Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, Washington DC
February 17, 2015
Vulnerable Royals, Salman’s Defining Challenges, Women’s Hopes and Enemies
CDHR’s Commentaries and Analysis
Saudi Oligarchs Cannot Afford But To Compromise
CDHR’s Commentaries: Despite Saudi and western media experts’ recent contrary claims, there are two major fundamental reasons behind the new Saudi King Salman’s “re-shuffling” of the House of Saud: 1) Salman wants to reassert the dominance of his anti-reform Sudairi wing of the Saudi ruling family (known as the Sudairi 7) over the country’s affairs; and 2) Salman’s ruling family has never been more vulnerable than it is now; consequently, he wants to tie the US to his family’s continued despotic rule. Having accomplished his first agenda item by removing King Abdullah’s sons and supporters from key governmental positions and assigning these posts to his own, King Salman can focus on ensuring US allegiance to protect his family from looming threats.
Saudi Arabia is threatened by spillover of wars on its northern and southern borders. In the north, the country is facing unprecedented formidable threat from the newly established brutal Islamic State (ISIS) and from Iraqi Shia who harbor historic and modern animosities toward the Saudi/Wahhabi clans. In the south, Saudi Arabia’s neighbor, Yemen, is being taken over by ferocious Zaidis (Shia), whom the Saudis fear as a threat to their security due to the Zaidis’ ideological proximity to Iran, the Saudis’ major religious and strategic competitor in the Middle East.
Given these realities, the autocratic and theocratic Saudi rulers know that the only country that's willing and capable of protecting them is the United States. Historically, America has protected the Saudi monarchs since the establishment of their state more than 80 years ago. The US commitment to continuing its protection of the despotic Saudi regime seems to be unchanged, as reflected by President Obama and his entourage of powerful pro-Saudi former and current US officials (Republicans and Democrats) on his recent visit to the Saudi kingdom. Members of the President’s delegation to meet with the newly enthroned Saudi King Salman on January 27 included some of the architects and executors of the 1990-91 Gulf War (“First Gulf War”) and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The question is, at what price to the US, especially at a time when the Arab World is revolting against Saudi-like tyrannical regimes? Is it for Saudi oil as many argue or are there other reasons? Currently, the US is the world’s number one oil producer, it’s economy is recovering from years of recession and can easily import oil from other countries if need arises. Moreover, the US has reliable and stable allies within the strategic Gulf region like Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The US no longer has to rely on the Saudi regime for strategic bases.
On the other hand, the Saudi oligarchs are facing more domestic and regional threats now than at any time in their history. Their regional and global influence is dwindling and they are in dire need of protection, a service only the US has been providing and is able to continue for years to come, but at what cost. Given these facts, should the US continue to protect unconditionally an absolute shadowy regime known for its gross violations of human rights, support for extremist groups worldwide and whose religious dogma is recognized as a lethal threat to Muslims and to the international community?
Granted, America’s European allies and other major trading partners depend more on Saudi and other Middle Eastern oil than the US; therefore, ensuring uninterrupted production and shipment of oil from Saudi Arabia is of paramount importance to the stability of the world’s economies of which the US is a beneficiary. Safeguarding oil facilities and deliveries to world markets will give the US considerable political and economic leverage not only with the international community, but also with the Saudis.
As the world’s number one oil producer now and technologically capable of increasing and maintaining its oil, gas and renewable energy resources for years to come, as well as being the dominant military power in the Persian Gulf, the US is in a position of unprecedented strength to resolutely induce the Saudi oligarchs to begin an earnest political, religious, social and educational transformation of their archaic system. Such transformation will empower a new generation of pro-democracy and -social justice men and women who can guide their country through a gradual peaceful transition from absolute one-family rule to a pluralistic society.
Due to their unprecedented vulnerability and their rapidly shrinking options, the Saudi rulers will be willing to compromise provided the American government makes it clear to them that their current methods of ruling are not sustainable even with US protection. Presented with this prospect, the Saudi oligarchs have only one pragmatic choice: transform their system to accommodate their population’s modern demands including political participation, freedom of expression, equality under the rule of non-sectarian law, religious freedom and freedom of choice.
