International influence in the Middle East today is a result of realist power politique and projection. The turmoil and intervention ridden Middle East has become a microcosm for global politics today, with the USA and Russia gathering allies and backing their chosen states in what is fast becoming a still from the cold war. With the sort of appeasement that these politics bring, and the relatively little knowledge the average western security actor and decision maker has about the middle east and Saudi Arabia in particular, it becomes increasingly important not only to understand the motives of the power players, but what drives them, and how the cultural mindset influences decision making. No other state has quite the mix of strict absolute monarchy, fundamentalist Islamic tenets and economic power to back up their beliefs and actions. The last 5 years have also seen an expansion in the military power of the Kingdom, with Saudi armed forces seeing actions in Yemen. While 15 years ago the ever changing Saudi state may have had its relatively peaceful incline explained away in terms of oil wealth and strategic resources, todayâs reasons go for beyond the economic. Today, major cultural, economic, political, and international factors all influence Saudi domestic and international policy.
Culturally, the Kingdom today is very much a product of its rich history, and tumultuous political landscape. Steeped in a history of tribal life, family is critical in Saudi Arabia. Keeping affairs and money in the family are important, and this leads to incidences of inbreeding. While this isn’t strictly an open topic in the KSA, the kingdom recognises the problem, and has pleged money to treat genetic diseases resulting from inbreeding. Family relations also lead to incidences of nepotism. Saudi individuals are expectant based on family, and certain areas in the kingdom have incidences of intra-family conflict. These sorts of conflicts are usually steeped in history, particularly around the rise of the Al-Saud family. While harsh laws prevent civilians and protestors from speaking out against the government, some families are positioned in Saudi hierarchy directly as a result of their support during the rise of the Saud dynasty. An example would be families such as the Al-Shammari who consider themselves somewhat superior to the Al-Rashidi, who opposed the Saud family. While this has become increasingly taboo in society, there are still clear splits and sometimes open conflict between families. While it would seem the Saudi government keeps a tight grip on its people, there are still cracks in the system that allows princes and those with the right connections a great deal more flexibility in their dealings than the common people.
Nepotism, and being expectant of family support, builds a unique sort of situation in the middle east where Saudi’s work on a unique system of “wasta”. There is a unique juxtaposition of western bureaucratic systems and a traditional social Saudi system at odds in Saudi Arabia. Wasta is the concept of having a certain amount of pull or favor with another individual. This is a popular way of doing business or interacting with government, as Saudi’s have wasta with their family and friends in positions of power, as a means to circumvent sometimes complicated Saudi bureaucracy. While this may seem a simple domestic issue, this sort of collusive interaction for mutual benefit often leads to incidents of corruption in the Kingdom. While this has been the case for years, recent incidents point to an increasingly educated and worldly population wanting to be based on merit rather than family connection. Quite recently a Saudi minister was fired and placed under investigation for nepotism in the kingdom after being exposed by a Saudi on twitter, in the first case of its kind.
The cultural aspects of favouritism are directly linked to the effect of family in the Saudi hierarchy and wasta in the economic power of the Kingdom. However, the Kingdom took several economic knocks in 2014 as they flooded the markets with oil as a response to the threat of shale oil and fracking in the US. The Kingdom has suffered a recession since then which has led to a sort of economic restructuring in the Kingdom. Powerful companies, such as Aramco, are periodically selling parts of their stock on the market, while several withdrawals have been made from the Saudi foreign fund. Residency is now offered to expatriates and new forms of revenue have also been planned, the largest being tourism.
Tourism is a difficult subject, and is the major target for the vision 2030 Saudi plan. The city of Mecca is under heavy construction and rezoning, not only for sake of infrastructure to support the amount of pilgrims, but also new luxury hotels. Domestically, critics are harsh of the monetization of pilgrimage, but the tourism extends to their own people. Each year billions are spent outside the kingdom by Saudi’s who seeking entertainment and freedom from the strict state. While a vibrant tourism industry is seen as a boon both for the poor Saudi national employment rates and for domestic satisfaction with the kingdom itself, critics believe this to be a pipe dream. The strict laws and lack of infrastructure make it difficult to move around the Kingdom, and severely limit options for development. These major issues make the likelihood of a real entertainment revolution unlikely. However, there have been some changes in the structure in Saudi Arabia that often occur unnoticed due to the iron grip on official information sources in Saudi Arabia.
The changes mentioned above could have large ramifications for the overall domestic structure in the kingdom. How far the changes will go, and how the conservatively raised and shielded youth of Saudi Arabia, young people that rarely have to work particularly hard to get by, will react to the changes is a subject for debate. What is certain is that these domestic shifts will go beyond mere entertainment, as the conservative nature of kingdom and people are linked to the political sphere, where issues such as cultural modernization and Saudi hierarchy are linked to the Saudi royal family.
