A Kingdom In Turmoil: Saudi Societal Discontent Grows
E Tavares: Dr. Alyami, thank you for your being with us today. Last October we spoke about the socio-political situation in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (“KSA”), a hugely important country, and implications for the wider region. It seems very little has changed as far as policies and governance are concerned, other than perhaps the current rulers becoming more entrenched in power. Do you agree?
AA: Thank you for this opportunity and more so for your patriotism and understanding of the unprecedented Islamist ideological threats facing us and the international community, including the majority of Muslims. This is a fact that cannot be denied, ignored or belittled as the action of a few perverted groups.
Since our interview, Saudi Arabia under its current Islamist King, Salman, has been more mired in political and economic turmoil than at any time in the desert kingdom’s history. Domestically, the country is suffering from royal discord and economic hardships, due to the drastic decline in oil prices, which constitute more than 90% of the state’s revenues. Regionally, Saudi Arabia is stuck in a consuming and costly war in Yemen, the continued occupation of Bahrain and dangerous events which the Saudis cannot control or stop, such as the recent superpowers’ rapprochement with Iran, the destabilizing conflicts in Iraq and Syria and the loss of like-minded dictatorial allies in other Arab and Muslim countries.
ET: Indeed, Iran is consolidating its influence across the region, much to the detriment of the KSA. Their alliance with Russia seems to be paying off in Syria, with the Islamic State (“ISIS”) in retreat, arguably in Iraq as well. The Houthis, their allies in Yemen, are giving the Saudis a run for their money. The Iranian regime recently got a lot of money back as a result of the nuclear deal with the US, and quick on the heels of that it has been testing ballistic missiles and related defense systems.
AA: As mentioned above, the superpowers’ reconciliation with the Persian theocracy in Tehran has given Iran more leverage regionally and globally, which the Iranians are using to strengthen their influence in the region, slowly stripping the Saudi oligarchs of their domination over US and western policies and economic interests in the Middle East. Notably, Western interest in reaching a nuclear deal with Iran is not limited to concerns about nuclear weapons.
The West recognized that the fast and widely- spreading extremism and terrorism are inspired by the globally detested Saudi/ Wahhabi Sunni doctrine; therefore, continuing to rely on and to protect the Saudi rulers unconditionally are no longer in the best interest of Western societies. Furthermore, the US and its Western allies may have concluded that it’s only a matter of time before the Saudi autocratic ruling family faces the same fate as its counterparts in other Arab countries. This does not mean that the West is bolstering the Persian theocrats in Tehran to become the guardians of the Gulf’s economic and strategic resources. In reality, the West is playing Iran off against Saudi Arabia to protect Western interests.
ET: However, that alliance of Iran and Russia is gaining prominence and effectively undermining US interests in the region. The latest “casualty” appears to be the once close relationship between the US and Turkey, with President Erdogan publicly courting Russia – quite an achievement after the two countries almost came to blows last year because of the downing of a Russian jet. In your opinion, is the US making the right moves in the region and how is this being perceived within the KSA?
AA: The recent rift between the US and Turkey is not the result of changes in US policy toward Turkey as much as it is due to the unpredictability and sudden turns by President Erdogan, who has been veering Turkey toward Islamist authoritarianism since his party acquired power in 2002. It’s worth mentioning here that the US/Turkey relationship began to erode more rapidly after King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia visited Turkey in 2006 and committed to investing $400 billion in the Turkish economy, a commitment that was finalized in 2010. President Erdogan’s recent visit to Russia to cultivate the goodwill of like-minded President Putin has very little to do with US policy moves and more to do with Erdogan’s unpredictability and blackmailing habits, especially since the failed military coup against him and his unsuccessful demands that the US extradite the Turkish cleric who Erdogan blames for the coup.
In my opinion, continuing to support absolute dictators whose policies are posing imminent threats to our democracy and national security is neither feasible nor prudent, especially when the future of the Middle East is being determined by its diverse peoples. Our government’s “hands off” policy in the region is based on two factors: one, very little can be done by outside military interventions and two, the American people will not tolerate sending hundreds of thousands of young men and women into an unwinnable war in a region most Americans loathe. The Saudi regime views the lack of deep US involvement in the Middle East as a betrayal of an historical relationship, especially the protection of the ruling family from external and internal threats.
ET: We often talk about the UK having a “special relationship” with the US. But some commentators argue that the world’s only special relationship today is the one between the KSA and the US. For one, Obama would never dare to propose a domestic course of action (with an “or else” attached to it) in Saudi soil like he did in the UK regarding the BREXIT vote. In light of what you detailed above, what is the status of that relationship today and how critical is the forthcoming US election in that regard? It appears that the two main candidates have very different views on how that relationship should look like.
