Exclusive: President Obama, like generations of Western leaders, has coddled the oil-rich Saudi monarchy by tolerating its reactionary politics, its financing of radical Islam and its military support for Sunni jihadist terrorism. But the spoiled Saudi leaders may finally be going too far, as Daniel Lazare describes.
By Daniel Lazare
Is the Saudi monarchy coming apart at the seams? Scholars and journalists have long predicted the kingdom’s demise, but this time the forecasts may finally prove correct.
The reason is an unprecedented avalanche of problems pouring down on Saudi Arabia since 79-year-old Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud assumed the throne last January. A hardliner in contrast to his vaguely reformist predecessor Abdullah, Salman lost no time in letting the world know that a new sheriff was in town. He upped the number of public executions, which, at 151, are now running at nearly double last year’s rate.
After meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he promised to intensify efforts to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by increasing aid to Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate. A few weeks later, he assembled a coalition of nine Sunni Arab states to launch nightly bombing raids on Yemen, quickly reducing one of the poorest countries in the Middle East to ruin.
People certainly took notice. But if Salman thought such actions would win him respect, he was wrong. Instead, the result has been a steady drum beat of negative publicity as the world awakes to the fact that, with its public beheadings and barbaric treatment of women, the Islamic state headed by the House of Saud is little different from the Islamic State headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in northern Syria and Iraq.
Topping the kingdom’s list of woes is the economy. With its stubbornly high unemployment rate and growing wealth gap between the rich and poor, Saudi Arabia has long been the sick man of the Persian Gulf. Even though planners have been talking about economic diversification since the 1970s, the kingdom was actually more dependent on oil as of 2013 than 40 years earlier.
“Saudization” of the workforce is another mantra, yet the labor market remains polarized between a private sector dominated by foreign guest workers, mainly from South Asia, and a public sector filled with Saudi “sofa men” who spend their days lounging about in government offices.
Riyadh wishes that young people would take jobs in hotels, oil refineries and the like, but most prefer to wait for a high-paid government sinecure to open up which is one reason why the jobless rate among young people is as high as 29 percent.
Oil Price Crash
Given this combination of oil dependence and joblessness, a two-thirds drop in the price of crude since mid-2014 couldn’t be more painful. But what makes it even more frightening is the growing realization that, with softening demand due to the global slowdown and growing over-supply due to the fracking revolution, low prices will be a fact of life for years to come.
This prospect does not bode well for a country dependent on oil for 91 percent of its foreign revenue, one that is currently burning through its foreign reserves at the rate of $10 billion a month
The news on the political front is almost as dire. Every week seems to bring a fresh new scandal. First, liberal blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to a thousand lashes for the crime of speaking his mind. Then Karl Andree, a 74-year-old British grandfather, was sentenced to 350 for the crime of having a bottle of wine in his car.
Three Saudi Shi‘ite youths Ali al-Nimr, Abdallah al-Zaher and Dawood al-Marhoon have been sentenced to death for participating in Arab Spring protests while still in their teens. A kangaroo court has imposed a death sentence in the case of Ali’s uncle, a Shi‘ite religious leader named Nimr al-Nimr, convicted of inciting sectarian strife (i.e. opposing flagrant Wahhabist discrimination and oppression).
Yet another religious court has sentenced a 35-year-old artist and poet named Ashraf Fayadh to death for the crime of atheism and apostasy.
All of which is generating widening waves of anger and disgust. But perhaps the final straw was Salman’s offer to build and staff 200 Wahhabi mosques for Syrian refugees fleeing chaos that his policies have helped create. The offer brought an unusual counter-blast from German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel.
“We have to make clear to the Saudis that the time of looking away is over,” Gabriel told the newspaper Bild am Sonntag. “Wahhabi mosques all over the world are financed by Saudi Arabia. Many Islamists who are a threat to public safety come from these communities in Germany.”
The last thing Germany needs, in other words, is hundreds of Saudi-financed mullahs preaching sectarianism and jihad.
Then there is the military front or fronts in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, where the situation grows worse by the day. Like all wars of aggression, the Saudi-led air assault on Shi‘ite Houthi rebels in Yemen was supposed to be short and sweet.
Indeed, four weeks after the campaign began last March, Riyadh issued a “Mission Accomplished” message declaring that it had “successfully eliminated the threat to the security of Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries” by destroying Shi‘ite Houthi rebels’ heavy weaponry and ballistic missiles. But some of those missiles must still have remained in place since the coalition resumed bombing just a few days later.
The result has been a growing humanitarian disaster that Western governments are doing their best to ignore. “Yemen after five months looks like Syria after five years,” Peter Maurer, head of the International Red Cross, said after visiting the country in August. Since then, deaths have reached 5,700, nearly half of them civilian, food and water systems have broken down, while 2.3 million people have been displaced and another 120,000 have been forced to flee abroad.
Yet with the war turning into a classic quagmire, no end is in sight. Poorly trained Saudi troops have “proven to be no match for the battle-hardened Houthis.” While they’ve succeeded in clearing Houthi fighters out of the southern port city of Aden, the rebels still control the northern part of the country, including the capital of Sana’a, and are besieging Taiz, located roughly midway in between.
