Saudi Arabia : the next step for the destabilization of Middle East

Olivier Hanne

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The diplomatic ambiguities of Saudi Arabia are well known: its support for jihadist groups, its link with Israel (against Iran), the encirclement of Qatar (its enemy brother). But its domestic situation is less well-known. However, the internal evolution of the country could lead to a major political crisis that would affect the Middle East.

We will analyze the recent history of Saudi Arabia to show what risks are taking the political powers and what internal crisis could happen in the future...



King Abdullah came to power in 2005. He ensured the regency in the name of King Fahd, sick since 1996. He was the only son of a wife of the founder king, descended from the clan of the Shuraym, clan linked to the great tribe of Shammar. However, the other kings were from the Nejd tribes and were sons of Hassa, the favorite wife of Ibn Saud, and members of the powerful Sudeiri clan.

Knowing that, he did not have the legitimacy of the other sons of Ibn Saud, he always maintained a system of balance between princes. His relations were complicated with the “clan of the seven”, the seven brothers from the Sudeiri, who always had priority over the succession. That's why he named Salman “Crown Prince” to take into account the balance game.

Abdallah was a cautious reformer. He has always considered that reforms should be progressive and respect the Wahhabi context. He did not hesitate to harden the pressure on the Shiites of the kingdom, for fear of Iran.

Abdallah's fear for the stability of the country begins in 2011 and the Arab spring. The king decides to give 135 billion dollars in society to avoid disputes and riots. At that time, the price of a barrel had reached its peak and was beginning to fall. The deficit widened dramatically.

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The fear comes mainly from internal Islamism, which shook the country between 1993 and 1995. Until that time, the Saudi power maintained good relations with the Islamist movement. The kingdom had given refuge to thousands of Muslim Brothers persecuted in the Arab world. The Brothers had been integrated into universities, mosques and ministries.
Saudi Arabia was a melting pot between Muslims Brothers, jihadists, Wahhabis, Salafists, legalist Islamists accepting the monarchy (Sururists), Islamist in opposition monarchy, takfirists, etc...

The influence of all these Islamist militants, often foreign, birthed the Sahwa (or al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya, Islamic revival). Unlike the establishment ulama, these Islamists did not hesitate to express themselves on political issues. It was in 1990, when King Fahd appealed to the United States to protect the kingdom against Iraq, that the Sahwa embarked on religious and political opposition to the royal family.

The repression alternated jail, execution, expulsion of foreigners, rewards to the repentant Saudi. The Sahwa failed after 1995.

There was a hatred between the Saudi regime and the Islamists, which is why Bin Laden took his own country as a target.

The regime particularly attacked the Muslim Brothers, who became the enemies of the kingdom. Some of the members of the Sahwa had no choice and switched to jihadism, leaving for Afghanistan.



The revolts of 2011 have awakened the fears of the Sahwa, which explains the new crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood internally, but also outside with the worsening of relations with Qatar and the overthrow of President Morsi in Egypt in July 2013.

The kingdom has since 2011 conducted a dual strategy inside and outside, but contradictory:


The repression against internal Islamism

In 2014, Abdallah removed from power Prince Bandar, known for his radical Islamism and support for jihadists in Syria. He replaces him with his brother Khaled, to avoid clan oppositions.

The kingdom is developing a close collaboration with the United States for intelligence, reinforcing its legislation against the financing of terrorism, and opening a de-radicalization center. But this struggle is aimed primarily at the Brothers rather than local Wahhabism.


Support for external Islamism

At the same time, Saudi Arabia was supporting Islamist rebel groups in Syria, which was an indirect means of avoiding their establishment in the kingdom.

Riyadh is providing funds to the Islamic emirate of Baba Amr, near Homs, held by Jabhat al-Nusra.

At the Istanbul summit in July 2013, the kingdom officially supports the Syrian National Coalition and has Ahmed Syri Jarba, a Syrian Chammar (tribe to which King Abdullah belongs), appointed as its president.

The future King Salman was also part of the 1990s men charged with funding the Afghan jihad...

The consequence of this contradiction is that several thousand Saudis have left for jihad in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and the question of their return to Saudi Arabia is problematic. This is a reminder of the return of the 12,000 combatants who left for Afghanistan in the 1990s.
Indeed, Riyadh's double strategy had already been a failure, since support for Afghan jihad and repression against the Sahwa had not prevented the attacks in the country in 1995, 1996, 2003.

However, Saudi Arabia must maintain this strategy of support for radical groups in its foreign policy, because it serves to legitimize itself throughout the Muslim world. Islamic humanitarianism is a major lever of its international influence. Without this element, Saudi Arabia would be only a secondary oil power, comparable to Venezuela or Algeria.




