Saudi Arabia is as complex socially as it is dangerous to U.S. interests.
Last week we saw how the doctrine of Wahhabism—which has been inextricably linked to the royal family since the 1700’s—has many theological similarities with ISIS.
This week we will look at the current political climate in Saudi Arabia and how this doctrine has become a ticking time bomb for the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia has an oil-based economy with strong government control over major economic activities. The Saudi economy is the largest in the Arab world due to its extensive oil reserves (representing approximately 18% of worldwide reserves) and is the world’s leading oil exporter and second largest producer. The petroleum sector accounts for roughly 92.5% of Saudi budget revenues.
With its absolute monarchy system of government, large state sector and supply of welfare benefits, the Saudi economy has been described by Wikipedia as:
A bewildering (at least to outsiders) combination of a feudal fealty system and a more modern political patronage one. At every level in every sphere of activity, Saudis maneuver through life manipulating individual privileges, favors, obligations, and connections. By the same token, the government bureaucracy is a maze of overlapping or conflicting power center under the patronage of various royal princes with their own priorities and agendas to pursue and dependents to satisfy…
For many decades oil wealth also allowed the ruling Al Saud family to maintain its grip on power, wield clout abroad via checkbook diplomacy, and invest billions of dollars in promoting Wahhabism theology around the world, building madrassas far and wide.
The kingdom’s immense wealth has ultimately allowed them to control the citizenry by lavishing them with benefits—including free education, free medical care, generous energy subsidies and well-paid government jobs. And no one pays taxes.
But the decline in oil revenues due to the drop in oil prices over the past five years means this math equation no longer works. The International Monetary Fund has warned the Saudi government that it cannot sustain their welfare-state payment system. The government budget, which used to help secure the power structure, now poses a threat to the unwritten social contract that has long underpinned life in the kingdom.
With roughly 90% of private sector jobs held by foreigners, the official employment rate of Saudi Arabia hovers around 12%. Cutting benefits to its very dependent citizens creates a tinderbox of opposition particularly in light of the well known excesses of the royal family.
Worldwide media accounts of lavish annual vacations in Marbella Spain—costing between $90-$300 million are well documented. Multiple Spanish media outlets have also reported that a British agency provides large groups of women to accompany the Saudi men during their vacations in Spain. Additional tawdry details continue to be leaked.
Other news garnering worldwide attention occurred when Prince Nayef bin Fawwaz Al Shalaan was indicted for smuggling tons of cocaine from Colombia via Paris in one of the family’s royal jets. Fawwaz Al Shalaan remained outside the reach of law on Saudi soil. The Saudi interior minister later threatened to cancel lucrative business contracts if the narcotics investigation continued, and the case was dropped.
This excessive spending and illegal behavior is an obvious violation (haram) of strict Wahhabism doctrine to which many citizens subscribe. One was must ask, how do these two factions coexist—one of Islamist austerity and another of extreme excess—with many who view the actions of the royal family as the plundering of national wealth?
Within the extremist faction of Islam that is dominant in Saudi Arabia, it is entirely possible to view the royal family as un-islamic.
Enter ISIS. On the one hand, the terrorist group is deeply Wahhabist. On the other hand, one has to ask if the groups actions are essentially a corrective movement—with Saudi Arabia in its sights?
As we previously reported, the majority of ISIS fighters are of Saudi origin. And what of the millions more who remain in Saudi Arabia who have not taken up the fight? It would not appear that it is due to a fundamental difference in their belief system as Osama bin Laden remained a popular figure after the 9/11 attack. According to a 2001 BBC report, many Saudi’s “hail him as a Muslim hero, who stands up to the United States.”
Some intelligence suggests ISIS’ undermining of the legitimacy of the Saudi royal family’s power is not seen to be problematic, but rather a return to the true origins of the Saudi-Wahhab project.
To sum up this outlook for the tinderbox that is the Middle East, I’ll rely on Alastair Cooke, former MI6 agent and author of Resistance: The Essence of Islamic Revolution,
“In the collaborative management of the region by the Saudis and the West in pursuit of the many western projects (countering socialism, Ba’athism, Nasserism, Soviet and Iranian influence), western politicians have highlighted their chosen reading of Saudi Arabia (wealth, modernization and influence), but they chose to ignore the Wahhabist impulse.
After all, the more radical Islamist movements were perceived by Western intelligence services as being more effective in toppling the USSR in Afghanistan — and in combatting out-of-favor Middle Eastern leaders and states.
Why should we be surprised then, that from Prince Bandar’s Saudi-Western mandate to manage the insurgency in Syria against President Assad should have emerged [as a type] of violent, fear-inducing vanguard movement: ISIS?
And why should we be surprised — knowing a little about Wahhabism — that “moderate” insurgents in Syria would become rarer than a mythical unicorn? Why should we have imagined that radical Wahhabism would create moderates? Or why could we imagine that a doctrine of “One leader, One authority, One mosque: submit to it, or be killed” could ever ultimately lead to moderation or tolerance?”
So is the real aim of ISIS is to replace the Saud Family as the new Emirs of Arabia? It remains to be seen what the group’s next move will be. Reports indicate Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self appointed Caliph and leader of ISIS, has been severely wounded in an air strike in late January. No additional reports on his whereabouts have been made known. Though I suspect, regardless of the outcome in Mosul, too many seeds have already been sown in opposition to the royal family to avoid a fracture—how large and to what end—we will have to wait and see. While their status as a U.S. ally remains suspect, better the country is ruled by the royal family than by the madmen of ISIS–who would pose an unprecedented threat sitting atop billions of dollars.