at the cost of a competent fighting force ready to combat the Houthis.
To make matters worse, the UAE, an important ally in the campaign, convinced MBS to leave south Yemen to them. They were not fighting the Houthis, but by collaboration with the separatist Al-Hirak movement, effectively separated south Yemen. This separation is contrary to the very aim of the campaign and a very unpopular objective. In the meantime the Saudis are stuck in the Yemeni quagmire, fearful of the very real threat of Houthi border incursions into Saudi territory.
Popular support for the campaign in Yemen has virtually disappeared in the Kingdom. The suspicious action by the Emiratis, the threat of invasion by a seemingly ragtag army able to manage their areas of control better, Jizan and Najran coming under threat, and now a Yemeni famine conveyed in shocking images; the situation has become an embarrassment for the ruling elite and MBS is being blamed.
The other side effect of the Yemen war is a revival of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). They have exploited the chaos, recruited more people and confiscated huge amounts of weapons. Although they abandoned two cities recently these moves were tactical withdrawals with almost no loss of fighters. They have learned a lot from their mistakes and are now acting with more caution, exploiting the hegemony of the Emiratis in south Yemen against Islamists and preparing themselves to be the saviours.
Despite the public outcry that the Saudis are supporting ISIS the truth is far from it. Saudi policy has always been in line with US policy and has remained thus ever since the Iraqi invasion in the 1990s. Examples include the Saudi’s full and unconditional support of the twelve year US embargo of Iraq, and again later upon the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. All the Saudi’s resources - land, air, military bases, ports, oil and money - were made available to the Americans.
It is a misjudgment to think that Saudi-American relations are waning. In terms of realpolitik, the US needs to control the oil in order to secure its ‘petrodollars’. The US wants the dollar to stay as the reference international currency and there is no better way to secure that than to peg it to petrol. Being the most important commodity in the world petrol is very efficient in that regard. With its mounting national debt, the US economy needs help from the petrodollar to maintain the dollar’s supremacy.
Geopolitically, controlling Saudi Arabia and the Gulf means that the US controls a substantial portion of the world’s oil production and hence world energy. That essentially makes them the major powerbroker in the world, able to hold Asia and Europe to ransom if they so wish since both are heavily reliant on Gulf oil for their industrial needs.
The US also recognises the influence of the two holy cities on the imagination of the Muslim world. With its economic and spiritual resources Saudi Arabia could be an Islamic powerhouse with the potential to become a world superpower through mobilising Muslims using this unique combination. This is dangerous to US interests in general and to the security of Israel specifically, and so such an eventuality has to be prevented.
The only way to achieve that is to make sure that the rulers of Saudi Arabia are totally under US control. This can happen only if the rulers are authoritarian, secretive and corrupt. Authoritarian because any domestic power sharing will erode obedience to US. Secretive so its shadowy trade deals and political machinations cannot be exposed and stoke anger against the ruling class. Corrupt as an uncorrupted dictator would be difficult to manipulate and hence cannot serve US interests.
These three elements can only exist in the shape of Al Saud, so Al Saud and the USA become intrinsically tied to one another, whatever the US administration. The US then is left with no choice but to put its eggs in this basket, which is why Bandar bin Sultan and indeed Adel al Jubeir said regarding the US elections that whoever takes office, Republican or Democrat, once (s)he is made aware of the private relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia (s)he will decide to support us.
If the Trump administration breaks this tradition, turns isolationist and withdraws US forces from the Middle East altogether, this will be a major concern for Al Saud.
Nonetheless, the Saudi obsession with pleasing the Americans has lead to their policy in Iraq and Syria becoming confused and backfiring. They intend to limit Iranian hegemony whilst their actions are facilitating it. This is because they have never developed a comprehensive strategic foreign policy based purely on national interest.
More broadly, Al Saud does not wish the Arab Spring to succeed, nor do they want any Islamic movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood to rise to power because both would undermine their legitimacy. Thus, in Egypt, Al Saud are keen on supporting President Sisi and his generals. So keen in fact that they are even prepared to make unguarded statements to that effect. Recently the Saudi ambassador stated that the Kingdom’s support to Egypt is such that they would fund it in spite of its own deficit. What is remarkable here is that the internal plan of Al Saud to combat the Arab Springs movements have become so public. The Kingdom’s immense support for Egypt slowed down only when President Sisi started expressing support for Damascus and Tehran.