The Saudi-led coalition is meanwhile breaking apart. David Ottoway, the Washington Post’s longtime Middle East correspondent, notes that the Saudis have quarreled with their United Arab Emirate allies over whether to support the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. As a consequence, the UAE has halved its troop strength to 2,000 and has sent in hundreds of Colombian mercenaries in their place.
The Saudi-backed government of ousted President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi is also falling asunder as Vice President Khaled Bahah, seen as more amenable to compromise with the Houthis, moves to establish his own power base.
Much of this is the fault of Muhammad bin Salman, the king’s favorite son by his third wife, whom he named chief of court and minister of defense immediately after taking office. Officially 35, Muhammad may actually be as young as 29, which, if true, would make him the youngest defense minister in the world. A graduate of King Saud University in Riyadh, he is entirely a product of a closed and narrow educational system that emphasizes the Qur’an and Hadiths over science and analysis and imbues students with hostility toward Christians, Jews, Shi‘ites and foreigners in general.
All of which is all too evident in Bin Salman’s handling of the war. Since Vietnam, one military conflict after another has demonstrated that air power rarely works without ground forces doing the hard work of rooting out the enemy. But not only is Saudi Arabia short of “grunts” willing to sacrifice their lives in behalf of a greedy and over-sized royal family, it was understandably reluctant to send troops into a rugged terrain that highly motivated Houthi fighters know like the back of their hand.
Hence Saudi Arabia resisted putting “boots on the ground” for months, thereby allowing the Houthis to dig in all the more securely. Although the’ ostensible goal was to prevent the Houthis from taking power, the Saudis’ real aim was to humiliate Iran, which they see as the mastermind behind the uprising, and show the U.S. that the kingdom was capable of stepping out on its own.
But instead the Saudies have done neither. Not only does Iran remain unscathed, but the longer the Houthis hold out, the clearer it becomes that the Saudis are unable to prevail in their own backyard. It’s as if the U.S. had gotten hopelessly bogged down after invading Mexico.
Backing Jihadists in Syria
The proxy war in northern Syria and Iraq is at the same time not going much better. The Saudis thought they had Assad on the run after channeling U.S.-made TOW missiles to the rebels last spring, but Russian intervention is altering the equation. Thanks to Russian bombardment of ISIS, Al Qaeda and other rebel groups, Assad was able to announce in late November that his troops were advancing on “nearly every front,” while, in mid-December, government forces racked up a significant victory by capturing an air base nine or ten miles east of Damascus that had been in anti-government hands since 2012.
Saudi options are limited in response. The kingdom could funnel still more aid to the anti-Assad forces. But if it does, it knows that much of the weaponry will wind up in the hands of ISIS (also known as ISIL, Islamic State and Daesh), with whom relations, for the moment, could not be more hostile.
With Saudi mullahs calling on Muslims to support “the holy warriors of Syria because if they are defeated, God forbid, it will be the turn of one Sunni country after another,” it could encourage rebels, many of whom are Chechen, to launch a retaliatory assault on Russia, as Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan reportedly threatened to do in 2013.
But this would mean risking a Russian counter-attack that could prove devastating. Instead of demonstrating their military and strategic independence, the Saudis have wound up more reliant on an all-forgiving U.S. than ever.
Given such incompetence, it was startling to see Muhammad bin Salman behaving yet again like a bull in a china shop last week when he announced that the Saudis had assembled a 34-nation coalition to fight terrorism. After two supposed members Pakistan and Malaysia announced that this was the first they had heard of it, questions began raining down.
Since Shi‘ite-majority Iran and Iraq were conspicuously absent from the list, was the real purpose to fight terrorism or to push a Sunni sectarian agenda? Considering the draconian “anti-terrorism” law that Salman pushed through last March banning everything from atheism to “sowing discord in society,” was the real goal to fight groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda or to ban dissent against the monarch in general?
It’s not hard to see why the Saudi defense chief is now known as “Muhammad the reckless” and why rumblings of a palace coup are beginning to be heard. All too aware of the role that the 1980s oil collapse played in tipping the Soviet Union over the edge, the Saudis, according to one foreign analyst, are determined to avoid anything smacking of perestroika and glasnost:
“The Saudis are obsessed with it, that if they liberalize a little, the whole thing will come apart,” the analyst said. Rather than loosening, they are determined to tighten up all the more even if it means pushing the contradictions to the breaking point.
The West is afraid to push too hard for the same reason. All too aware that the Saudi opposition to the monarchy is dominated by hard-line Islamists rather than nice house-broken liberals, the West’s greatest nightmare is of a failed oil giant sitting on top of 20 percent of the world’s proven reserves as Al Qaeda and ISIS run riot in the streets.
“Get rid of the House of Saud,” observed a senior UK diplomat, “and you will be screaming for them to come back within six months.” After years of feeding the Saudi monster, Western leaders are afraid to stop for fear of making things even worse.
Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).