Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Bringing Down the House

The revolutionary cauldron of Arab dissent has been percolating throughout the Middle East. It has cooked up a storm in Tunisia and Egypt.  It is heating up in Bahrain, Iraq, and Iran.  It has reached the boiling point in Yemen.  In Libya, it has spilled over.  This leads to the inevitable question, what exactly is brewing in the grand daddy of them all, the House of Saud?

Saudi Arabia is unquestionably the spiritual leader of the Islamic world. It is home to the holiest of cities--Makkah and Madinah; it serves as the destination of the pilgrimage, Hajj;  its ulema, or Islamic scholars are amongst its most respected.  The Kingdom is the focal point for a cool 1.5 billion people--over 20% of the Earth's population.  The religious significance of this desert peninsula can not be overstated.

Contrary to what many false believe, Saudi Arabia is not a theocracy--it is a monarchy, albeit with a strong Islamic influence. The ruling Al Saud family has held power for centuries dating back to historic battles with the Ottoman Empire. The power and traditions of the Saud are quite established.  The transition of power in the royal family is by agnatic seniority--the order of succession to the throne is to the monarch's younger brother, not to the monarch's son.  Transition to the next generation occurs after all the elder males have been exhausted.  This can take quite some time given the enormous family size of the royals.  The current leader, King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz is the fifth of thirty seven brothers.  Politics, ability, and factionalism play a large part in the choice of a successor as some princes are elevated, and others bypassed altogether.

Proponents of the House argue that its kings are benevolent dictators.  The acts of charity are undeniable:  $125M to Pakistan for the 2010 floods, over $80M to Asian victims of the 2005 tsunami, and  $50M to Haiti for its earthquake of 2010.  In addition to natural disaster aid, donations are innumerable ranging from subsidizing oil in Pakistan, to eradicating hunger in the Horn of Africa, to the construction of mosques across America.  Many foreigners thus look up to Arabia for leadership given its enormous wealth, influence and status.  Furthermore, Saudi is considered to be a land of opportunity for professionals in the Muslim world--doctors, lawyers, and engineers find stable jobs with a good income.

Monies are not limited to international assistance and expatriates.  Citizens of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) are entitled free education to whatever level or degree they desire to pursue, domestic or abroad.
The government funds the purchase or construction of a home--which remains free of charge if the individual is married, or a governmental employee.  Health care is free. There is the provision of cheap petroleum; in fact, it is cheaper than drinking water.  A gallon of gas is 91 cents.  KSA pays for marriages and wedding ceremonies as long as they are requested by the family. There are numerous other benefits that make the value of a Saudi passport, an excellent one.

As cherished as Saudi Arabia is in certain circles, it is equally if not significantly more despised in others.  The reasons are numerous.  It begins with a medieval, hierarchical setup--a sick social experiment, gone wrong.  Modern day monarchies are largely symbolic or constitutional, but in the land of Al Saud, it is absolute.  The elite branch of royals, descendants of Muhammad bin Saud, are referred to by the title "His Royal Highness" (HRH).  These are the power brokers of the the Kingdom, some of whom are in line for the succession of the throne.  Secondary, or cadet branches of royals hold key positions in the military, government, and the establishment.  Although they are not in contention for kingship, they are referred to as "His Highness" (HH) and wield considerable authority.  Below the ruling classes are varied tribal lineages with differing levels of power and respect--but in general, the citizens are almost uniformly of Saudi Arabian descent.  Given the economic advantages afforded the citizens, it is a nearly impossible for a foreigner to achieve such status.  There is a point system to earn citizenship but in reality, unless there is blood relation to a Saudi male it is not usually granted.

The local Arab population has more rights and social standing over foreign, professional workers--be they American, European or South Asian.  Generally speaking, even within this subgroup, detractors state that westerners are preferentially treated.  There is an ethnic stratification system below this level that features non-Saudi Arabs, Filipinos, and near the bottom of the barrel, poor guest workers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.  The destitute South Asian workers have few rights and in some cases, have conditions akin to modern day slavery.  Duty hours can exceed 18 per day, and workers are often not paid for months.  Their also have been many reported cases of abuse, including that of a Sri Lankan maid who had nails hammered into her. Although this particular event is likely an outlier, the squalid working and living conditions prevalent in worker colonies is not.  Their life is aptly portrayed in the motion picture, Syriana, about a fictional Gulf state. Supporters of KSA argue that poor Asian and African workers come to work according to their free will.  While this may be true to a certain extent, it is more of an indictment on the financial climate of their home countries than a referendum on Saudi Arabia.  In addition, many laborers are unaware of the actual conditions and limited reimbursement available to them in the Kingdom.  Some try to leave but are essentially stuck for years since their passports are withheld by their local employers.  This situation was recently highlighted by an Indian stowaway who escaped to his homeland by hiding in the toilet of an Air India flight.