The duet between Salman and Ben Salman

In January 2015, when Abdallah died, it was the return of the Soudeiri clan. Salman is the second Sudeiri to ascend the throne. His first steps are revealing: he names his son Mohammed Minister of Defense, a position he held himself, and his nephew Mohammed Ibn Nayef as "vice crown prince". Abdallah's offspring are immediately sidelined, including Miteb, chief of the National Guard (much more reliable than the army).

As of January 2015, Salman confirms that the Crown Prince is Prince Muqrine, the youngest son of Ibn Saud. This decision, which confirms the royal decree of 2014, seems to show that Salman respects alternations in power, since he is not a Sudeiri.

But in April, he replaced him with Mohammed ben Nayef, Minister of the Interior and member of the Sudeiri clan. He also appointed his son vice-crown prince, before appointing him in June 2017 as Crown Prince (replacing Prince Mohamed ben Nayef). This appointment is the culmination of a methodical strategy for the benefit of Mohammed. It goes against the royal decree of 2014, validated by the council of allegiance…

It is an anomaly in the political history of the country, because traditionally the great princes of the ruling family share the functions, either political or economic, without ever cumulating them.


The princely system

The sons of Ibn Saud, because of his many wives and concubines, are over 200.

The Saudi succession follows a horizontal rule, called agnatic, from elder brother to elder brother. The system is necessarily gerontocratic. In theory, since 1992, accession to the throne has been possible in the second generation, that is to say to Ibn Saud's grandsons, according to the opinion of the council of allegiance, in charge with settling the formalities of succession.


Political changes

In 2017, Salman decided himself to move to the 2nd generation of princes (without going through the allegiance board). He launched a vertical of power, in favor of a single lineage, hereditary and non-agnatic. After having passed from a collegial system to a three-headed system (Salman, MBS, M ben Nayef), he chose a two-headed system, prelude to a hereditary monarchy. He also forgets the authority of the allegiance council, guarantor of a collegial system.

It is therefore a palace revolution and a constitutional revolution, which directs the country towards an authoritarian and hereditary absolute monarchy... This is not a clan revolution in favor of the Sudeiri, because the prince Bandar, son of Sultan, has also been dismissed.

It was also necessary to dismiss the heavyweights of the clans. And first the political heavyweights:

-Mohamed ben Nayef, the former "Crown Prince"

-Miteb, son of Abdallah

-Prince Turki, governor of the province of Riyadh, son of Abdallah,

-Abdelaziz, son of the late King Fahd, yet a Soudeiri,

Then the economic heavyweights, especially the "billionaire prince" Walid ben Talal, first fortune of the Arab countries, liberal and open to reforms in society. By incarcerating him, Mohammed ben Salman puts pressure on the financial networks, because the Sudeiri are not the richest of the princes. Now, if he wants to reform, he will need the capital of all the princes.



The meaning of interventionism (omnibalancing)

The brutal interventionism outside makes it possible to forget the internal difficulties. Since the dynastic reshuffle in early 2015, the kingdom has been conducting a policy hostile to Iran, which explains its interventions in Lebanon, Iraq, and the war in Yemen, a deadly and illegal war from the point of view of international law. Saudi activism against Iran has something paranoid...
But 31 million Saudis are no match for 77 million educated and ideologized Iranians.

To overcome this sense of strategic insecurity, Saudi Arabia has launched a conventional arms race to create a modern and sophisticated army. But his soldiers and his officers are not ready yet.


False societal reforms?

Societal reforms have the function of offsetting Salman's constitutional revolution, rather than transforming society.

The Vision 2030 Reform Plan is a centralized, state and authoritarian project, modeled on five-year plans. It breaks with the model of clan redistribution of oil rent to pay social peace.

The power is modernizing so, imitates the Western model, but breaks the economic traditions.

The reforms affect all areas:

-fight against terrorism and extremism with the Riayd center,

-driving for women,

-opening of nightclubs,

-cooperation with the Vatican, following the visit of Cardinal Tauran in April 2018, during which he celebrated Mass publicly at the French Embassy


The dissatisfactions

But, in reality, these reforms are primarily aimed at buying youth and social classes enriched and open to globalization.

The power is confronted with dissatisfactions, which affects all environments:

-The army is inefficient and infiltrated by the radicalism of al-Qaida and Daesh, including the border guards. In addition, the army's failures in Yemen have weakened and discredited it. At least she can not take the risk of a coup.

-development of an educated civil society that wants to accelerate change, relying on the internet. Bloggers too critical are puted in jail under the pretext of fighting against terrorism (eg Raif Badawi). But terrorism hides mostly claims close to those of the 2011 uprisings.

