On Thursday, January 22, 2015, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died at the age of 90. The King had been ailing for a long time, and rumors about his passing had become as common as the weather report. Now that Abdullah has, in fact, died, some are celebrating the news.
For the country of Saudi Arabia, though, turmoil lies ahead. The Kingdom has been struggling with many problems and challenges, which Abdullah’s death is likely to aggravate and bring to the foreground.
Here’s a quick look at some of the issues the country faces going forward.
1. Threats from Abroad of Saudi’s Own Making
For the last few decades, Saudi Arabia has used its vast financial resources from oil sales to propagate sectarian and extremist ideologies throughout the Muslim world. These policies have come home to roost, as the government is now dealing with threats of domestic extremism both domestically and from abroad. Robert Iannuzi writes:
Since the events of September 11, 2001, the royal family has tried to restrain the religious establishment and more strictly control the content of religious discourse in the Kingdom. While the Wahhabi establishment’s influence is declining according to some observers, this is not enough to counter the proliferation of extremist ideologies in the country.
The reason for this lies in inherent contradictions within the monarchy’s actions. While fighting extremism at home, the royal family has continued to support sectarian and extremist narratives in the region. This has increased risks of blowback, which are further exacerbated by the government’s suppression of fundamental freedoms and all forms of political opposition in Saudi Arabia.
Will the government be able to limit the fallout from decades of misguided policies, or will sectarianism and extremist narratives continue to hold sway in Saudi’s halls of power?
2. A Crisis of Succession?
Seventy-nine year old Prince Salman (who, by the way, is on Twitter, despite apparently suffering from Alzheimer’s disease) is Abdullah’s chosen successor, but this doesn’t mean there wont be rumblings of discontent among Saudi Arabia’s many first and second-generation princes. Succession and tensions between possible contenders, including between generations of princes, has long been an issue speculated about by many of the Kingdom’s observers. Some, like Patrik Stor, think the Kingdom will weather the storm:
Today, the Kingdom displays similar symptoms to the regimes most severely affected by the Arab Spring: youth unemployment, corruption, squandering of money by a small elite, nepotism and economic hardship. Given these circumstances, an open power struggle within the royal family could cause the ongoing protests in the Shiite Eastern Province to spillover into the rest of the Kingdom and lead to a successful revival of last year’s day of rage on March 11, 2011.
Much analysis on the succession debate assesses these possible dangers to Saudi rule or includes speculation about which, if any, of Ibn Saud’s grandsons is likely to be the heir to the current Crown Prince, Salman. The discussions are, however, lacking in context. In this regard, understanding the mechanisms and conventions that come into effect when the royal family chooses a new heir apparent, is important. Shifting the focus onto these intra-family proceedings will show that the al-Saud are better positioned for the inter-generational power transfer than is commonly expected.
Others believe that succession is a pressing issue. “Leila,” a writer on Saudi affairs, makes these observations:
If the House of Saud wishes to maintain control, the monarchy will soon have to pass to the next generation. How that transfer will be accomplished and who will be given preference remain open questions that will need to be answered, likely in the next decade, if Saudi Arabia is to avoid serious difficulties.
Given Salman’s age, as well as the age of his successor, Prince Muqrin (69), a move to the next generation of princes seems inevitable – but when will it happen?
Here’s a look at the line of Saudi succession as of Fall 2012 (a larger version can be viewed here)
3. A Devastatingly Awful Human Rights Record
Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most notorious human rights violators. But how long can this situation continue? As Muftah editor Erin Kilbride notes:
In 2011, the Islamic Human Rights Commission reported that over 30,000 political prisoners sat in Saudi jails. Some were detained during the protest and arrest waves in the 1990s and 2000s, while others are journalists, activists, and street protesters who led the Arab Spring-inspired uprisings of 2011.
On the occasion of Saudi National Day, writer and activist Bayan Perazzo had this to say about the country’s grave human rights violations:
While you wave your flag, I will remember my father-in-law who almost died while being tortured in prison, and my husband and daughter would never have made it into this world if the Saudi government had it their way.
While you wave your flag, I will remember the family of Ali Hassan Al-Mahrous, a teenager and innocent bystander who was killed by Saudi security forces last summer in Qatif. When his family went to press charges, the Saudi security forces refused to return the slain boy’s body to the family unless they dropped all charges.
