This is Part One of a series, “Saudi Arabia and the Interminable Arab Spring
Part One: “KING ABDULLAH’S OCTOBER BOMBSHELL.”
“Saudi Arabia Rejects U.N. Seat Security Council Seat in Protest Move,” runs the headline in the October 18, 2013 edition of the International New York Times.
Our major news-outfits have not given much attention to this story and the efforts of their editors to parse its meaning have not generally been distinguished. Puzzlement has been the principle motif. Was it not a fact that the Saudi delegation had been lobbying aggressively for two years to gain this seat, one of ten Non-Permanent seats that become available on a rotating basis to the other Members-in-general of the UN.? Don’t all nation states covet the privilege of sitting for two years in the same room with the Five Permanent Members (U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China) and making this world a better place? Wasn’t it true that the Saudi delegation had already begun celebrating (in their Muslim way) when the King abruptly announced to the world that his Kingdom had lost all respect fro the UN Security Council and would not lower itself to keep company with the Five Immortals?
Latest Developments on the Syrian Scene
As the New York Times explained it, it is all about recent developments on the Syrian scene: “Abdullah has voiced rising frustration with the continuing violence in Syria, a fellow-majority nation where one of his wives was born.”
(Irony is not one of the qualities cherished by the New York Times. To grasp the awesome irrelevance of this detail we note that this Muslim paragon has had more than thirty wives, and has fathered at least thirty-five children but nowadays, at age 89, declares himself “married” to four — the number allowed by Muslim law. And you thought you had troubles!)
Some journals interpreted the incident as a senile tantrum, not in the best interests of the regime. But there could be no contradicting the King’s decision, for he is a Divine Right Monarch. The Saudi King has invested deeply (in every sense) in the cause of the rebels against Assad. He believes (as do many in the West, after all) that allowing Assad to surrender his chemical weapons has given Assad a new lease on life. But Abdullah will not rest until Assad is gone. “Allowing the ruling regime in Syria to kill and burn its people by the chemical weapons, while the world stands idly by” (says the King’s press spokesman) “is irrefutable proof of the inability of the Security Council to carry out its duties and responsibilities.” “Abdullah is said to have been deeply disappointed,” reports the New York Times, “when President Obama decided against airstrikes on Syria’s military in September [and settled instead] in favor of a Russian-proposed agreement to secure Syria’s chemical weapons.” And so his message to the Security Council and to the United States and to the unfeeling world is Why don’t you and him fight?
Why Don’t You and Him Fight!
In other company than Abdullah Abdulaziz normally keeps, this might be called chutzpah – bad-mouthing the United States for not pouring its air force and its manpower into Syria and liquidating the Assad regime. The fact is that there are other armed forces nearer to this scene – his own. In 2005 the armed forces had the following personnel: the army, 75,000; the air force, 18,000; air defense, 16,000; the navy, 15,500 (including 3,000 marines) as well as 25,000 in tribal levies. While the United Sates teeters on the brink of insolvency, Saudi Arabia has more money than it knows what to do with. Between 1951 and 2006 it purchased nearly $100 billion in military hardware from the U.S.; another estimated $60.5 billion is scheduled for sale by the U.S. to the Kingdom, provided Congress’s approval can be obtained (as it always has been in the past.) Among other sources there is the UK, which since 1985 has sold as much as £80 billion in military hardware to Saudi Arabia.
In private life, this kind of verbal abuse would be considered an assault upon one’s manhood. And it did not stop with King Abdullah’s October bombshell. According to the New York Times:
Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Head of Saudi Intelligence, privately complained to diplomats about the White House’s reluctance to intervene in Syria – concerns that were later echoed publicly by Prince Turki al-Faisal , a former intelligence chief. At the root of much of the Saudis’ criticism was the perception that President Obama was uncomfortable with exercising power on the world stage [emphasis added], a gnawing worry for Saudi officials who have become increasingly concerned about the role of their nemesis Iran in Syria and elsewhere in the region. [“Kerry Reassures Saudis U.S. Shares Their Goals,” New York Times, November 4, 2013.]
Incredibly, the Obama government has said nothing to suggest unhappiness over the King’s swaggering bellicosity nor resentment at his explicit allegation that it is America’s manhood that it is stake in Syria. Instead, at the earliest possible moment, the President of the United States dispatched his Secretary of State, John Kerry, to Riyadh for discussions with senior members of the Monarch’s inner circle, including Prince Saud al-Faisal (the Foreign Minister) and Prince Bandar (the Chief of Intelligence.) In the course of a meeting of two hours, Kerry was exposed to more of the same righteous complaint. Following their meeting,
Prince [Saud] rattled off [to the press] statistics of those killed and displaced by the war and criticized the United Nations Security Council for failing to authorize international intervention to halt the fighting. “It is the largest calamity that has befallen the world in the present millennium,” he said. “If that isn’t enough to intervene, to stop the bloodshed. I don’t’ know what is.”
