On 2 January 2016, Saudi Arabia began the new year by executing 47 people, including a fiery shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who was an outspoken (but peaceful) opponent of the Saudi regime. Al-Nimr’s opposition focused on the Saudi ruling elite’s policy of discriminating against shias, and for this ‘crime’, he had been imprisoned as a ‘terrorist’.
In the eyes of religious shia, killing a mullah is seen the same way as killing the Pope would be seen by devout catholics. It could therefore be expected to trigger a violent response from the masses of the shia faithful, which it duly did, resulting in particular in the Saudi embassy in Tehran being ransacked and set on fire – though it should be emphasised that the Iranian government was able to ensure the personal safety of all embassy personnel and did not condone the action. On the contrary, it condemned the attack and had people associated with it arrested and put behind bars.
Although the Saudi government had knowingly provoked this situation, it responded to the attack on its embassy with feigned outrage, breaking off diplomatic relations with Iran on 3 January. This lead was followed by a number of Saudi’s sunni allies or client states, who either severed or downgraded relations with Iran. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia was loudly demanding that the world join it in exacting retribution from the Iranian state for the riotous behaviour of a handful of its citizens.
In executing this respected cleric, contrary to the almost peremptory advice Saudi officials had received from US imperialism, it is hard at first sight to understand what could have possessed the regime to do such a thing. After all, the medievalist Saudi government has only been able to withstand the opposition of either modernisers and socialists on the one hand, or of rival jihadi headbangers on the other, because of the support it receives from US imperialism.
It is, in such circumstances, tempting to believe that, for some unfathomable reason, US imperialism must have surreptitiously given the Saudis the go-ahead.
However, this does not appear to have been the case, if one can judge from the dismay expressed by a former senior US state department official, Aaron David Miller: “The prospects for ending the civil war [in Syria] and defeating Isis have gone from near impossible to impossible. The US is stuck in a region with unreliable allies whose interests do not always align with ours.” (Quoted in US calls for restraint as Saudi-Iran tensions escalate, Financial Times, 5 January 2016)
This dismay can be well understood if it is realised that, following the entry of Russia into the war in Syria in support of a government that US imperialism wants overthrown, and Russia’s success in scattering the jihadi rabble armies that US imperialism had surreptitiously mobilised to achieve this objective, Washington now wants peace talks to go ahead as soon as possible in order to cut its losses while it still holds some negotiating chips.
In order to have bargaining power at any peace talks, the US needs to be able to muster powerful regional allies to help it extract concessions from its opponents, who include not only the Syrian, Russian and Iranian governments, but and many non-state popular resistance forces, and who together present a formidable negotiating bloc. US imperialism’s allies, meanwhile – chiefly Saudi Arabia, Israel, Qatar and Turkey – are far from singing from the same hymn sheet.
What Saudi Arabia has been trying to do is to undermine the Syrian peace talks that were due to start on 25 January. It also wants to sabotage the implementation of the international agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue if it possibly can. In pursuit of the first aim, the Saudis appear to be trying to ensure that talks simply do not take place.
The feudal rulers’ reasoning seems to have gone like this: either Iran would rise to the provocation and refuse to sit with Saudi Arabia or, failing that, Saudi Arabia could use the excuse of a hoped-for Iranian retaliation for the killing of al-Nimr (which Iran had threatened in an attempt to keep him alive) to justify itself in refusing to sit with Iran. This in turn would lead to the cancellation of talks, as US imperialism would be unable to field a powerful enough team to achieve any of its objectives.
The imperialists, however, are determined to keep Saudi Arabia involved if at all possible. As a result, the US’s response to the Saudi action was interestingly different from that of its allies. Whereas “Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, said … that he was ‘deeply dismayed’ by the execution of Sheikh Nimr and the other men after ‘trials that raised serious concerns over the nature of the charges and the fairness of the process'” and whereas “the European Union cited similar questions about ‘freedom of expression and the respect of basic civil and political rights'”, all the US department of state had to say was that Nimr’s execution risked “exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced”, stopping short of any actual condemnation.
For all its anger, the US “could not bring itself, at least in public, to condemn the execution of a dissident cleric who challenged the royal family, for fear of undermining the fragile Saudi leadership that it desperately needs in fighting the Islamic State and ending the conflict in Syria”. (US in a bind as Saudi actions test a durable alliance by David E Sanger, New York Times, 5 January 2016)
In actual fact, Saudi frustration with its US imperialist patron has been growing in recent years, since US imperialism, naturally, puts its own interests ahead of those of its puppet whenever these interests diverge. And the interests of US imperialism and the Saudi ruling elite have increasingly been diverging of late.
