Over the last month, Mohammed bin Salman (widely known as MBS), the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, who is its de facto absolute monarch in view of the King’s extremely frail health (including widely reported dementia), has astounded the world by arresting some 200 of the country’s most prominent and richest citizens and incarcerating them in the luxury Ritz-Carlton hotel, where they are held incommunicado from the outside world.
They are accused of corruption, which is in fact how most rich Saudis got rich – including MBS himself, who only last year paid $500m for a luxury yacht – money that certainly did not come his way through the sweat of his brow.
These arrests come only a short time after MBS’s surprise elevation to the status of Crown Prince last June, when the King gave him the position in the place of his nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, a great friend and ally of US imperialism and a ruthlessly efficient catcher of al-Qaeda extremists, latterly bent on overthrowing the Saudi regime.
In addition, MBS has announced that he proposes ‘returning Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam’, with the religious police already taken off the streets. Women are to be allowed to drive as from the middle of next year, and it is proposed to remove the need for them to have a male guardian.
Nevertheless, what must be understood above all else is that the motivation behind these reforms is to avoid the big reform: namely, the abolition of the Saudi monarchy and the institution of at least bourgeois parliamentary democracy. The priority for the 15,000 members of Saudi Arabia’s royal family is to remain in absolute power, for which purpose most of them will do whatever it takes.
That being the case, whatever superficial reforms might take place, the country will remain an extraordinarily repressive theocratic autocracy, where all dissent is viciously put down by resort to such measures as mass executions based on ‘confessions’ extracted by torture. Those executed include juveniles, even though this is illegal under international law. The usual method of execution is beheading by sword, with the dead headless body then being crucified and put on public display in order to terrorise would-be dissidents.
But what has given rise to the royals feeling there is any need at all for modernisation? The dominant factor is the fall in the price of oil.
Until now, oil revenues have been able to fund a comfortable lifestyle for most Saudis (the majority sunnis at least), with all the underpaid and unpleasant jobs being performed by immigrants from such countries as Pakistan and Yemen. However, since the world price of oil has more than halved, Saudi coffers are no longer able to finance the generosity of the past.
“Over the last year, fuel, water and electricity prices have gone up while the take-home pay of some public sector employees has been cut – squeezing the budgets of average Saudis. The cuts, unveiled in a series of royal decrees and cabinet statements read aloud on state television, reduced ministers’ salaries by 20 percent, slashed perquisites for members of the consultative assembly and limited overtime pay and vacation for civil servants.
“The drop in world petroleum prices since 2014 has caused major financial problems for the Saudi government, which gets most of its income from oil and ran a budget deficit of nearly $100bn last year .
“The new measures came as a shock to many in the country’s bloated public sector, which for decades has served as a vehicle for the royal family to distribute its oil wealth in the form of well-paid jobs that often require little work.
“More than two-thirds of employed Saudis work for the government.” (Decline in oil prices lands on government workers as Saudi Arabia cuts paychecks by Ben Hubbard, New York Times, 26 September 2016)
Besides being unable to maintain existing levels of pay for Saudi citizens employed in the public sector, the government faces an influx of 300,000 new job seekers entering the jobs market every year.
Moreover, it is not only public sector workers who are affected, since the Saudi government has felt obliged to cancel large numbers of government contracts – for building works, for example – with the result that contractors no longer have much employment to offer in the private sector.
So the concern not only of the Saudi royals but also of US imperialism is how to ward off the discontent that these cuts will tend to trigger.
MBS has published his Vision 2030, which sets out how he plans to move the country from an oil-dependent economy to alternative ways of creating wealth, and these plans will be considered further below. The problem, however, is how to keep the population from rising up in the meantime – and the immediate solution is: if we can’t give them bread, let us at least give them circuses.
Hence plans are well advanced to bring entertainment to the Saudi masses:
“After Prince bin Salman called for more entertainment options for families and young people, who often flee the country on their vacations, the cabinet passed regulations restricting the powers of the religious police. An entertainment authority he established has planned its first activities, which include comedy shows, pro wrestling events and monster truck rallies.” (Rise of Saudi prince shatters decades of royal tradition by Mark Mazzetti and Ben Hubbard, New York Times, 15 October 2016)
“The entertainment industry is a proxy for the larger puzzle of how to unlock the Saudi economy. Changes have begun. A Japanese orchestra that included women performed here this month, before a mixed audience of men and women. A Comic-Con [comic book convention] took place in Jeddah recently, with young men and women dressing up as characters from the TV show Supernatural and other favourites. Comedy clubs feature sketch comedians (but no female stand-up comics, yet).
“These options are a modest revolution for a Saudi Arabia where the main entertainment venues, until recently, were restaurants and shopping malls. The modern world, in all its raucousness, is coming, for better or worse. King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh hosted a Monster Jam last month with souped-up trucks. There are plans for a Six Flags theme park south of Riyadh.