While you wave your flag, I will remember the members of the Saudi Political and Civil Rights Association, whose members are sitting in prison cells for recording human rights abuses that have occurred within the Kingdom and calling for more political freedoms.
While you wave your flag, I will remember this is the government that beheads people for possession of pills, calls for the death penalty against individuals whose Islam does not fit the state’s limited conception , and lets a man who murders and rapes his five-year old daughter off on a light sentence.
While you wave your flag, I will remember all the foreign laborers who are treated like garbage without any recognizable rights, in a corrupt Kafala system (making them essentially paid slaves), which is upheld and supported by our own government.
While you wave your flag, I will remember all the qualified and deserving citizens who were not granted their rights, or given a job they deserved because they were not from the “right tribe,” or did not have the “right wasta,” or the “right Islamic sect.” etc.
While you wave your flag, I will remember that I am in the only country in the world where I cannot drive a car, and cannot make many significant decisions without the approval of my male guardian. All because I was not born the “right gender.”
4. The Daily Indignities of Being a Woman in Saudi Arabia
Most people of basic intelligence are aware of the lack of gender equality in Saudi Arabia. As Bayan Perazzo writes, the injustices trickle down to every aspect of daily life:
In an interview with the LA Times, Haifaa al-Mansour (director of the first Saudi film, “Wadjda”) made a very simple comment about being a woman in Saudi Arabia that rang very true for me. Al-Mansour said, “for me it’s the everyday life (in Saudi Arabia), how it’s hard…things like that can build up and break a woman.” Despite what many in the international community may believe, there are no women being stoned to death in Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, those outside the country are absolutely right to criticize the state of women’s rights in the Kingdom though they may not realize how subtle the oppression can be.
Yes, women in Saudi Arabia are banned from driving, subjected to an oppressive male-guardianship system and living on the unfortunate side of gender segregation. While these are major obstacles for women’s progress in the country, such an innately oppressive system naturally trickles down into smaller aspects of everyday life. These little indignities can indeed break a woman, and I confess I am a woman extremely close to being broken.
How much longer can the Kingdom suppress the rights of half its population?
5. Tensions with Iran
Over the last few years, Iran and Saudi Arabia have emerged as staunch regional rivals. In the ensuing power battle, sectarianism has emerged as a weapon of choice, for both sides. In Saudi Arabia, this strategy has fueled government persecution of Shi’ite leaders in the country’s Eastern Province. Muftah editor Mend Mariwany writes:
[A] court in Saudi Arabia sentenced Nimr al-Nimr to death. Al-Nimr was detained in July 2012 after demonstrations erupted in Qatif, Eastern Province, where many members of Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite minority live. According to al-Nimr’s brother, the senior Shi’ite cleric has been accused of delivering anti-government speeches, defending prisoners, and encouraging Iranian meddling in domestic Saudi affairs and in the region, more generally.
Iran and Saudi Arabia deny any claims of interfering in the affairs of other regional states. However, since the Arab Spring, both countries have reportedly bolstered ties with groups in the Middle East, and continued their prolonged power struggle. For Saudi Arabia, al-Nimr’s prosecution is a concerted attempt to discourage Iran from pursuing greater involvements in the region. In the hopes of further squeezing the Iranians, Saudi Arabia also allegedly, deliberately pushed down global oil prices, which prompted Iran to call for an emergency OPEC meeting this coming week. Income from oil sales accounts for over half of Iran’s export revenues.
With the death of Abdullah, who was considerate a relative moderate on these issues, will tensions with Iran rise even further?
6. Suppressing Its Shiite Minority
Even before tensions with Iran escalated, Saudi Arabia had a long and active history of suppressing the rights of its Shiite minority, most of whom live in the Eastern Province. With the start of the Arab Spring, this suppression increased along with demonstrations in the eastern city of Qatif against the government’s suppression of political, civil, and human rights. As it has done in the past, the regime used sectarianism to justify this suppression to the rest of its population. Bayan Perazzo writes:
The Shiite minority – largely concentrated in the Eastern Province – are estimated to make up around 5-7% of the Saudi Arabian Population. The large majority of the Kingdom’s citizens are Sunni Muslims; many of whom adhere to the rigid Wahhabi ideology, which is in principle extremely anti-Shiite.
In the Kingdom, general contempt for Shiites is by no means a hidden phenomenon; government religious publications, school materials, and many Saudi clerics are very outspoken about their disdain for Shiites. Because of this negative discourse, many Saudis have come to hold a deep hatred for Shiism, though the majority have little to no interaction with Shiites in their country.