Apologists for KSA argue that complaints about this twisted, class and race-based system is due to jealousy and unfounded accusations.  The reality, however, is that there has been development of a modern day caste system that completely contradicts the egalitarian spirit of Islam that descended upon the peninsula over 1400 years ago.  The lack of justice and freedoms for the poor and the immigrants is glaring.  And the numbers of immigrants is quite high--almost 22% of the population.

According to the Democracy Index compiled by the Economist, Saudi Arabia has the 7th most authoritarian regime in the world.  It betters only a few states such as Uzbekistan and North Korea--regimes that sport atrocious human rights records.  KSA's record on women's rights is well-documented and universally considered as poor.  Although there is much media scrutiny on the inability of women to drive a car, what is more worrisome is the lack of employment opportunity for educated females.  Approximately, 78% of unemployed females have university degrees.  In total, up to 10% of the population is unemployed--but this masks the alarming rate of unemployment in the 20-24 age category: 39%.  What exacerbates these numbers is the burgeoning youth population, as 47% of citizens are 18 or younger.

According to the Emirate Times, 90% of private sector jobs are held by foreign workers.  Saudis lack the  skill set or desire to work in the most competitive jobs.  Many choose to work in easier government jobs if available.  However, given the unemployment figures, it is obvious that enough of these do not exist.  It reasons that the House of Saud has inadvertently (or skeptics say, intentionally) created a giant welfare state.  The government is willing to provide its citizens with many benefits, free of cost.  Some are essential (health care) or certainly benevolent (education).  However, some of the other "handouts" have stifled a desire to work and killed motivation and entrepreneurship--leading to slow, internal rotting.  The result is joblessness for many and a nation that functions almost exclusively by importing outside talents.  The current employment patterns are not sustainable long term and present a dire set of problems.

The House of Saud can be as easily referred to as the Kingdom of Oil.  The ability of the House to fund all the programs previously mentioned is due to its good fortune--it sits atop reservoirs of liqud, black gold.  The Ghawar oil field is the world's largest spanning 170 miles long by 19 miles wide.  It is also home to vast amounts of natural gas.  The Khurais, Qatif, Safaniya, and Shaybah oil fields--like Ghawar are in the Eastern Province and in adjacent, offshore locations.  The oil wealth filters through the open palms of the ruling Saud, making them all wealthy beyond measure.  The monarchs are able to take advantage of their position and have ownership in oil harvestation and production, in conjunction with large multinational companies.  However, the land that produces the oil is inarguably that of the people of Saudi Arabia, and so should be its spoils.  The "benevolence" of the dictators is as much an act of compulsion as it is one of giving.  Without a tiny piece of the pie, the locals would be up in arms.  This raises another a question--if the oil belongs to the people and they (the citizens) are already deriving some benefit of it--how and where should all the money be spent?  Isn't it being properly utilized already?

There is no easy answer to this trillion dollar question.  It certainly should not be limited to the hands of the HRH and HH crowd--for their personal pleasure and exorbitant lifestyles.  And it shouldn't be entirely applied into the creation of a welfare state which will inevitably result in the decay and demise of future generations.  The judicious use of funds is certainly in order--developing education, infrastructure, and for technologic advancement.  Facilities and institutions need to be created so that unemployment doesn't destroy the fabric of the nation.  There should be an investment in alternative and green technologies as oil is a limited resource.  The end of oil should not spell the end of Arabia--because this possibility is certainly a distinct one. The wealth that Saudi has accrued over time should have been enough for it to position itself, as a world superpower.  Instead it has simply pumped oil for the West, mired with a vast array of social ills.  Another issue for KSA to consider and answer--what are its long-term strategic plans regarding its oil reserves?  The United States is careful not to tap into Alaskan oil and similarly, Russia has plans to safeguard oil for future generations.  Is Saudi going to run itself dry?  Saudi boasts about being able to increase the production of oil enough to actually drive down the price of a barrel. While this may offer some advantages in the near term, it raises questions whether there is truly a vision for tomorrow.

