Inside Saudi Arabia

Crisis within the state structure has led to increasing demands for redistribution of wealth, social justice, and regime accountability

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist, has wider connotations for Saudi Arabia. Although the murder has become a much talked about subject in the international arena, very little light is generally thrown into the growing atmosphere of dissent inside the Saudi kingdom and the draconian measures that the royal family often take recourse to for trampling upon liberal sentiments. It is no wonder that Saudi Arabia now occupies the 169th position out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index for 2018 that the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) had released in last April.

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is, in fact, the result of a cooperation between the al-Saud dynasty and the Muslim clergy which dates back to 1744 when an alliance was struck between Muhammed-ibn- Abdul-al-Wahab representing the clergy and Muhammed-ibn-Saud who wielded military might. This collaboration fructified into temporal power when in the 1920s and 1930s, the al-Saud dynasty under the leadership of Abdul Aziz carried out extensive conquests in the Arabian peninsula. Since that time, the Wahabi and the al-Saud traditions have existed in some sort of uncomfortable symbiosis at times. But both of these two traditions have come under stress in recent times. Although the rationale of the existence of the monarchy has not yet been challenged, a parallel line of clergy has taken the field in Saudi Arabia, thereby challenging the Wahabi line of the official clergy which dominates almost all official and ecclesiastical positions. Since the al-Saud dynasty derives its legitimacy from the Wahabi tradition, crisis within the state structure has now engulfed both as more and more demands are now voiced for redistribution of wealth, social justice and regime accountability.

Which way will Saudi Arabia go? This is now the single most important factor in the Middle Eastern and West Asian politics. If dissident movements become stronger, then the monarchy must change and come to terms with dissenting voices. In that case, the US influence over Saudi Arabia is bound to wane and the country may not be willing to act as the bulwark against Iran, the principal goal of US foreign policy in the region. But the million dollar question surrounds around the cohesion and capability of the dissidents.

However, dissidence against theocracy, corruption, accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few is spreading in Saudi Arabia. The most internationally known face of it is Raif Badwai, the secular-minded activist and writer who used to run a website named Free Saudi Liberals. Raif has openly castigated religion-based states and in line with it, he has called into question the religion-based policies of the Saudi kingdom. Both Raif and his sister Samar Badwai have been arrested. Raif has been sentenced to long years in prison and 1000 lashes. He has already received 60 of them. His wife Ensaf Haider has fled to Canada with their three children.

There are other examples as well. Twenty-eight journalists are currently behind bars and most of them were detained during the end of 2017 after Mohammed bin Salman was declared the Crown Prince. Saleh al Shehi, a journalist, was sent to gaol for five years after he had lambasted the royal family for tolerating corruption and nepotism in a television interview. Opponents of the royal family allege that even questioning the economic policy of the country is looked upon as perfidy and an economist named Essam al Zamel is now facing trial on this charge.

Opposition to the established order has been growing in another arena as well. The bloc of clergy is cracking and an opposing group of religious leaders, independent of the one getting official patronage, is spreading its wings. Last year, the administration arrested a large number of clergies, intellectuals, television personalities, and a poet for their opposition to monarchy. The most important of them was Salman-al-Odah, a cleric known for his extreme views and who demands political reform. That Odah commands 14 million Twitter followers indicate that days are not really smooth for King Salman and the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Another cleric arrested was Awad-al-Qarni who had also more than two million followers.

But opposition to the Saudi clerical-monarchical order is nothing new. It started with the tribal Ikhwan rebellion of 1929 and culminated with the seizure of the great mosque in Mecca by Juhaiman-al-Utaibi in 1979. In 2003, more than 1710 religious leaders were either fired or suspended. Even before that, a professor of surgery in Riyadh named Saad-al-Faqih was organising public opinion against the house of al-Saud. To avoid persecution he fled to England and founded the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA). It is true that he used to express even some indirect sympathy for the al-Qaeda. Under pressure from the US and Saudi Arabia, he and his organisation were placed under the United Nation's list of terrorist groups and individuals. But later on, the same UN absolved Faqih and the MIRA of all charges.

The all important question now is whether the house of al-Saud will survive after the murder of Khashoggi or not. Perhaps it will. A host of observers are laying the blame at the door of King Salman for choosing Prince Salman as the Crown Prince removing his own nephew Prince Mohammed-bin-Nayef from the same position. So far, as bulldozing of dissenting opinion is concerned, Nayef has also a hardline record. But he was certainly less theatrical than Mohammed-bin-Salman and was more discreet.

But the actual canker devouring Saudi Arabia lies elsewhere. Last year the kingdom had USD 52 billion budget deficit. Per capita income is down by almost one half from what it was during the time of oil revenue boom. The birth rate is 3.5 per cent and the majority of population is under 15 years.

It means that the royal household will have to cater to the rising expectations of a vast number of young population in the coming days. But there is a 10 per cent unemployment rate among male populations in general and 30 per cent among recent male college graduates. But the administration has virtually blocked chances of employment for its own people by adopting a self-defeating policy. Foreign workers now constitute 90 per cent of all employees in private sector and 70 per cent in the public sector. So, grievances are rising among the sons of the soil.

Jamal Khashoggi's murder is only the latest example of a faulty state system that Saudi Arabia tolerates. But more turmoils are in store for the al-Saud dynasty in the days to come.

(The author is a senior journalist and commentator. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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