A Monarchy in Steep Decline

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With lower oil prices Saudi Arabia’s ruling clan is finding it hard to make up for its costly failures including the war in Yemen. They are also worried as their repression at home has left them without popular support or legitimacy.

TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00

Narration: The monarchy ruling the Arab world’s richest kingdom seems to be in steep decline. Saudi Arabia’s rulers have kept their authoritarian grip on power for decades through spending petro dollars that once seemed to be a bottomless pit of money. The Saudi royal family has been relying on cash from oil sales to keep commoners at home satisfied. It also buys support from its Western allies especially the United States and Britain to pursue its high ambitions abroad. But things have been changing rapidly especially over the past two years, leaving the royals wondering whether they can maintain their lavish lifestyle for long.

The king of Saudi Arabia, currently King Salman, holds absolute political power and has the final say in all state matters. The kingdom does not allow any national elections and the king appoints members of the royal family to his cabinet. Salman’s rule has been buffeted by a clutch of factors including falling oil prices, Mismanagement of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, the prolonged war in Yemen, failures in Syria and rivalry among princes.

Pressing Saudi problems:

-Lower oil price

-Mismanagement of Hajj

-Prolonged Saudi war in Yemen

-Failures in Syria

-Rivalry among royals

The House of Saud is estimated to have 15,000 princes and about as many princesses. Al Saud family members see it as their birthright to receive hefty sums in monthly or annual allowances. The scale of their wealth remains a closely-guarded secret. But an official at the US Embassy in Riyadh once said sons of the founding king receive up to 270,000 dollars a month and his great-great-grandchildren about 8,000 in monthly payments.

The royals have been using state resources to build themselves palaces and buy opulent properties overseas even as global crude prices hit bottom lows in 2015 and 2016.

The oil slump has forced ordinary Saudis to tighten their belts because the state has implemented harsh budget cuts over the past two years leading to rising gasoline and utility prices as well as higher unemployment. Prominent economic experts believe Saudi Arabia needs oil prices at over $100 a barrel to break even on its budget. The economic downturn in the kingdom has raised fears among the rulers that discontent among the people may give rise to a civil uprising at some point.

SOUNDBITE [English] Bruce Riedel Project Director, Brookings Institute: “How long can the welfare state of Saudi Arabia survive? Is it sustainable anymore? At oil prices where they are today, Saudi welfare state is not sustainable. It can burn down its reserves but sooner or later a moment of truth will come. Not only that but Saudi Arabia provides enormous amounts of money to its various allies in the Muslim world. Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, Bahrain, Djibouti, Sudan, all get healthy payoffs.”

Narration: During popular revolutions in Arab countries like Tunisia and Egypt, then King Abdullah’s response was to spend 130 billion on salaries and social programs to nip any form of protest in the bud. But now that the kingdom lacks the same financial leverage things may quickly get out of hand. This looks especially risky for the rulers because they seriously lack legitimacy as people have no say in the way state affairs are run. The regime’s gross human rights violations are making things even worse for it.

The regime consistently ranks among the worst of the worst in annual surveys of political and civil rights. Saudi violations are many and deep rooted. From crackdown on freedom of expression to arbitrary arrests, and discrimination against the Shia minority. The regime has jailed or executed outspoken critics like Ayatollah Nimr al-Nimr who was beheaded in January 2016.

SOUNDBITE [English] Ali al-Ahmad, Saudi Activist: “Most of these people did not do anything serious. But they are usually tortured for extended periods of time and not allowed a lawyer obviously. If they are sentenced it's usually in a kangaroo court. Kangaroo courts that do not meet any international standards, Saudi courts are terrible, they are medieval, sectarian and they will not use any modern standard of procedure. Why is that? Because the Saudi monarchy is an absolute medieval monarchy”

TIME CODE: 05:00_09:49

Narration: The Saudi royal family however has a dream of leading the Muslim world. It seeks to derive legitimacy from the annual Muslim hajj pilgrimage. But the deadly stampede in September 2015, which left thousands of pilgrims dead, triggered widespread condemnation of the Saudi mismanagement.

Salman was crowned as the new King in January 2015 following the death of his half-brother, King Abdullah. Saudi policies abroad have become much more aggressive under the new monarch. In January 2015, the German Foreign Intelligence service was so worried about the change for the worse that it circulated a memo saying: “The previous cautious diplomatic stance of older leading members of the royal family in being replaced by an impulsive policy of intervention”

Immediately after taking power, the monarch appointed his nephew Muhammad bin Nayef as the Crown Prince and his hawkish son Mohammad bin Salman as defense minister. Mohammad bin Salman became the youngest defense minister in the world, and that could, to some extent, explain his serious miscalculations. He led the invasion of neighboring Yemen in March 2015 in a bid to reinstate the kingdom’s ally former president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and push back Ansarullah fighters and their army allies. Saudi generals were hoping for a quick victory in Yemen but the costly war is still raging. It’s been estimated that the Saudis are spending at least $175 million a month on their air campaign alone.

None of the strategic goals of the invasion have been fulfilled yet as Ansarullah and their allies across Yemen have put up a stiff resistance. They have even made the rich kingdom suffer painful blows by firing missiles deep into Saudi territory.

The onslaught has caused a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen leaving over 11,400 Yemenis mostly civilians dead. U-S-made banned weapons like cluster bombs have been used in some of the air raids drawing strong condemnation from human rights groups. Mounting civilian casualties in Yemen is fueling anti-Saudi sentiments and encouraging more popular forces to join the battle. Failures in Yemen were not the only military setbacks for Saudis in the region.

Saudi Arabia has been one of the main backers of militants fighting to oust the government in Damascus. It has funneled cash into Syria since the beginning of the conflict in 2011 giving rise to monster terror groups that have now expanded their operations far beyond the Middle East. But the intensified push to oust President Bashar al-Assad has backfired with the Syrian government and its allies pounding terror groups even harder. Back in December, the Syrian army backed by Russian air cover and Iranian advisors on the ground forced militants in their most-important stronghold of Aleppo to lay down their arms and leave.

Ineffective Saudi foreign policies have left many members of the ruling clan wondering whether the wrong people are at the helm. The monarch’s domestic decisions and appointments have also proved divisive. For instance he removed several sons of former kings from important positions immediately after taking power. In a sign of intense infighting, a nephew of the monarch called on his uncles in 2015 to remove their brother, King Salman.

Saudi Arabia was the scene of mass anti-regime demonstrations in 2011 and 2012 causing jitters in Riyadh. The protesters especially in the oil rich Eastern Province demanded the release of political prisoners, freedom of expression and assembly, and an end to widespread discrimination. But they faced a deadly clampdown.

Saudi rulers are now experiencing stressful times again. Repeated failures overseas and deepening rivalry among the royals have left the House of Saud more vulnerable than ever. Now without enough money to appease commoners at home or buy allies abroad, the monarchy is in uncharted territory. 


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