What does the world imagine are the qualifications of Saudi Arabia’s King for giving the rest of the world this royal what for?
Forbes magazine’s, which speaks the mind of the world’s financial investors, individual and collective, has just published its list of the Ten Most Powerful People in the World. They are three Western statesmen (Obama, Merkel, Cameron), President Putin of Russia, four of the world’s richest and/or most influential financial types (Bernanke, Draghi, Duke), the current Pope, and (hold your breath) Abdullah Abdulaziz, the King of Saudi Arabia.
According to the brief biography that justifies this selection, “Saudi Arabia’s aging monarch holds the keys to Islam’s two holiest sites and the world’s second largest crude oil deposit of some 265 billion barrels, amounting to about 18% of global reserves.” No further reference is made to the theological matter, but as for the Kingdom and its financial assets, “the Kingdom boasts a $727 billion GDP, putting it in the top 20 richest countries worldwide.” All is not perfect in Saudi Arabia, Forbes concedes, but what matters is that the King is at work on a solution: “With 50% of its population under 25, and more than a quarter of those youths out of work, the king has pushed $130 billion at unemployment funds and housing projects in recent years.” [http://www.forbes.com/profile/abdullah-bin-abdul-aziz-al-saud.] The Saudi Gazette welcomes Abdullah’s selection as “due to the Kingdom’s important status in the Muslim world as well as around the globe … the various reforms initiated by King Abdullah … [and] his gigantic efforts and reforms to bring the Kingdom into the forefront of advanced countries and help it keep pace with the other countries.” [www.saudigazette.com, November 2, 2013.]
Saudi Arabia is the second-largest polity by land area in the Arab world (after Algeria). The CIA Factbook estimates a total population roughly equal to that of Canada, about 30 million, but notes that of this number about 9 million are foreign expatriates and there are perhaps 2 million illegal immigrants . The expatriate foreigners come from all over the Middle East and nearby parts of Asia: they include a million each from India and Pakistan, 900,000 from Egypt, 500,000 Bangladeshi, 500,000 Filipinos, and smaller but still six-figure numbers from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, and Turkey. There are around 100,000 Westerners in Saudi Arabia – but they can hardly be described as belonging to Saud Arabia given that they are confined to gated communities (genteel ghettos) of fellow Westerners.
Only a tiny fraction of these “guests” will ever be admitted as citizens. Only Muslims may apply. This means that all those hundreds of thousands of Hindu, Sikh and Christian expatriates– construction workers, et cetera, who occupy the lowest level of the social scale, have no future here. Furthermore, the “heretical” shias, who make up the bulk of the workforce do not qualify as muslims and are not eligible for citizenship. Muslims with degrees in engineering and science or having other valuable certification go to the head of the line. Furthermore, as a 2011 news story in the Arab News reports, “Nearly three million expatriate workers will have to leave the Kingdom in the next few years as the Labor Ministry has put a 20% ceiling on the country’s guest workers.”
“Palestinians,” about 240,000 of them, are also excluded from citizenship because to admit them to Saudi Arabia would relieve Israel of responsibility for their sad condition. This is the same policy followed by the other Muslim neighbours of Israel since 1949 and it is the full and sufficient reason why Palestinians are almost all confined to Refugee Camps throughout Arab world.
This sort of official discrimination has been illegal in our part of the world for at least a couple of centuries. Conspicuous and ubiquitous though it is, it seems never to have come to the notice of Forbes magazine. Or perhaps it just did not seem relevant to their judgments about greatness.
The one-line judgment that Forbes’ editors serve up about Saudi Arabia’s internal situation is, to put it mildly, misleading. Saudi Arabia is not immune from the effects of disorder in the Arab world. Christopher M. Davison author of After the Sheikhs: the Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies, writes in an Opinion piece in the New York Times about growing inequality, poverty, corruption and unemployment and about dozens dead following police crackdown on demonstrators in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain (effectively, Saudi Arabia’s protectorate.) [Christopher M. Davidson, “The Last of the Sheiks?” New York Times, October 20, 2013.]
Deep down, Abdullah is terrified about rising discontent at home and across the region as the interminable Arab Spring continues. Paradoxical though it may seem, this is the basic reason behind this sudden display of contempt for the United States and the United Nations as Abdullah contemplates a larger role for his Kingdom and for Islam, one in which the goodwill of the United Nations and the goodwill of the United States will be irrelevant.