The Saudi rulers have to realize and accept (or be convinced by the US) that without transparent, tangible and measurable movement in this direction, their population will likely resort to violent methods, such as those employed by their counterparts in other Arab countries to overthrow their repressive dictators.
The Saudi rulers have to be unequivocally convinced that if this scenario materializes, the US will not send its sons and daughters to save a brutal and dangerous regime, but will intervene militarily to protect the oil supply upon which global
Yemen: One of King Salman’s Defining And Dangerous Challenges
CDHR’s Commentary: It’s not an understatement to say that the spillover of the conflict in Yemen will be one of the new Saudi king’s most daunting challenges, if not his worst nightmare. Yemen is in a crisis of what seems to be uncontrollable proportions due to an internal bloody power struggle between two diametrically opposed factions: the minority Zaidis or Houthis (offshoot of Shia Islam) and the majority Sunnis who have ruled Yemen since the overthrow of the Zaidi king in 1962. The overthrow of the absolute Yemeni monarchy and its replacement by a nationalistic military dictatorship could not have succeeded without direct military intervention by Egyptian President Nasser, a staunch enemy of the Saudi monarchy.
The Saudis vividly recall the turmoil that followed the 1962 military takeover in Yemen. They fear that the current power struggle in Yemen could draw Iran into sending its troops to ensure the success of the Houthis. If this were to happen, a sectarian conflagration (Shia v. Sunni) could make the sectarian carnage in Syria look tame. The Iranian Mullahs are more powerful and deadlier enemies of the Saudis than were the Egyptians in the 1960s. Additionally, Iran could be joined by other forces like Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, both staunch enemies of the Saudi/Wahhabi rulers.
The strategically located and historically ancient land of the Queen of Sheba, Yemen is a country of 26 million mostly impoverished people, but, unlike the Saudi population, insubordinate to their local and central theocratic and autocratic authorities. The Yemenis are an unruly people even at the peak of their loyalty to their tribal chiefs and clerics, whose services the Saudi regime was able to purchase and rely on to maintain control over Yemen since the dethroning of its king in 1962. Moreover, the Saudi oligarchs have considered Yemen their backyard colony and treated it as such. On their part, most Yemenis consider Saudi Arabia’s southern regions to be part of Yemen and may try to recover them under Houthi leadership.
Yemen has become a major security threat to the Saudi ruling family and to the country’s stability since Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula established a foothold in the lawless, inhospitable Yemeni terrain about a decade ago. From its inception, Al-Qaeda’s main objective has been the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy. Sharing more than 1000 miles of porous borders with Yemen, the Saudi rulers are faced with deadly border crossings by terrorists, drug and weapon smugglers, human traffickers and potential Yemeni military attacks if political instability continues in that country.
The Saudi regime and its Western supporters have a tremendous stake (geopolitical and terroristic) in reconciling Yemeni factions and in stabilizing the country. However, given the centuries’ old divisions within Yemeni society, mistrust of and contempt for the Saudis, as well as the rise of the Houthis to power, King Salman (and the West) may find themselves facing one of the most formidable challenges the autocratic Saudi monarchy has ever encountered. Based on these realities, King Salman may not be able to contain the crisis in Yemen peacefully, even with help of the Saudi monarchy’s avid western powers.
However, King Salman might be able to avoid a prolonged, bloody and costly war to defend the southern Saudi borders not only from spillover of the raging Yemeni conflict, but from other emboldened groups like Al-Qaeda and its affiliates in and out of Yemen. Two important immediate and achievable steps that King Salman and other Gulf ruling dynasties can easily take are, 1) to stop forcing their wishes on the Yemenis and, 2) to invest heavily in Yemen’s tattered economy through independent and unbiased international agencies.
The Saudi ruling families (the Saudi/Wahhabi alliance) have to realize that the days are gone when they can punish the Yemenis into submission, as they did in 1990 when they deported one million hard-working Yemenis because former President Saleh voted against a UN resolution to evict Iraqi troops from Kuwait by force. Sadly and myopically, the Saudi rulers don’t seem to have learned much since 1990. It’s estimated that 300 thousand Yemenis have been or will be deported from Saudi Arabia and more from the other Gulf states because of visa and work permit complications. Yemeni analysts describe the Saudi policy of economic punishment as a “witch hunt” aimed at threatening Yemenis with economic strangulation if they don’t succumb to Saudi domination over their country’s affairs.