“Maya al-Athel, one of the dozens of young people hatching plans at the Saudi General Entertainment Authority, said in an interview that she’d like to bring a museum of ice cream, like one she found in New York, to the kingdom.
“‘We want to change the culture’, said Ahmed al-Khatib, a former investment banker who’s chairman of the entertainment authority. His target is to create six public entertainment options every weekend for Saudis. But the larger goal, he said, is ‘spreading happiness’ in what has sometimes been a sombre country.” (A young prince is reimagining Saudi Arabia. Can he make his vision come true? by David Ignatius, Washington Post, 20 April 2017)
MBS’s ‘vision’ has been enthusiastically embraced by US imperialism, because it too hopes to see the survival of the Saudi absolutist regime. Since such a regime can only hope to survive if it has the backing of a strong imperialist power such as the US, it has no option but to be a willing pawn in the latter’s hands as it struggles to maintain its dwindling domination of the Middle East and world energy supplies.
Imperialism’s plans to put Iraq and Syria under the control of willing puppets have backfired, so all hopes for a recovery lie in its continued manipulation of Saudi Arabia and of Israel, its two most loyal surrogates.
The ‘restoration’ of ‘moderate’ Islam is to be explained by the fact that the jihadi ‘Islam’ exported to fight on behalf of US imperialism to Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East has turned into a Frankenstein monster that attacks and seeks to devour its creator, Saudi Arabia.
Bruce Riedel pointed out the consequences of this in a Reuters article in 2015:
“The kingdom’s wahhabi Islam is the most fundamentalist sunni branch of the religion. But it has now been outflanked by religious radicals who are even more intolerant, xenophobic, and far more violent.
“The blood-curdling appearance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2014 represents a new challenge to the world and, in particular, to MBN [Mohammed bin Nayef, the then minister of the interior] and his counterterrorism programme.
“Heir to al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which went deep underground during the American surge in Iraq in 2007 only to resurface after the withdrawal of foreign forces, the Islamic State has staged a multipronged comeback campaign.
“In 2012-13, it began targeting Iraqi prisons where al-Qaeda terrorists were incarcerated and creating an infrastructure in neighbouring Syria to assist in its revival. In the summer of 2014, it waged a blitzkrieg-like offensive across sunni populated Iraq, took command of the country’s second city, Mosul, and declared the creation of a caliphate to rule all of Islam.
“In November 2014, the Islamic State announced that its goal is to take control of the mosques in Mecca and Medina and oust the ‘serpent’s head’ – the Saudi royal family. Its English language magazine published a cover story with a photo of the Kaaba [the black cube-like building at the centre of Islam’s most sacred mosque in Mecca] with the Islamic State’s black flag flying over it.
“Islamic State militants have attacked Saudi security posts along the Iraqi border and sent suicide bombers to attack Shiite mosques inside the kingdom in order to fuel sectarian enmity.
“In response to the threat the interior ministry has arrested hundreds of Islamic State operatives and is constructing a 600 mile long security fence or wall along the Saudi-Iraqi border, similar to a 1,000 mile long wall it built along the Saudi-Yemeni border to defeat al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.” (The prince of counter-terrorism by Bruce Riedel, The Brookings Institute, 29 September 2015)
In actual fact, Saudi Arabia treats returning jihadis extremely well. Although they are incarcerated, this is in considerable comfort – albeit not the luxury of the Ritz Carlton hotel.
“The ministry of the interior today runs five special high security prisons with some 3,500 prisoners, almost all former al-Qaeda operatives, where the goal is not incarceration but rehabilitation. The prisoners are showered with perks, can receive visits from their relatives and are even allowed to go to weddings and funerals with supervision; their families get special allowances from the government for better housing, medical care, and education.” (Riedel, op cit)
There is obviously not going to be much actual rehabilitation unless the poisonous Wahhabi ideology that drove them to jihadism in the first place is replaced by a less extreme version. It would seem that it is now in the interests of the Saudi monarchy to tone down religious fundamentalism in order to try to prevent the future unemployed and disaffected youth from following their older siblings into a jihad that is only too likely to be turned against the regime.
The principal aim of MBS’s Vision 2030 is to wean his country away from oil sales. To get the money needed to build the necessary infrastructure to create a home-grown industry that can provide jobs, he is proposing to sell off a 5 percent share in Saudi Aramco, the country’s petroleum and natural gas company, expected to raise $2tn. The idea is that Saudi Arabia will be able to produce its own arms and its own motor cars, which theoretically could save the country $90bn a year besides providing employment.
Nevertheless, it is hard to see that imperialism will allow this to go ahead, as it would severely damage its own export industry, besides which Saudi Arabia lacks the skilled workers that such industries require.