AA: I am not so sure that US/Saudi relations are that special. For one, it’s based on a tit for tat arrangement, US access to oil in return for defending an absolute and reactionary system whose values are totally antithetical to everything America was founded on and stands for. The US/UK relationship is based on strategic, cultural, religious, ethnic, transparency and above all, democratic values, rule of law and freedom of all forms of expression. Due to this fact, US presidents can express their views publicly without fear of inciting British citizens to overthrow their government by force. I know for a fact that our presidents demand actions by the Saudis in private in order not to give the impression that the US is abandoning its commitment to protect the Saudi regime, especially from its oppressed population.
US/Saudi relations have been deteriorating since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US by mostly Saudi nationals on the watch of President George Bush, who responded forcefully both politically and militarily. However, Bush’s rhetoric and actions wound down during his second term. President Obama’s first term started with an apologetic and appeasing (humiliating, even) approach to the Saudis and the Muslim World in general. Conversely, Obama’s second term can be characterized as the period in US/Saudi relations when the US has the upper hand economically, politically and strategically. Empowered by a recovering economy, falling oil prices (thanks to fracking) and shifting alliances, while the Saudis are weakened by domestic, regional and global events, Obama used America’s strengthened position to put the Saudis in their place.
Given the current state of affairs in the Middle East, continued Saudi support for extremism and terrorism and increasing Islamic terror attacks on Europe and the US, US/Saudi relations will continue to deteriorate or remain in flux, regardless who wins the US Presidency in November 2016.
ET: As ISIS retreats in Syria and Iraq it is spreading into Afghanistan and many African countries, as well as increasingly resorting to terrorism across much of the West. There have been persistent rumors of Saudi and Turkish support to ISIS, a fact that has been confirmed by US Vice President Biden. Moreover, Christian and Yazidi women who were fortunate enough to escape their enslavement at the hands of ISIS reported being brutalized by Saudis. So the ties are there and at various levels. However, ISIS is now behind terrorist attacks in both those countries. Is this another example of “blowback”?
AA: It’s no secret that ISIS is inspired by and based on the Saudi/Wahhabi doctrine and practices employed by the Saudi/Wahhabi allies, especially in the 18th to the 20th centuries. ISIS’s objective is identical to that held by most Muslims, including former Saudi King Abdullah: spread Islam and the Shariah worldwide. Although the Saudis and the Turks have supported and used ISIS, especially in Syria and Iraq, ISIS is turning against the governments of Saudi Arabia and Turkey for two reasons: one, ISIS felt betrayed by the Saudis and Turks, whom ISIS considers proxies for the West, which is waging a war against the Caliphate State; and two, ISIS’s immediate goal is to establish a Caliphate that includes all Muslims, headquartered in Islam’s holiest site of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Those familiar with the perfidious practices and mindset of Arab and Muslim despots understand that by supporting ISIS, the Saudis and Turks expect the terrorist group to turn against them. This is a tactic these regimes use to empower themselves, suppress their populations and convince the West that they are likewise victims of terrorism when, in fact, they continue to support and use extremists and terrorists against each other and to extract concessions from the international community.
ET: What’s happening around the KSA provides some context for what is happening internally. As far as human rights are concerned, it appears that things are getting worse, as recently evidenced by a courageous – and shocking – documentary by ITV in the UK. What do you make of this?
AA: After King Salman inherited the Saudi Crown in January 2015, my organization, the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, wrote an analysis predicting human rights would suffer under the new King reign. Of all his predecessors (6 Saudi kings), Salman is notorious for his support of extremists in and outside the country and for his belief that the extremist Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and its arbitrary Shariah law is the true Islam. He considers the country his family’s private property and opposes any political reforms including his predecessor’s cosmetic gestures. Given these documented facts, it’s not surprising that King Salman purged the government of all less rigid members of his family and replace them with his like-minded sons and nephews. Given the Saudi’s economic hardships and the costly war engagement in Yemen, deteriorating situation in Syria, Iraq, continued occupation of Bahrain, frequent terrorist attacks in different parts of the country, human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia are likely to worsen.
ET: Another surprising fact is the abject poverty that many Saudis are living under. How is this possible given all the petrodollars floating around the country?
AA: All state revenues are controlled and treated as property of the royal family. Only the king and a few high-ranking royals have direct access to the state’s income. Since there is no accountability, transparency or public scrutiny, this small clique of royals decides on the distribution of funds. The top spending priorities are internal security, namely the safety of the ruling family, stipends for the thousands of members of the extended royal family, the armed forces and maintaining the institutions of the religious establishment (universities, mosques, religious police and thousands of clerics.) Given this arrangement, little of the national revenues is spent on citizens.
It’s estimated that between 30-40% of Saudis live at or below the UN designated poverty level. This is due to high unemployment, where it is estimated that between 70-80% of Saudi women and about 20-30% of Saudi men are unemployed. Given these numbers, it’s culturally customary that those who work support those who don’t.
ET: There are over 9 million immigrants living in the KSA, representing more than a third of the population. Those are not small figures. Yet many complain of abuse and violation of human rights. Why is this so?