Saudi and other Gulf rulers’ disdainful treatment of Yemenis will not only fail, but will increase Yemenis’ resolve (regardless of region and religious orientations) to strike back against their common enemies in Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries.
Saudi Women’s Hopes Are Not King Salman’s Wishes
CDHR’s Commentary: Saudi women are hoping that the cosmetic steps (“reforms”) initiated by former Saudi King Abdullah, will continue under his successor, King Salman. Saudi women and men know that Salman and his wing of the family, the Sudairis, are staunch opponents of any change in the draconian status quo. The Sudairis opposed Abdallah’s embryonic and inconsequential steps every inch of the way.
King Abdullah’s cosmetic and mostly unfulfilled promises (such as the five economic cities he promised) have neither materialized nor made any indentation in the absolute power monopoly held by the Saudi ruling family and its phobic religious establishment. In reality, more draconian laws forbidding simple and legitimate expression were enacted and more arrests, incarcerations, floggings and beheadings took place under his rule than under any of his recent predecessors. The Saudi people have to brace themselves for even more of the same under King Salman and his nephew, Interior Minister Mohammed Bin Naif, second in line to the throne.
The steps initiated by King Abdullah resulted in a largely illusionary sense of empowerment for many Saudis, especially women, the media and, to a lesser degree, advocates of democratic reforms. However, most of the Saudi population became familiar with elections in 2005, when a handful of carefully scrutinized pro-regime men (women were banned from participating) were allowed to run for municipal offices and vote for municipal candidates. Despite the elections’ discriminatory and meaningless outcomes, candidates were able to create platforms, promote them and organize voters to support their programs.
Not surprisingly, people conducted themselves professionally and in an orderly manner during the elections, just like experienced voters and politicians in democratic societies. The Saudi people’s conduct not only contradicted Salman’s claims that democracy is impossible in Saudi Arabia, but increased the rulers’ fear of the population’s demanding transition from an absolute to a participatory form of government.
What King Salman will or will not do remains to be seen; however, Saudi women (and the populace as a whole) know that the new ailing king is not known for his reform enthusiasm, progressive predisposition or any tolerance for political participation. He is a dogmatist who insists that the Saudi dogma, Wahhabism, is the real Islam, based on the Quran and Sunnah and upon which the Saudi State is predicated. Salman’s life-long belief and commitment to enforce the misogynistic Wahhabi policies means that women’s rights are not likely to improve, but will stagnate or regress, as exemplified by his appointments of only men ministers and members of committees which he appointed to deal with public issues.
Blaming Others For the Saudi Elitists’ Denigration of Women
CDHR’s Commentary: As this recent unprovoked and unjustified assault on basic human rights by a Saudi historian demonstrates, the Saudi elitists continue their centuries old war on women for no reason other than that God (or is it a different God than the one the Saudis adore?) created them that way, women as opposed to men. This supposedly prominent historian, Saleh Al Saadoon, argued that if women are allowed to drive, they will be raped if their cars malfunction.
When reminded by his interviewer (female) that women drive in other Arab and Muslim countries, Europe, Asia and America, he snapped that the rest of the world does not care if their women are raped, but Saudis do. His solution? Hire foreign female drivers to drive Saudi women around. In this case, if the cars break down then two women will be raped instead of one. The question is, who will be the rapists, Saudi men? Like other misogynistic Saudi “authorities,” he seems to imply that all Saudi men are heartless animalistic rapists. If this is his hypothesis, why punish Saudi women because of the failings of Saudi men including people like him, the religious police, the judicial system and others who claim to be defending women’s purity and morals?
Is he really against rape and human trafficking? Don’t Saudi cleric elitists argue that it’s legal (according to Shariah, Islamic law) that men can marry girls at any age, even as infants? They also argue that if women are allowed to drive, prostitution, threats to national security and increases in births of deformed children will ensue. These are documented accounts that can be googled and read by anyone anywhere in the world. Paradoxically, Saudis blame the rest of the world for its outraged reactions to Saudi transgressions, especially its maltreatment of women.
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