It has already been noted that the kingdom lacks the expertise to make effective use of the sophisticated weaponry it buys from the US and other imperialist countries, and the phenomenon would surely repeat itself were factories to be set up with sophisticated production machinery, since it would be hard to find people to operate such machines properly, never mind repair and maintain them.
The deleterious effect of religious dogma on mass education cannot be eradicated overnight – the teachers themselves have not been trained for the task. The fact is that MBS is not the first Saudi prince to be convinced of the need to plan for economic diversification, but all previous schemes have failed and it is more than likely that his will too.
Still, the hope that his apparent enthusiasm and energy inspires in the young may help to keep the monarchy in place for a few years longer.
Despite the backing of US imperialism for MBS’s schemes, at least as expressed by US President Donald Trump, there is more than the financial interests of US imperialism itself standing in the way of their implementation.
There must be powerful opposition both from the clerical establishment and sections of the royal family that have been sidelined. Indeed, the round up and arrest of so many members of the ruling elite on ‘corruption’ charges looks very much like a measure to silence people in a position to put up resistance by depriving them of a great deal of the wealth they have looted that might otherwise be used to try to frustrate MBS’s plans.
Some of the people arrested are supposedly themselves in favour of reform, but if they are associated with sidelined royals or tribes, then they could still be viewed as a possible source of trouble by MBS.
Another problem that MBS has in consolidating the support of the youth (essential since those under 30 make up 70 percent of the Saudi population) is the continuing disastrous war in Yemen, which is becoming more and more unpopular as it drags on, draining the country’s already stretched resources.
Saudi Arabia’s failure in this war will inevitably be blamed on MBS since it was his bright idea to start it, for no better reason than that the Houthi movement which had taken power with extensive popular support was in the business of having good relations with Iran.
Saudi Arabia shares the US imperialist hatred of Iran, aggravated by the fact that Iran, though it is an islamic state, is relatively democratic and is bang up to date technologically, has high educational standards, a skilled workforce and a diversified economy.
Above all, Iran is independent and anti-imperialist. In other words, Iran makes Saudi Arabia look like the backward country bumpkin that it is. This is another reason why US imperialism has high hopes of using Saudi Arabia to advance its own plans to bring down the Iranian government.
The trouble is that with Saudi Arabia achieving so little in Yemen despite its manifold atrocities, it’s difficult to believe that, were it to attack Iran, the result would be anything other than the downfall of the Saudi regime.
Donald Trump is trying to remedy matters by bringing Saudi Arabia and Israel closer together. According to the Times: “The strategic relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia has been acknowledged by a senior minister in the Israeli government, who said that the two states had built ‘partly secret’ ties to counter Iran.
“The two nations do not have any official diplomatic relations and Saudi Arabia has said in the past that that would remain the case until the Israel-Palestine conflict was resolved. In recent years, however, the two countries’ joint enmity for Iran has pushed them closer to each other.” (Israeli minister confirms secret Saudi talks by Anshell Pfeffer, 21 November 2017)
The Trump team’s big hope is that the Palestinian question can be sufficiently ‘resolved’ for Saudi Arabia and Israel openly to cooperate in attacking Iran. To that end, “Saudi Arabia’s all-powerful crown prince has opened up a new front in his attempts to change the Middle East by intervening in Palestinian politics and demanding backing for President Trump’s vision for peace with Israel.
“Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, was summoned to Riyadh last week for a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman … The meeting coincided with preparations, led by Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East point man, for a new effort to forge some sort of peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians.
“Reports in Israel say the prince told Mr Abbas to accept whatever proposals were put forward if and when they were announced by Mr Trump, or to resign … The Gulf princes are eager for progress to be made to allow for more coordination with Israel against Iran without being accused of betraying the Palestinian cause.” (Saudi prince orders Palestinian president to accept Jared Kushner’s peace plan by Richard Spencer and Anshell Pfeffer, The Times, 14 November 2017)
This wheeze too, however, is unlikely to gain much traction, as the same article explains. “Whatever [the plan] is, it is likely to cause political problems for both sides. A majority of Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition is opposed to any form of two-state solution, while with the Trump administration visibly favouring Israel, the Palestinians will be hard put to agree to anything less favourable than proposals of previous administrations.”
The writing on the wall
As is clear from the foregoing, the Saudi Arabian ruling clique faces a whole host of intractable problems and contradictions.
The country’s establishment, through the person of the bumptious and ignorant MBS, is attempting to find a way out. Every attempt it makes to tackle one problem only ends up by exacerbating the inherent contradictions engulfing this regime.
The feudal relics may manage, with US imperialist support, to muddle through a little longer. All the signs are, however, that it is facing its inevitable doom.
The days of the Saudi monarchy are surely numbered.