“The United States has usually looked the other way, or issued carefully calibrated warnings in human rights reports, as the Saudi royal family cracked down on dissent and free speech and allowed its elite to fund Islamic extremists. In return, Saudi Arabia became America’s most dependable filling station, a regular supplier of intelligence, and a valuable counterweight to Iran.
“For years, it was oil that provided the glue for a relationship between two nations that share few common values. Today, with American oil production surging and the Saudi leadership fractured, the mutual dependency that goes back to the early 1930s, with the first American investment in the kingdom’s oil fields, no longer binds the nations as it once did.
“But the political upheaval in the Middle East and the American perception that the Saudis are critical to stability in the region continue to hold together an increasingly fractious marriage.” (New York Times, ibid)
The recent divergence of interests began with US acceptance of the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. This acceptance enabled US imperialism ultimately to maintain some influence in Egypt and to minimise the damage to itself from the uprising of 2011. From the Saudi point of view, however, this acceptance was an indication that the US may not be willing to fight to keep the Saudi regime in power were it to be challenged by a similarly popular internal movement.
Then, after years of negotiations, US imperialism recently signed accords with Iran that led on 16 January this year to the lifting of UN sanctions against that country. In return, Iran has taken action to restrict – for a while at least – the development of its nuclear industry.
Since the whole reason for imperialist patronage of regimes such as those in Saudi Arabia and Israel is that they should be its local stooges in the fight against independent, anti-imperialist states in the Middle East like Iran and Syria, any lessening of hostilities between such countries and imperialism is bound to make the stooges feel decidedly jealous and insecure.
Saudi Arabia is also at loggerheads with the US over its proxy jihadis, with whose behaviour abroad Saudi Arabia has no quarrel but whose activities US imperialism is now to some extent trying to rein in because they are damaging its interests.
While under US pressure Saudi Arabia did drop a few bombs in the general direction of jihadi terrorists, it at the first opportunity diverted its attention to conducting what the US considers to be a counterproductive and unwinnable war in Yemen against the Houthi-led resistance to the Saudi-backed coup regime. True, US imperialism has provided some material backing to Saudi Arabia in that war, but it is thought that this has been in return for Saudi Arabia holding off sending in ground troops, which would, in the US estimation, be bound to be thoroughly trounced.
Because of the fall in the world price of oil, on which Saudi Arabia is dependent for nearly 90 percent of its government budget, “this year’s deficit ballooned to 367bn Saudi riyals ($97.9bn,) or 15 percent of gross domestic product, as oil revenues fell 23 percent to Sr444.5bn”. With Iranian oil re-entering the market in significant quantities (now that UN and EU sanctions against Iran have been lifted), and speculation in some quarters that oil prices might be on their way down to as little as $10 a barrel, Saudi Arabia needs to make drastic changes to the way the country is run.
“The al-Sauds have survived by making three compacts: with the wahhabis to burnish their islamic credentials as the custodians of the holy places of Mecca and Medina; with the population by providing munificence in exchange for acquiescence to the absolutist rule; and with America to defend Saudi Arabia in exchange for stability in oil markets.
“But all three of these covenants are fraying. America is semi-detached from the Middle East [actually this is the opposite of the truth, though of course the US is less dependent these days on Saudi oil supplies]. The plummeting price of oil … means the old economic model can no longer sustain the swelling and unproductive population. And the alliance with obscurantists brings threats, because they provide intellectual sustenance to jihadists, and form an obstacle even to modest social reforms that must be part of any attempt to wean the country off oil and create a more productive economy.” (Young prince in a hurry, The Economist, 9 January 2016)
In the short term, severely declining oil revenues are forcing Saudi Arabia to take a whole gamut of austerity measures, including proposing to privatise education and health services and sell off a minority stake in Aramco, the Saudi oil company.
“Riyadh would revise energy, water and electricity prices ‘gradually over the next five years’ … The first reforms will be effective from Tuesday [29 December 2015], including an increase in gasoline prices, a rise in electricity tariffs for the wealthiest consumers, a modest increase in water costs for all, and changes to all energy prices for industrial users.