AA: It’s ironic that millions of Saudi men and women are unemployed, yet the public and private sectors import millions of expatriates to do jobs that the Saudi people need and could do if women were allowed to work and if the Saudis were paid decent salaries to feed their families. By importing poverty stricken laborers who are willing to live in appalling conditions, accept subsistence wages and have no benefits or rights under the Saudi judicial system, the Saudi employers make huge profits. The maltreatment of migrant workers by their Saudi employers has been compared to modern slavery by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and many governments’ agencies, including our Department of State, have decried abuses of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia.
ET: Last time we spoke you mentioned that Saudi women are the most marginalized people on the planet. The KSA has contributed between $10-25m to the Clinton Foundation, possibly more. While we may never find out how much of that can actually influence US politics, as suggested by emails recently disclosed, if Hillary Clinton is elected US President can she do anything to truly help Saudi women as a result? There could be a conflict there, it seems (not that the men who preceded her have done much about it anyway).
AA: Despite her pronouncement that “women’s rights are human rights,” it’s unlikely that Saudi women will fare any better under Hillary Clinton if she were elected President of the United States. Given the Saudis’ generous gifts of $41 million to the Clinton Foundation and millions to various universities, including the University of Arkansas when Bill Clinton was President, Hillary Clinton is unlikely to deviate from the Saudi appeasing policies she pursued as a Secretary of State.
Although promoting Saudi women’s rights is unlikely to occur under a President Hillary Clinton, empowering Saudi women not only promotes human rights, but would represent a major victory over extremism and terrorism. Even under their current oppressive and inhumane conditions, Saudi women are intensely engaged in fighting the zealot Saudi religious establishment. Empowering and liberating Saudi women from the constricting chains of religio-male guardian systems would resonate throughout the Muslim world, given Saudi Arabia’s status as the birthplace of Islam and home to its holy shrines toward which 1.5 billion Muslims pray 5 times a day.
ET: Why are Western leaders so permissive, even accomodating, of these repressive policies by Saudi leaders? They are quick to condemn the likes of Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Gadaffi and Bashar al-Assad, all perhaps with good albeit not too dissimilar reasons. But despite lingering perceptions of ties with terrorism – as poignantly highlighted by a cover of Time Magazine a few years after 9/11 (above) and more recently the controversy around the missing 28 pages of the official report on that attrocity – earlier this year France awarded the Legion d’Honneur to a Saudi prince for the fight against terrorism. In fact it almost seems that the West is too hesitant to do anything but when it comes to Saudi Arabia.
AA: Despite the Saudi support for Sunni extremists and terrorists worldwide, the Western powers continue to treat the Saudis with velvet gloves. The reasons for this sheepish approach to the Saudi rulers are oil, money and threats of using terrorism against Western countries, as exemplified by former Saudi Ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar’s ultimatum to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
ET: It is well known how in recent decades the Saudis have been actively promoting their version of Islam worldwide, much of it through the establishment of mosques and cultural centers. The effects are very visible across several Muslim societies. Recently, a Pakistani blogger lamented how the burqa and the niqab were quickly replacing the traditional (colorful and open) dresses of women in his country, as well as in Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere. Sensing some discord, the Saudis are maneuvering through international organizations to ban any criticism of their religion – even in the West. In addition to being a clear violation of freedom of speech rights, it seems that this is the absolutely the worst thing we should do for those who suffer from this ideology, since change can only come about through open debate. Should we all be concerned if the Saudis prevail here?
AA: Yes, not only should we be concerned, but must do everything we can to defend our democratic values that make America the most advanced, powerful and envied country the world has ever known. The Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has been trying to impose an anti-defamation of religions measure on the international community through the UN for years, with the support of Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State. This is one of the many deceptive moves the Saudi rulers have employed at home and elsewhere to silence freedom of expression and to silence critics of harsh domestic Saudi policies such as flogging, beheading, religious intolerance and marginalization of women.
ET: In light of the foregoing, it seems that positive societal change in the KSA can only come from brave Saudis and organizations like yours, especially as our governments will likely not want to do anything to “rock the boat” with the KSA. Do you agree?
AA: Excellent summary with which I agree. Recent events have shown that enduring positive change can and must spring from within a society, with support from other concerned people who understand the value and benefits of democratic change in Saudi Arabia.
ET: What do you think will result from the ongoing socio-political turmoil in the KSA?
AA: In light of the current and projected economic downturn in Saudi Arabia, we are likely to see more societal discontent and harsher responses by the Saudi oligarchy. Some signs are already evident, especially among large numbers of unpaid migrant workers who, for the first time, are demonstrating in some parts of the country. Many Saudis are also airing grievances against the government’s imposition of taxes on foods and services and the elimination of subsidies for utilities and other social programs. Furthermore, the rarely discussed issue of the power struggle within the royal family, especially since King Salman inherited the throne and disenfranchised many of the influential royals like Prince Bandar and Crown Prince Migrin, could potentially destroy the unity of the royal family that kept it in power thus far. The result of upheaval in Saudi Arabia could have a far-reaching implications for Saudi Arabia, the Muslim World and the international community at large.