Opposition to the House of Saud is growing among all segments of the population. How long can it last in power?
Reality is quickly catching up with inbuilt contradictions in the policies pursued by the House of Saud. While presenting itself as champions of the “Sunni” world — a claim hotly contested by the overwhelming majority of Sunnis because of the Saudis’ narrow and extremist interpretations — its policies are becoming increasingly untenable. For instance, the Saudis have made much noise about their support for the “Sunni’” uprising against the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Asad in Syria. It has also used the sectarian card to justify its invasion of Bahrain to prop up the minority Khalifa family in power where the majority population is Shi‘i, as is that in the Eastern province of the Arabian Peninsula.
But this is where the contradictions have caught up with them; the populations in both Tunisia and Egypt are overwhelmingly Sunni so Muslims ask: how could the self-proclaimed champions of Sunnis (the Saudi rulers) be giving refuge to dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and how could they have supported the brutal dictator and US-Zionist agent Hosni Mubarak for so many years? Both Ben Ali and Mubarak brutalized their Sunni populations for decades. The Saudis’ claims are becoming exposed at the same time as their policy against the Asad regime in Syria is crumbling. Despite sending hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of arms and buying any Syrian willing to defect from the government or the army, the Saudi and Qatari financed rebels have not had much success.
Reality is quickly catching up with inbuilt contradictions in the policies pursued by the House of Saud. While presenting itself as champions of the “Sunni” world — a claim hotly contested by the overwhelming majority of Sunnis because of the Saudis’ narrow and extremist interpretations — its policies are becoming increasingly untenable.
In fact, the July 18 attack in Damascus that killed four top security officials was the direct result of Saudi involvement. While it dented the Syrian regime’s image and shook it somewhat, the terrorist act also stiffened its resolve to deal with the US-Zionist-Saudi-backed terrorists with an iron fist. The regime’s response was swift and brutal: the rebels were first flushed out of Damascus and later dealt with in Aleppo where they are still being pounded. The plot to cause the regime’s collapse failed. It still has enough staying capacity and firepower to deal with such blows. Similarly, foreign players — mainly Russia and China — are not prepared to allow the fall of the Asad regime, thereby creating another Libyan-style situation in Syria. Russia has the most to lose if the regime is overthrown by armed insurrection. It would lose its only naval base at Tartus in the Mediterranean.
These developments have caused nightmares in Riyadh hence King Abdullah’s panicked call for a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (previously called Organization of the Islamic Conference – OIC) in Makkah on August 15–16. While the OIC meeting was ostensibly called to deal with the Syrian crisis — Syria was expelled from the OIC — there was another, more serious matter bothering the ailing and aged king: how to deal with sectarian tensions in the region?
It is interesting to note that while the Saudis are the principal instigators of sectarianism in the Muslim world they suddenly felt compelled to address it. At the OIC Makkah summit, the Saudi king called for establishing a Centre in Riyadh for dialogue among the different Schools of Thought in Islam. Has the Saudi king, in his twilight years, finally realized that sectarianism is a double-edged sword and could just as easily work against him? His regime has used sectarianism with deadly effect against others. Is it too difficult to figure out that the horrible sectarian killings in Pakistan — of which there have been far too many in recent weeks and months — are the direct result of the poisonous ideology being spread from the Arabian Peninsula that has infected Pakistani society through the influx of Saudi petrodollars? True, sectarian killings also serve the interests of the Pakistani elite, hence no effective measures against sectarianism have been taken but the fact is that such extremism has come on the gravy train from Riyadh that has liberally financed madrasahs, which produce the primitive savages doing the sectarian killings.
But sectarianism is beginning to haunt the Saudis as well. In Bahrain the majority is Shi‘i and is demanding civil and political rights. Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province is also overwhelmingly Shi‘i and the region that produces the bulk of kingdom’s oil. Yet the population there suffers massive discrimination in jobs, lack of economic opportunities as well as discrimination in areas of social and political representation. The regime, however, faces a dilemma. Hitherto, it had given a free hand to the court ‘ulama to indulge in whatever sectarianism they wanted. Reining them in now would become a problem since the regime already faces many other challenges not the least of which is the increasing assertiveness of people to demand their rights, the rising tide of Islamic awakening in the region and that inevitable challenge for which there is no cure: old age of the senior princes.
Senior Saudi princes are shuffling to their grave in rapid succession. King Abdullah is nearly 90 years old although one would be hard pressed to tell this from his pitch black beard and moustache, thanks to generous use of Grecian formula. One wonders why at his age, Abdullah is so concerned with his looks, especially his beard, when his bones must also now be withering away? The crisis of succession is looming large and it cannot be discounted that a civil war may break out among the hordes of princes vying for power and control.
There is, however, an even more serious challenge facing the regime: opposition to the House of Saud appears to have transcended the sectarian divide. The Hijaz, where the two holy cities of Makkah and Madinah are located, has always been opposed to the literalist interpretations of the Najdis whom they consider uncouthed and unsophisticated desert bedouins. But opposition to the ruling family is now becoming widespread even in the regime’s heartland, Riyadh.
While the regime has attempted to present opposition to its policies as being instigated by the Shi‘is, it has failed to explain why there are more than 30,000 political prisoners in the kingdom, the overwhelming majority of them Sunnis? Further, many people ask why should decisions be made by a small coterie of Saudi princes and the rest of them, more educated than the rulers, be excluded from this process?
Success of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and to a lesser extent in Libya has given Saudi youth new ideas about freedom. At least 60% of them are under 20 years old. Widespread corruption and the rulers’ extreme laziness have resulted in 40% of Saudis living in poverty despite the regime taking in $360 billion annually in oil revenues. At least 70% of the people cannot afford to own a home and women are prohibited from driving cars. Most of the back-breaking menial jobs are performed by foreign workers that account for 90% of the private sector work force while unemployment among the 20–24 year-old Saudis stands at nearly 40%.
Given these grim statistics and coupled with the looming crisis of succession, Saudi Arabia is waiting to explode. What will emerge following this explosion is difficult to speculate now but there is near certainty that the kingdom is heading for turbulent times.