“The government will also seek to implement a plan for the introduction of a sales tax across the six Arab Gulf states.” (Saudis unveil radical austerity programme by Simeon Kerr, Financial Times, 28 December 2015)
In the longer term, Crown Prince Mohammed, the Saudi defence minister, son of the present king Salman and de facto ruler of the kingdom since his father is widely believed to be suffering from Alzheimer’s, has plans to develop a more modern economy that does not solely depend on oil revenues. “Under his ‘Transformation Plan 2020′ … the prince wants to develop alternatives to oil and drastically to cut the public payroll, which acts as a form of unemployment benefit. To do so, he wants to create jobs for a workforce that will double by 2030.”
However, for that purpose, huge amounts of investment would be required, which, in the circumstances, are unlikely to be forthcoming. As a result of this situation, “sceptics abound. Reform has long been talked about but never implemented … some businessmen speak more of exporting their wealth than investing it in the country.” (The Economist, op cit)
Importantly, these austerity measures not only do not extend to the vast and bloated royal household, but, even more importantly, they breach “an unspoken social contract with the general population. People may not have political liberty, but they get a share in oil revenues through government jobs and subsidised fuel, food, housing and other benefits.”
Knowing that US imperialism would drop it like a hot potato should it lose its ability to keep its population under control (by whatever means), the Saudi government faces a severe challenge in maintaining the backing of the Saudi population. To maintain their control despite austerity, Saudi Arabia’s rulers on the one hand are seeking to reclaim the religious high ground from the non-state jihadis, and on the other are whipping up nationalism and religious chauvinism.
There is for the moment apparently great enthusiasm among Saudi sunnis for beheadings and crusades against ‘infidels’ – particularly shias. So the execution of no fewer than 47 people on 2 January would have been very popular at home. Forty-three of those executed were jihadis who had risen up against the Saudi regime 10 years ago, so their execution would in addition help remind the Saudi population not to get involved with the likes of them.
But, as austerity begins to bite, the effectiveness of all such measures is bound to wear off. Even with all its oil-fuelled public spending at the time when the price per barrel was over $100, Saudi Arabia already faced a massive problem of youth unemployment: “Saudi Arabia’s youth unemployment is now the biggest socio-economic challenge that is crippling, if not seriously undermining, the government’s hold on power.
“Two-thirds of the Saudi population – of 31 million – are under the age of 30. According to official statistics, the unemployment rate for Saudis aged 15-24 is 30 percent. A published paper by the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in 2011 suggests that 37 percent of all Saudis are 14 years old or younger! Saudi Arabia needs to create at least 3 million new jobs by 2020.”
In addition, Saudi Arabia’s decreased oil income is increasingly being diverted away from social to military spending:
“As for defence spending, the 2016 budget has featured the largest single allocation in the budget at 213bn riyals ($56.79bn) to the military and security services, comprising more than 25 percent of the total budget … Saudi defence [spending] could reach as much as $62bn by 2020, in part due to [the country’s] military interventions in the region.
“It is worth noting Riyadh’s defence budget had been rising by 19 percent a year since the Arab uprisings of 2011, which clearly reflects the growing domestic and regional pressures felt by the authorities.
Of course, it is well known that Saudi Arabia has massive currency reserves, but at the current rate of projected expenditure these will run out in five years. The Huffington Post concludes: “Putting external affairs above the kingdom’s domestic priorities; paying lip service to political, social and institutional reforms; financing rebel groups; burning through currency reserves on military expeditions and ignoring future generations’ needs, are all the very things that Saudi Arabia must not continue doing.
“Riyadh needs to undergo a sea-change in mindset if it is to step back from the abyss that awaits. The winds of change can no longer be ignored by Riyadh.” (Saudi Arabia’s economic timebomb by Luay Al Khatteeb, Huffington Post, 30 December 2015)
But the Saudi regime is damned whatever it does. If it reforms, it will put up the backs of all the present vested interests. If it does not reform, it will end up as an economic basket case. On the one hand, there are rival jihadis, rival royals and political liberals waiting in the wings for the chance to seize power, while on the other there are relatively (for Saudi Arabia) more progressive forces building their bases amongst the oppressed shia, particularly in the east of the country.
According to the US’s Foreign Policy journal: “Many of [the shias’] demands extended far beyond shiite-specific reforms, encompassing changes to the very structure of power in Saudi Arabia: reform of the judiciary, the release of political prisoners, a constitution, and greater power for elected bodies. This is precisely what made them so threatening.” (Saudi Arabia has a shiite problem by Frederic Wehrey, 3 December 2014)
With every step, the present regime gets closer to its own annihilation. In the meantime, we can expect to see many more crazed moves driven by madness and desperation.