As an absolute monarchy, rule is hereditary, and Saudi kings are free to choose their own cabinets and laws. While there is an element of democracy, in the form of the Shoura council, the council itself is a manifestation of the king’s will. Major issues occasionally gain recognition in the council, such as female rights, but rarely gain traction. As to the stability of the monarchy in Saudi Arabia, one would need to refer back to very old historical lessons in order to gauge the support of the people, the support of the princes, and the ambition of oligarchs. The king, as it stands, has little to fear from the people. A mix of economic support, granting people free salaries, sweeping pro Saudi reforms, and appeasing both conservative and liberal values may seem a dangerous populist style move, but likely wonât back fire due to the sheer resources at the command of the Saudi royal family. The most recent move of placing the exceedingly popular Mohammed bin Salman, groomed for the position and seen as a young rising star, at a position of modernizing the culturally undeveloped state, can be seen as appeasing the people and projecting the image of a shifting nation. The replaced Mohammed bin Nayef poses little threat. There is a precedent of replacing crown princes, and the RUMINT behind his house arrest has been disputed. As such, the Monarchy is fairly secure in its position from any possibility of popular coups.
In the same vein, there has been a trend to reduce the power of the pious and powerful Wahhabi clerics. The disbanding of the mutawa as well as abolition of certain laws seen as upholding the ideals of Islam, discussed later in the shift of Saudi culture, have all been measures that can be seem as liberalization of society. However, the monarchy is still a very strong supporter of harsh religious law, and while shifting power away from the powerful clerics is a realist power play, they will not abandon the religious system that is so closely linked to their own power. Regardless, without popular and religious support, there can be no manifestation of political threat to the king.
The greatest changes in the past few years have mostly been subtle, barring the abolition of the official religious police. Previously, the Mutawa, government backed volunteers for the committee of the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, were free to move about the kingdom in small groups. While they would often stop and harass expatriates for issues such as wearing shorts, playing music through earphones or displaying the English flag, they became infamous after several deaths occurred in 2013, after a Mutawa patrol car killed two men after forcing them off the road. In 2016 they were stripped of all official powers and can no longer make arrests, demand ID, or command public servants. Since the abolition of the Mutawa’s official powers, several other smaller changes have occurred. Women no longer need a male guardian or ID to book into a hotel, and music in public places occur far more often in cities like Riyadh and Jeddah, all of which are big steps in the conservative kingdom.
Saudi is quickly becoming freer, although the juxtaposition of freedom in an absolute fundamentalist monarchy can blur the lines of the acceptable. The rationale for the kingdomâs actions is also debatable. Whether the Kingdom is doing this to weaken the strong grip of the Wahhabi clerics or to please the people is debatable. What is acceptable and what is not can be subject to the whims of those who hold power, and popular arguments can be shifted along with them. Conflict with the Shiite population is also a traditional concern, with Shiite minorities in Saudi seen as second class citizens, and aggressive policy towards Iran. Religious debate is a major part of Saudi life and culture, as what is permitted by the Qur’an can be argued based on interpretation.
These cultural and religious changes have been a trend through the rule of the last two kings. Rapid changes have been a part of life in Saudi, although they are not always well advertised. There is sense that these changes are a major part of appeasing the next generation. While the youth of Saudi are far more aware of what happens around the world, the pressure of conservative religion is always present, and is likely where current dissent would come from, at least in a social context. The minister of entertainment quickly retracted statements made to a European magazine, after his statements seemed to point to a far more open society in the next 13 years. The retraction was publicised, and although there was not much recorded critique, there was certainly some quiet anger behind the scenes. Regardless, a more open kingdom, focusing on new revenue and inclusive policies points to a state that is ready to stop isolationism and become more involved in world and regional affairs. A major part of that is projection of military power.
In discussing Saudi as having regional hegemon ambitions, their most recent major military action, the intervention in Yemen, is underwhelming. Major intelligence failures, bombing of civilians and undocumented losses makes Saudi difficult to judge in action. Now, although the Kingdom was shopping for defensive weapons and measures prior to the Yemen intervention, since the outbreak of the conflict, the business deals since have all been for weapons production. A deal was struck between President Jacob Zuma of South Africa and Saudi Arabia for a weapons deal in 2016. While there have been many smaller arms deals throughout the years on equipment and ammunition, 2013 saw the signing of a deal with South African company Denel for modified drones after the US refused to provide the autonomous technology to the Kingdom. Unfortunately there is little information to be found on the construction of an arms factory in 2016. The deals are not necessarily given approval on the opposite sides. South African opposition to the ANC and president in particular, demanded an account as to why the arms merger had not been put through to the treasury at least. While this is a problem for South Africa, it is a classic manner in how Middle Eastern magnates and oligarchs conduct business with other states. The absolute monarchy has no checks and balances to control the decision. The information that is available points to a complex used to produce mortars, shells and airborne-bombs and a deal that failed to consult national military advisors and the treasury.