The Saudi public
Since the Gulf War the Saudi public has become increasingly aware of the direction the Kingdom is taking. The rise of opposition groups followed by the the birth of satellite news heralded a new awareness of politics which mushroomed with the internet and social media. Saudi citizens are world leaders in their consumption of social media and it has provided them with an avenue to express themselves unlike anything in the past.
Over the years the position of the public has gradually shifted from complete wholehearted approval of the political system to frank resentment. Until recently people would tolerate the regime, even though they are discontented, in the belief that the royal family is at least an umbrella providing unity for the country. But with the economic crisis now entering every home and MBS’s reckless policies threatening the unity, safety and integrity of their country, resentment is growing and people are becoming bolder in how they express their feelings.
Despite immense disappointment and anger with the government, the psychological barrier has not been broken yet. This is evidenced by the huge number of anonymous [pseudonym] accounts on social media venting their opposition to the Kingdom. Only a few dare use their real names to make bold and open opposition statements.
Saudis have very little political experience so it takes time for public discontent to manifest itself. There is a lack of political organisation to translate public grievances into action. Nevertheless unless the Kingdom changes direction drastically, clandestine opposition activity will gather momentum and start to surface very soon, as is the zeitgeist around the world.
Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia and other Opposition Groups
Opposition groups in the kingdom used to cover a wide spectrum, from the most militant groups like ISIS, to the most moderate, like the ِِِSaudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA). The regime succeeded in undermining popular support for militant groups and it performed a comprehensive crackdown on ACPRA and similar groups, imprisoning all their activists.
All that remains from this spectrum of opposition groups is the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA) and a few other individual opposition activists, all in exile. These individuals are active, popular and influential, but their activity is limited to criticism of the regime’s oppression and corruption in the media. MIRA on the other hand operates on a different scale in terms of its program, history and size.
Established in 1996, MIRA aims at a comprehensive political change, meaning power sharing, accountability, transparency, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Whilst its ideals are viewed by the West as the normal aims of any nation state, MIRA is viewed by the both the people and regime as revolutionary. MIRA’s methods are peaceful and rely heavily on the media, communication and occasionally public civil action to galvanise the people, highlight the need for change, and push for it.
Although MIRA is based in London, its real presence is inside the country. The movement consists of a network of activists whose levels of commitment varies from loose affiliation and sympathy, to active participatory membership. Almost every citizen knows of MIRA, and few disagree with its message. Most are sympathetic. Although the number of ‘card carrying members’ is small, they are influential, and the number of latent or passive supporters are probably in their millions.
Using technology and the media to initiate change, MIRA’s strategy is firstly to raise awareness of the crisis in the country, a crisis for which the regime must bear total responsibility. The second stage is the solution: a complete reform program which is in no way compatible with the continuation of the royal family.
MIRA has succeeded in achieving its primary goals of raising political awareness. It is now working on the second and final stage of its programme: bringing about change.
Risks to the Saudi regime
Currently, the biggest risks to the Kingdom are the following:
What should Western policymakers do?
The problem for Western powers is that they have put all their money on the royal family, although admittedly Europe has been slightly more cautious. Nevertheless, there is not a single Western government that considers a collapse of the Saudi regime a possibility. They believe that the Saudi regime is capable of containing the royal family dispute, absorbing the economic crisis and preventing any uprising whether peaceful or violent. In short, they expect the regime to stay in power indefinitely. Consequently, they have not prepared for its collapse nor the consequences which will inevitably have repercussions for Western countries both economically and in terms of security.
Western media and academia has compounded this misunderstanding by focusing ignorantly on myths such as that the Kingdom is promoting Wahhabism and promoting ISIS. These widespread falsehoods force Western governments to act in ways which do not reflect the current reality. Instead, what Western governments should do is, realising the gravity of the above-mentioned threats and the rising political awareness and resentment of the people, consider striking a new bargain with the people and not with Al Saud. That effectively means opening channels with influential groups, whether inside the country or opposition outside, and taking stock of the real situation on the ground. If they do this, it will pave the way for Western countries to play a constructive role in facilitating peaceful change in Arabia with minimal chaos for all parties involved.
Dr Saad Alfagih is the leading Saudi opposition figure. A surgeon by profession, he is currently the head of the opposition group, Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia. To read more from the e-book, please click here. The views expressed in this post do not represent those of Global Policy or the Arab Digest.