The House of Saud as the ‘House of Trouble’

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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  • Val Cocora

    saudi Arabia is the most prestigious muslim country in the world?
    well, that speaks volumes about the state of the islamic zoo.
    if muslims have such low standards, they should expect to be treated by the same low standards, kind of like the short yellow bus of standards.

  • Ron Molina

    The snake they have created will soon bite them!

  • BM

    The house of saud is a blot on, not only islam, but the whole of humanity, their warped teachings have corrupted the islamic world, except Iran i must add, and let to sub animal groups like ISIS forming. the sooner the world rids itself of this cancer, the better!

  • Jim, Bangladesh

    Surprisingly Mr. Salman Rafi Sheikh, you didn’t mention the presence of Pakistani Army in Saudi Arabia, in fact Pakistani Army are fighting their battle, I don’t think Bangladeshi migrant workers have taken up arms to stop the collapse of house of saud because most of the Bangladeshi workers are illiterate and it would take a substantial amount of time to train them however if your word are right then if our media smell a rat in it, it’d be devastating for the both govt. I.e. Bangladesh & Saudi Arabia. So far I know that Pakistani Army are fighting for the house of saud is open secret to the world!!!!

  • mulga mumblebrain

    Wahhabism is anti-Islamic, atavistic, blood-thirsty and was founded a few centuries ago by ibn-Wahhab, a doenmeh or crypto-Jew (followers of false Messiah Sabbitai Zevi)from Turkey. The Sauds are just about as evil a crime family as has ever existed.

  • timebr

    Had the goddamned British and American oil cartels not moved in on the Saudi oil fields back in the 1930’s and had it not been for the creation of the Zionist state in late 40’s the entire situation would have been totally different today. American oil cartels especially have played a decisive role in shaping Saudi foreign policies increasingly since WWII. This weired brand of Islam has no place in the middle east. The Salafists were only a tiny minority of fanatic Muslims who took the Quran literally and added the wild ass barbarian and illiterate Saudi desert nomad interpretations to it. The Salafists and Al Qaeda are both useful tools in the hands of US and Israeli intelligence agencies. The idea may have bckfired but still producing fruits for both Israel and the US oil cartels.

  • timebr

    Thanks for that clarification, i thought the Pakistani
    military junta was considering a Saudi request for such help but that Pakistan
    had decided against sending their troops to fight on the side of Saudis against
    Yemeni Houthis because the sensitivity toward Shia Iran?

  • timebr

    Saudi Arabia is the most prestigious muslim country in the world? is the biggest farce, they have zero prestige since they really are not in charge of their own affairs with thousands of American soldiers stationed there.

  • Jack Spade

    What a great article to read how the House of Saud’s time has come to join the dust bins of history. The spoils of free money turning a worthless rulers who the enemy of their people. No wonder Israel and the Saudi’s are such close allies. At least the Israelis are against who they consider other people, the Saudi’s destroy the hand that feeds them. With US oil dependence now at an all time low on foreign sources, it means that the fall of House of Saud will be ok. At 50 mpg the Saudi’s are toast