In 2017 a second, three part multi-billion dollar deal with the US was signed. The deal includes everything the Kingdom will need to modernize and strengthen its forces, although Israel is slated and still having an “edge” and the US has pledged to assist to that effect. The deal involves the purchase of command systems, naval vessels and modern battle tanks, as well as components for the THAAD anti-missile system. These sort of weapons will certainly shift the balance of power in the middle east, and it is clear Saudi is looking to modernize their forces and produce their own munitions and arms in the region, and perhaps become a cheap supplier to their allies, and strengthen the Saudi position against what they perceive as major threats, such as Iran, one of the major international concerns for the Kingdom. Media sources in Saudi actually cite Iran as being a major reason for the US arms deal. As the largest deal was through the United States, one can only assume that Saudi is part of a larger strategy.
The international relations of Saudi Arabia have become clearer overtime based on how the US interacts with them. The focus on weapon manufacturing, the use of Saudi as a proxy for communication for other states, and the overlooking of human rights violations and questionable ethics on the side of Saudi all point to classic appeasement. The US grand strategy in the Middle East has been fairly transparent, and has followed on from the Obama administration. The US is seeking to prop up a strong ally in the Middle East, one that can take over NATO activities. With Saudi’s position politically and economically, the kingdom’s own intervention in Yemen is based on western tactics, with a focus on air power. A disregard for the problems identified with western style intervention exists, with the Kingdom’s government focusing on a media blackout and little attention paid for the population’s major concerns of food and medicine. Again, these issues are overlooked by major powers such as the US, who seem to be propping the Kingdom up as its major Middle Eastern ally, a move away from Israel, a state that has polarized the Arab and western worlds with their conservative rhetoric, and an enemy of Iran.
A constant source of ire for the kingdom, Iran, is set to become the major opponent for a Middle Eastern “NATO”. While Iran itself has few friends in the Middle East and little international backing, making the prospect of actual armed conflict unlikely, a new military alliance in the Middle East, focusing on pro-western states that favor Sunni over Shiite would surely be a threat to Iran. Iran itself may affect Saudi in ways beyond the manifestation of armed conflict or diplomatic condemnation. Saudi’s focus on rapid development and heavy backing for those that follow the state religion means there are elements in society that are rarely seen and heard. Shiite minorities in areas such as Qatif are openly hostile against government policies. Iran could well foster support for these groups if destabilization was the goal. Saudi’s own policy of limiting media coverage and controlling minority representation could work against them if certain hostile elements were teetering on the brink of organizing violence. However, as an absolute monarchy operating under strict laws and controls with powerful popular and religious support, Saudi’s policing and intelligence is well equipped to deal with dissent. Such groups may prove a thorn in the side of authorities, but would never become a true threat to development and stability.
The kingdom is in a state in flux, a state that is trying to find new identity in a world that is very much at odds with its traditional conservative nature. Saudi is a state where the lines of nationalism, patriotism, royalty, culture and religion are blurred constantly. Politically, the royalty is secure as long as the population is content. Modernization is a move for Saudi to grow economically, as well as appease the younger generation. However, how this will play out domestically is subject to the shift of religious power, and whether the Saudi youth will still be controllable despite a shift in liberal policies. Internationally, whether they will focus on a grand strategy with western allies, or rather play political games with royal families in other countries is a serious consideration. Furthermore, the religious aspects of the fundamentalist state lead to conflict with Shiite populations, setting a dangerous precedent for developing policy based solely on repressing and attacking other religious systems, with western allies turning a blind eye for the sake of an ally in the Middle East. With the domestic population unsure of their state’s own direction, whether this is the right time for Saudi to play regional power politics with states such as Iran, Turkey, the US and surely Russia in the coming days is debatable. This is particularly true with the weapon modernization and expansion of Saudi forces. In conclusion, the real concern is whether Saudi Arabia is able to enter a world of politics that is based on careful consideration and diplomacy, rather than using personal favor and grudges to eliminate problems, such as is happening in Qatar at this point in time, and special care should be kept in mind for the unique cultural idiosyncrasies that exist in Saudi whenever dealing with the rising middle eastern hegemon.
Report written by Albertus J Meintjes