-Exasperation of the Shiites of Hasa and Zaydas of Asir. In 2017, Saudi Sheikh Nimr Barq el-Nimr, a peaceful Shiite opposition leader, was executed on the pretext of links with Iran.

-exasperation of non-Sudeiri and even other Sudeiri, who have always been supporters of Wahhabism; some feel betrayal of traditional ideology.

-The Sunni religious leaders, however legalistic, are also hit by the regime, and the liberal Sheikh Salman Al-Awdah, which has nearly 14 million followers on Twitter, and was an enemy of takfirists.
-sururists and undemocratic religious, such as Abd Al-Aziz Al-Abd Al-Latif,

-Saudis of the East who are accused of family ties with Qatar.

The recent crackdown has adopted new methods, never seen at the time of Abdallah: brutal arrests, arbitrary detentions of more than six months, practice of torture ...


Economic difficulties

Oil revenues account for over 80% of the kingdom's income. The equilibrium price for public spending is around $ 80- $ 90 per barrel. But the current price, even if it goes back since 2016, is still lower, and is around $ 70. The budget deficit reached $ 100 billion in 2015. It is $ 53 billion in 2017. The government will have trouble buying social peace, which explains its measures against the richest princes.

However, the most violent protests in Saudi Arabia have never been economic, but religious. The danger will not come first from this budgetary situation.

However, for the first time in its history, the country is engaged in a real economic liberalization: austerity, lowering of wages and subsidies (gasoline, water, electricity), introduction of Aramco in the stock exchange systeme.

This privatization could reinforce the social inequalities, while modernizing the country...


Territorial risks

Finally, territorial fragilities tend to be stronger for 10 years. The fragmentation of the kingdom is an hypothesis that has never been ruled out, as the map of Ralph Peters' Blood Frontiers proves.

If Shi'a stigmatization continues, Hasa may turn into revolt, with support from Kuwait, Iraq or even Iran. Hasa has become a pressure cooker.

The Asir, peopled with despised sedentary people, abandoned by power since 1932, has become a strategic region because of the war in Yemen.

The Nedji have always captured the power and wealth of the country aigainst the Hejazi, whose area has become a religious tourism area, concreted and far from power.



Killing Mohamed ben Salman

On April 21, 2018, a violent shootout erupted in the palace of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh. The prince was exfiltrated, with his father, to an American base.

Two versions circulate in Saudi media and social networks:

1-A private drone would have simply flown over the palace, thus triggering security.

2-An officer of the guard, armed with a heavy weapon, allegedly attempted to kill Prince Mohammad.
Be that as it may, the reforms initiated by the prince and especially his constitutional putsch contribute to weaken the monarchy.

Because it threatens the pillar of the country that is Wahhabism, Mohammed ben Salman must strengthen the second pillar: the monarchy. However, in doing so, he creates an autocratic system by no means in the Saudi tradition. The internal stability of the political system is therefore threatened, especially as police and security failures are proven.


A new Sahwa?

The current situation is reminiscent of the Sahwa era, that is to say a situation leading to an Islamist revolution, as in Iran or Pakistan.

Prisoners and opponents belong to hostile ideological camps; there is no convergence of struggles. But life in prison can help their common radicalization in Islamism, as we have seen in Iraq.
For an Islamic revolution to begin (without necessarily walking), it requires a combination of actors with different interests, a collusion of classes and interests of struggle. It requires a public opinion ready to mobilize to defend political Islam, and especially mobilization structures ready to move to violent action.

However, the monarchy has always prevented the meeting of actors from different fields (ulemas, princes, contractors, etc ...).

For the moment, we find a conjunction of actors hostile to the prince, but also hostile to each other (religious, princes, clan leaders, neglected populations, marginal territories).

There is therefore neither convergence nor mobilization institutions. This would require an association, a party or a charismatic personality. However, the Muslim Brotherhood no longer has any capacity for action here.

What is still hurting a revolution is the support of the privileged classes to Mohamed ben Salman. These classes have wealth, have received a globalist education, and want to access individual liberties as the end point of their emancipation. They have no illusions about their political rights.

The kingdom is ripe for a revolution but it still lacks a unifying element. Now the prince favors by his politics this type of revolutionary cement.


Authoritarianism or modernism?

Mohammed Ben Salman embodies the Arab figure of the modernizing dictator. His reformist authoritarianism is a positive sign that the kingdom is modernizing on the Western model.
If it succeeds, Saudi Arabia will evolve towards an authoritarian monarchy without Wahhabism, open to all possible alliances, especially with Israel. But if it fails, Westernization will be brutally interrupted by a revolutionary process ...


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