Following the start of the Arab Spring, Saudi Shiites took to the streets in the city of Qatif, a center of Shiite political activity in the country’s Shiite majority Eastern province. These were not the first large-scale protests coming out of the city, as an earlier generation had taken to the streets after the 1979 Iranian revolution to demand justice from their Saudi rulers.
Those protests – in what has been referred to as the ‘Shiite Intifada of 1979’ – were met with brutality and bloodshed from the Saudi security forces. The Minister of the Interior issued rushed statements blaming the Shiites for the violence and portraying them as the aggressors. Decades later, the Saudi Government used similar tactics to respond to the recent Qatif protests.
The fate of Saudi Shias may look less than rosy if more hard line members of the Saudi government have their way now that Abdullah has died.
7. Financial Turmoil
According to reports, Saudi Arabia is headed toward a fiscal deficit in 2015. Apparently, vast oil resources are no guarantee of economic health. Erin Kilbride writes:
Reuters reported Friday that a recent IMF report “painted the most ominous picture yet of looming financial pressures on the Kingdom.” According to the IMF, the country could post a deficit as early as 2015, nearly three years earlier than previous estimates. Following years of warnings to cut down on massive state spending, the IMF expected Saudi Arabia to undertake financial consolidations in 2013, but these never materialized. To the contrary, continued domestic dissent and increased military involvement in regional affairs demanded an increase in government spending, and a global rise in oil prices facilitated this. If spending continues at this rate, Saudi Arabia needs an oil price of $89 a barrel to balance its budget, up $13 a barrel from what it required in 2012. Unfortunately for the Al Saud family, oil prices seem to have reached their peak, and are moving in the opposition direction from what an oil-backed monarch would hope.
Saudi Arabis has been having a tough time providing enough jobs to its well-educated youth. As Gertjan Hoetjes writes:
Despite being the world’s main oil producer, Saudi Arabia has difficulties providing enough jobs for its young population.
The Kingdom’s unemployment problem is a consequence of fundamental and systematic shortcomings, such as a lack of proper education, the difficulty in a religiously conservative society with integrating women into the workforce, and a stagnant private sector dependent on foreign workers.
In a country where more than two-thirds of the population is younger than 30 and about 100,000 graduates enter the job market each year, tough measures should be taken. These include lessening the stifling grip of the Saudi government on the private sector, increasing vocational training in higher education and easing cultural restrictions that impede integration of Saudi women into the workforce. Unless implemented, the country’s unemployment problem risks transforming into a ticking time bomb that undermines stability.
Youth unemployment is an issue across the region that governments ignore at their own peril. It is far from clear how the Saudi regime will weather this brewing storm.
9. King Abdullah’s Four Imprisoned Daughters
Yes, the man put his own daughters in prison. Well, more accurately, house arrest. Sahar, Jawaher, Maha, and Hala have been prisoners for over 13 years. Daniel Wickham interviewed Sahar over email about their situation:
It’s a battle for survival…we’re literally facing a vicious army: the Saudi National Guard, headed by our half-brother Mitab. He along with our half-brother AbdulAziz, Deputy Foreign Minister, have been issuing orders to abuse us along the years. Both men are in the government and should not be allowed to evade justice simply because they occupy such positions. Civilised countries should not allow them to continue their crimes without holding them to account. The silence of the world is deafening, as they issued orders to starve us. We were prevented from going out to buy food and water on March 17th, our heavily guarded bimonthly outing. They prohibited home delivery as well; the person trying to deliver food and water was threatened to be jailed should he attempt to return. Food will soon run out. We are on one meal a day, surviving on some expired food and distilled seawater.
My sister Jawaher suffers from asthma and is denied her medication. I cannot watch her health deteriorating. She needs medical help, in fact we all do. We suffer excruciating headaches and backaches. We have been calling on the Red Cross and they are trying to communicate with the Red Crescent, but seems that they are under Saudi control, so we haven’t received a reply yet. We have the right to choose where to seek medical help. We will never seek the help of the Royal Clinic since they have played a big role in our abuse, nor will we ever ask our captors for food and water since they have been drugging it. We also need to save our pets, our two dogs Gala and Gracia as well as Jade the cat. The situation is getting worse, while Saudis continue their crimes with impunity.
Now that their father has died, will the sisters’ circumstances improve or worsen?