The money that is minted when Arabian oil is exchanged for dollars is quickly reinvested into the West by the purchase of arms. Saudi defense spending in 2009 ranked 8th in the world, at over $39 billion dollars.  This accounts for 8.2% of its GDP. In comparison, the US spent 4.3%.  The glaring difference is enhanced  when realizing that Saudi is not actively engaged in open combat, whereas the US is mired in two occupations and has opened up a global war on terror with a multitude of fronts on many different continents.  Simply put, Saudi defense spending doesn't make any sense. Western powers including the US, as well as Israel have successfully created a perpetual fear of Iran, within the House.  Although, theologically divided--Sunni Saudi and Shia Iran; there is no real reason either nation should fear the other.  Both sit upon ridiculous proportions of natural resources and maintain a strong sphere of influence central to their sects.  Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia unwittingly has come down on the side of the West in its continual ostracization of Iran.  Saudi Arabia and Iran thus fight a proxy war--one that fuels the economy of weapon-producing nations.  This proxy war takes the form of a brutal cycle of Sunni-Shia sectarian violence, in many flash points including North Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq and Lebanon. [Of interesting note, US has had supposed secret negotiations with KSA rival Iran, regarding the stability of Iraq]

The airtight relations between KSA and the US also results in less than enthusiastic support of the House amongst many locals, as well as much of the Muslim world.  Al Saud has been friendly with a multitude of administrations including the recent Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal.  In fact, many feel that the Kingdom has been partially co-opted by America.  It served as the launching point for Gulf War I against Iraq in the early 90s. To Saudi's credit, there are no longer any (known) US bases on its soil--but the damage to its reputation has already been cemented.  Additionally, Saudi religious scholars blessed the US military action against Iraq infuriating much of the Muslim world.  In conjunction with turning a blind eye to wanton Royal excess and dubious investments in western financial institutions (outlawed by Islam), the Saudi scholars lose much credibility.  They are seen to be simply rubber stamping the policies of the HRH--whether political, social, or religious.

Following the wave of recent protests, King Abdullah announced a $36 billion assistance package for the country featuring loans for homes, increase in governmental salaries, and unemployment benefits.  Its intent undeniably is to pacify the population and stave off any potential thought of uprising against the House.  This may be able to slow down such a process--in fact, the population of Saudi is likely to be more content than that of neighboring states.  However, given both its developing and pre-existing conditions, it is only a matter of time--be it months or years before the revolution hits the Saudi street.  It is critical for the Kingdom to accept this reality and evolve accordingly, before a potentially violent ouster.  A class-based system with an all-powerful monarchy will simply not survive in the 21st century.  A representative government with a stronger focus on civil and human rights is both paramount and necessary, for the survival of KSA as an independent nation.  The House must relinquish its power to the people or it will ultimately face the fate of its tyrannical friends, Mubarak and Qadafi.  Unfortunately, given the ongoing history lessons of those in power, Al Saud is unlikely to dissolve itself leading to a murky future.

If the going gets tough in Kingdom of Oil, Western powers will surely be at its doorstep.  The proven oil fields of the East are the drug that fuels the world, and in particular, the United States.  Control, access and distribution of this black gold is beyond critical--and if Saudi is unable to take care of its brewing internal problems, a foreign invasion is a distinct possibility--regardless if Obama bows to the King.  The oil-containing eastern coast is where the Shia population, which makes up 10-15% of the country, resides.  The neoconservatives of the American Enterprise Institute have already outlined contingency plans to Balkanize Saudi Arabia, in order to maintain dominance of the oil.  In their book An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror, Richard Perle and David Frum note:

the Saudi government has long feared “that the Shi’ites might someday seek independence for the Eastern Province—and its oil.… Independence for the Eastern Province would obviously be a catastrophic outcome for the Saudi state. But it might be a very good outcome for the United States. Certainly it’s an outcome to ponder. Even more certainly, we would want the Saudis to know we are pondering it.

Another interesting tidbit to digest, particularly in the context of Balkanization--the western third of the Arabian peninsula allegedly holds monstrous deposits of gold, silver, and copper according to an Ohio State report based on evaluation by global imaging system technologies.

The House of Saud is at a crossroads.  Although the timing remains unclear, it will eventually collapse.  Will it cede its might willingly, and in the best interests of its many unhappy and repressed people?  Or will it try to cling on to its intoxicating power until the very bitter end with the prospect of violence, anarchy, and be potentially carved up to the whims of the West?  It must know that the current path is not sustainable.  And it must not forget the words of Henry Kissinger, "Oil is much too important a commodity to be left in the hands of the Arabs."

The House is on fire.  It just doesn't know it yet.


  1. Another throughly researched and informative article,many people are unaware that despite the manna being so assidiously provided to the saudis'it is just a matter of time before the decadence and subservience to the royal family this creates will be the reason for its demise.The juxtaposition of benefits to the saudi citizens with the denial of basic human rights to all other"second rate" peolpe residing there and the ones who are actually running the show highlights the govt. and its peoples total unawareness of what reality is.
    Another thing that is glaringly obvious is the lack of any western nation taking note of these excesses of power and its misuse,they benefit more by kowtowing to the monarchy.
    Great article and looking forward to reading more.

  2. am awaiting some new article to ponder on th complexities of this world and those " who would be kings".