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Quicksand Kingdom: A Shaky Saudi Home Front

Domestic prospects look bleak for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

April 20, 2016

Domestic prospects look bleak for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was once at the front and center of the Arab world and a significant player on the global stage due to its oil riches. It has been steadily losing this regional influence and its prominent role.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has been confronted with multiple challenges simultaneously. These include its domestic, social, political, economic and religious trials, its conflict with Iran, its bilateral relations with the United States (which President Obama seeks to mend once more on a visit this week), the rise of extremism and the intra-Arab crisis.

Saudi Arabia failed to catch up with the rapidly changing developments that engulfed the region. It now it finds itself squeezed from all angles, with little prospect of relief unless the kingdom undertakes sweeping changes.

Read Alon Ben-Meir’s two-part feature on Saudi Arabia: At Home and Abroad

Quicksand Kingdom: A Shaky Saudi Home Front

Saudi Arabia Abroad: A Kingdom In Retreat

The challenge for Saudi Arabia is that given its culture, socio-political make up and the dominant role of religion, it will be extraordinarily difficult for the Saudis to change direction without experiencing great turmoil that could destabilize the country for many years to come.

That said, the Saudis have little choice but to begin serious domestic and foreign policy reforms consistent with the changing regional geopolitical environment and do so gradually to preserve the integrity and stability of the kingdom.

The growing domestic challenges

Since the 2003 Iraq war and especially in the wake of the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia is a country going through an identity crisis.

There is growing unrest among many youth who no longer tolerate living in servitude and oppression. They want more freedom and civil rights and refuse to settle for handouts to keep them quiet.

With the eruption of the Arab Spring, the government spent $130 billion to silence the opposition. These top-to-bottom handouts failed to satisfy the nearly 60% of the population under the age of twenty-one.

They are unwilling to live in a country where criticism of the government is considered a threat to national security, live fire is used against protesters, secret police are everywhere, freedom of speech is completely stifled and women are confined to the home.

Any political opposition is quelled by force and punishments for crimes such as blasphemy, sorcery and apostasy, are gruesome and carried out publicly.

In 2015 alone, 157 people were beheaded and more than 82 have been executed thus far in 2016. This is twice as many as have been beheaded by ISIS in the same time period.

Moreover, political activists serve long-term sentences and administrative detention is rampant. The opportunities for upward mobility and personal growth are limited, leaving little for which to aspire. This has led many young men to join various terrorist organizations in the search for a new identity.

Although there are women activists struggling for reform, violence against women is symptomatic in Saudi culture and is accepted as a means of controlling their behavior.

The state-sanctioned execution of women convicted of adultery (whom are often, in reality, the victims of rape) and killing of women by male relatives (“honor killing”) for sexual offences, perceived or otherwise, is socially accepted.

Religious oppression

Given that Saudi Arabia is the custodian of Sunni Islam and is the seat of the holiest Muslim shrines in Mecca (the birthplace of Mohammed) and Medina, the Saudis have carved for themselves a special role in the Sunni Muslim world.

The annual Hajj to Mecca further enshrines the Saudis’ religious role and enhances their strict form of Sunni Islam (Wahhabism), which they have been exporting to every Muslim state by building thousands of schools at an exorbitant cost.

The country is run by sharia law, music is not allowed and religious police are given extended authority to use extreme violence – although in April 2016, the government claimed it would enact changes to curb that violence.

The religious Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice also enforces Islamic law. All Saudis are expected to attend mosque every Friday and Wahhabism is taught from an early age.

Saudi Arabia uses religion to control the population and teaches to hate those who do not share their Islamic values. The clergy exercises extraordinary power and are free to issue edicts (Fatwas) at their pleasure.

The religious system is often run contrary to the social, political and economic aspirations of the young and is leading to a growing resentment. That is becoming increasingly troublesome for the government.

The looming economic crisis

With estimated oil reserves of 270 billion barrels and a heavy budgetary dependence on revenues from oil production, the fall of oil prices has had an unprecedented effect on the Saudi economy.

The oil crisis has inflicted major economic disruption, forced the government to cut subsidies and curtail many development projects and reduced its international stature and ability to exert influence over other Arab states.

Although the Saudis have nearly $660 billion in cash reserves, the government has withdrawn roughly $70 billion to make up for shortages in the fiscal 2015 national budget. If the price of oil decreases further in the next few years, the Saudi economy could go bankrupt.

There is massive inequality between the various classes. Nearly one fifth of the population lives in poverty, especially in the predominantly Shia south where, ironically, much of the oil reservoirs are located. In these areas, sewage runs in the streets and only crumbs are spent to alleviate the plight of the poor.

While the poor are getting poorer, thousands of princes and princesses live lavishly (mostly in Europe). They spend hundreds of millions of dollars and occupy opulent villas, which further drains economic resources.

Saudi Arabia has and continues to be almost completely dependent for revenue on oil exports. In the past, this more than covered its national budget, and it had no compelling reason to develop diversified industries.

Moreover, the Saudis became increasingly dependent on millions of foreign laborers – subjected to abusive, slave-like conditions – to do the “dirty work” that Saudi citizens are unwilling to undertake.

What steps to take

In dealing with human rights, the current state of affairs is bound to come back and haunt the Saudi government. It would be impossible to silence such a huge segment of the population, even with the use of brutal force.

Young men should be given greater opportunities for growth and women deserve basic civil rights and freedom from servitude. The Kingdom can accomplish this while still maintaining Islamic tradition along the lines of what other Gulf states have successfully done.

The Saudi government must wake up to the reality that it is now only a matter of time when the young will rise and be prepared to die – like many of their brethren in Egypt, Libya and Syria – for a cause they believe in.

In relation to the practice of religion, the survival of the kingdom may well depend on its ability to ease religious pressure and decisively limit the internal religious police’s prerogatives to use force at their whims without any accountability.

It is time to modify the criminal justice system and end the public display of beheadings. This does nothing but further alienate the public.

Instead of spreading fear and awe, it breeds hatred and resentment of the government, which only increases defiance.

The government must heed the public outcry, without necessarily compromising the religious principles that guide the county.

Being a devout Muslim is one thing, but using religion arbitrarily and as a tool to subjugate the people will no longer be tolerated.

In addition, the government must end draconian legislation in the name of religion. In fact, the more religious laws and edicts are imposed, the greater the youth’s rejection will be.

Economically, the country must now focus on industrial development on a large scale and gradually reduce its dependence on revenue generated from the energy sector. This will provide over time millions of jobs and create a self-sustaining middle class.

In addition, the government should also invest in sustainable development projects that would allow communities to choose their own projects, develop a sense of empowerment while supporting themselves without handouts and regain their self-respect.


There is growing unrest among Saudi youth who no longer tolerate living in servitude and oppression.

Saudi Arabia must focus on large industrial development and gradually reduce its dependence on oil money.

It will be extraordinarily difficult for the Saudis to change direction without experiencing great turmoil.