As it stands, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the most ‘powerful’ states in the Gulf region. However, its ‘power’ does not necessarily render it any less vulnerable to threats (especially those which emanate from the application of that very power in both internal and external spheres) than those powers which may not be so ‘powerful’ but remain as much vulnerable as the Kingdom is today. This proposition gives, perhaps, the most comprehensive geo-political overview of the entire gulf region—a region which has so many ‘powerful’ yet vulnerable states. Power and vulnerability are thus two dimensions which must be given full consideration when it comes to analyzing these states’, especially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s, internal and external policies. Not only does it show how fragile this Kingdom internally is, it also reveals how oppressive it can be, especially when the rule of the ruling family finds itself in trouble.
The present crisis in Yemen is, in a very sinister way, related to this very (internal) vulnerability and fragility of the Kingdom. It has created an ‘enemy’ out of thin air to consolidate its position internally; and, at the same time, this invasion has exposed how vulnerable it is internally too. Despite all the ‘power’ it has amassed over the years, the reality is that the Kingdom cannot find a way for resolving internal crisis without creating an external crisis. Therefore, the crisis in Yemen is, for Saudia, not merely a fight for the establishment of uncontested hegemony in the region; it is equally for sustaining internal hegemony. The gist of the matter is that we may not be able to arrive at a sound understanding of this crisis and the Saudi invasion without first understanding the challenges the ruling family is facing internally.
Since 1973, when the oil crisis loomed large over the world economy, Saudi Arabia has been portrayed as a powerhouse which is a centre of wealth, prosperity and stability. However, this image does not accurately reflect the prevailing realities on the ground. Although the kingdom has one of the highest concentrations of super-rich households in the world, more than 20% of its population live in abject poverty. The net worth of the royal family is around $1.4 trillion and thousands of princes enjoy the glitz and glamour of their membership of the richest family in the country. Yet numerous struggle to get by on the fringes of Saudi society. More than two-thirds of Saudi nationals are under the age of 30 and almost three-quarters of all unemployed Saudis are in their 20s. More than anything else, it is they who pose the most serious challenge to the ruling elite and it is they the Kingdom hopes to ‘employ’ in its so-called fight against Yemen. By employing the disgruntled youth, the Kingdom aims to achieve two objectives: 1) it will have enough boots on the ground to sustain a long (proxy) fight, 2) it will have the local youth’s attention taken away from the question of radically re-structuring Saudi polity.
However, the irony is that the Kingdom recruits these ‘child soldiers’ only from the ‘loyal’ tribes and ignores the ‘disloyal’ tribes. It thus is systematically sowing seeds which can grow into a tree of large scale discontentment and insurgency; for, the so-called “disloyal tribes” are certainly big enough to organize and sustain an insurgency. This would, if it occurs ever, would be an inter-tribal warfare than a mere war between the state and “rebels.” Notwithstanding this threat of inter-tribal warfare, another source of threat for Saudi Arabia is that a large segment of the foreign fighters in ISIL are young men from Saudi Arabia. There are reportedly more than two thousand Saudia young men—2500 according to some credible sources— who have joined the ISIL. More importantly many of them regard the Saudi state as religiously and politically corrupt. Having a large presence in ISIL also strongly indicates that there is a body of the population within Saudia which is sympathetic to the Islamic Caliphate – and this could be a very serious security threat for the state. The monster, which the Kingdom itself financed once, can now possibly turn into a problem which the Kingdom may not be able to resolve on its own.
Attack on Yemen is, in a way, also related to this very Saudi dilemma. The Kingdom wants to recruit the ‘disgruntled youth’—-youth, which is vulnerable to ISIL’s propaganda—-into fighting the “Shias”. By mobilizing clergy in favour of fighting the “Shia” in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is creating yet another monster which would soon, much like the ISIL, be out of her control; after all, this youth has much against the Kingdom itself too. The “Shia” element may turn out to be useful in the short run, in the long run, however, it may turn out to be self-destructive for Saudi Arabia’s ruling elite. It is not a coincidence that all so called “disloyal tribes” also happen to be Shia tribes located in the Saudi region close to Yemen border. It is again not a simple coincidence that the region inhabited by the Shia population is also the base of Saudi oil production. With most of the oil wells located there, the “disloyal tribes” certainly have a powerful incentive, especially in the wake of Saudi attack on Yemen, to organize themselves into an insurgency and turn the table of the ruling family upside down. This is the most significant threat the ruling elite is facing today. As a matter of fact, about 15% of the total population of Saudia is Shia who have been subject to systematic discrimination since the inception of the modern kingdom. A large segment of the Shia population lives in the oil rich Eastern Province, but their economic, social and religious lives are heavily restricted by the state which champions Wahhabism—a creed that strongly believes in following orthodox Islam and wherein ‘rogue’ creeds like Shia’ism—or plurality in any form— have no place whatsoever.
The crisis in Yemen thus furnishes a very suitable case for demonstrating the horn of vulnerability the Kingdom is caught in. As a matter of fact, the Kingdom itself is pushing the Shia population into a situation whereby it may feel compelled to raise an armed resistance. For instance, in order for distracting the youth to a conflict which is projected to have strong religious underpinnings, the Kingdom has, ironically, stirred the suppressed local Shia population into political action. In no surprisingly a manner, since the beginning of the Saudi campaign in Yemen – which has a clear sectarian agenda–tension has increased at home. The verbal attacks against the Shia are increasing in the social media and many religious figures openly continue to insult the Shia creed. And, the ruling elite is very much supporting, directly and indirectly, this filthy campaign to incite sectarian feelings among the people, especially the youth, to wean them away from the all-important question of political reforms. On April 8, 2015, when two policemen were shot dead by un-known assassins in Riyadh, the governor of the Eastern Province, Saud bin Nayyef bin Abdel Aziz publicly stated that “evil filth” are living in the country’s “Shiite community”, indirectly suggesting that there is an ever greater need for wiping this filth out and to “purify” the Kingdom of it.
The Saudis, by creating this crisis in Yemen, want to have their cake and it eat it too. However, internal division along sectarian lines and the fact that a significant segment of Saudi population is now demanding political reforms are indicative of the shaky foundations the house of Saud is standing on. The pressure is rapidly increasing on the Saudi state. While King Salman wants to project himself as the policeman of Sunni Islam and the “greater defender” of his faith and as the man who restored ‘order’ to Yemen, there is a growing evidence that House of Saud is built on sand and the foundations are liable to shift radically.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”