Recent executions in Saudi Arabia and the way these were publicized and given air through a diplomatic rift with Iran are, in fact, a glaring reflection of how the House of Saud is diverting its public’s attention away from the way it has been squandering its wealth by funding terrorist organizations in the Middle East and beyond. The executions were meant not only to instil fear among its masses, who have recently been hit by extraordinary hike in domestic oil prices, but also were aimed at pre-empting any potential popular uprising against the House of Saud’s dictatorial policies, its languish economy and its redundant and reactionary foreign policy. It is therefore no exaggeration to contend that these executions are only a cover that the House of Saud is using to hide its multiple failures on all fronts: political, economic and strategic.
Neither has it been able to topple Assad in Syria, nor has it been able to prevent a US-Iran nuke deal. Yemen, too, is increasingly turning into a deadly-desert for the Saudia-led ‘Arab coalition.’ Hence, the need for a show of brutal force to prevent a general uprising. It is not to suggest that prospects of ‘civil war’ were, or are, looming large over Saudi Arabia. However, it cannot be denied that the way the House of Saud is acting and re-acting is typical of dictatorial governments, which can hope to exist only through brutal application of force.
In this context, the above mentioned actual intention behind these executions is not so difficult to understand. Consider this, for instance: most of the persons beheaded on January 2 had been in Saudi jails for almost a decade. Hence the question: why was it important for Saudi Arabia to stage these killings at this particular juncture of time? It is very hard to precisely scale internal threats to the Saudi monarchy, but the broader context for its concerns is clear: the House of Saud finds itself isolated, significantly sidelined, seemingly though, by its longstanding American ally, is at odds with China, and considerably pressured by Russia’s military presence in the region. The Saudi-backed proxy groups in Syria seem to be crumbling under Russian attack, and the Saudi intervention in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels has gone extremely wrong for it. Adding to it is the threat of its Sunni ally, Turkey, being consumed by a potential civil war.
In this behalf, Saudi executions are only firecrackers that are not going to leave any meaningful impact on the course of events—events that are already largely out of Saudia’s control. Adding to this ‘helplessness’ is the increasing fall in the Kingdom’s oil revenues, forcing it to increase domestic oil prices. Such a decision is only going to widen the gap between the rich and the poor in Saudi Arabia. Already beset by high income inequalities, Saudi Arabia may find itself at the crossroads of a major change in the coming years as the country’s poverty level continues to rise, pitting the ruling family and its 2,000 rich Princes against the 20 million poor inhabitants.
It is no secret that the House of Saud hugely relies on subsidies to buy the loyalty of the vast majority of its subjects. In this behalf, its reduced spending power in terms of the amount it needs to spend on subsidies is turning out to be the biggest internal threat to its rule. Last week the House of Saud had to cut subsidies for water, electricity and gasoline. The timing of the executions may be much more than a mere coincidence: the royal family’s capacity to buy popular support is eroding just as its $700 billion in foreign exchange reserves are set to exhaust in next five years and just as its regional security policy and foreign economic relations are falling apart like a heap of cards.
This is evident from the way Saudia’s oil-market is drifting from its axis. For instance, available data shows that China has considerably reduced its import of oil from Saudi Arabia. Instead, Russia is now the biggest exporter of oil to China. Notwithstanding that China’s tilt towards Russia is a part of China’s strategic rather than purely economic considerations, it is equally a fact that China’s decision has been partly motivated by the way the House of Saud has been funding extremist movements in China too. According to one Chinese official, China’s biggest worry in the Middle East is not oil, it is the House of Saud which continues to fund Islamist madrassas in Western China, where the “East Turkistan Independence Movement” has launched several large-scale terror attacks.
While the House of Saud is certainly facing problems in its oil-export market, its domestic production of oil is also facing imminent dangers. And this is where the execution of a number of members of Shia community starts to make sense. It is no secret that Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, which have the richest oil reservoirs, are Shia dominated. Given Saudi Arabia’s tussle with Iran, which has clear sectarian and ideological underpinnings, and given Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthis in Yemen, who are also Shia, there is every likelihood of a general Shia uprising in Saudi Arabia. Were such a scenario to take place in eastern Saudi Arabia, its biggest and most crucial outcome will be low production of oil—a scenario that the House of Saud can least afford under the circumstances. Were it to reduce its production and supply of oil to domestic as well as external markets, its revenues would further fall, which would further force it to apply more cuts on subsidies. Hence, more fear of domestic opposition, not only from Shia section of its society but also from that particular Sunni sections which does not happen to subscribe to the House of Saud’s religious and political ideologies.
The extent of Sunni opposition within Saudia can be gauged from the fact that among the 47 executed on January 2 was included Faris al-Zahrani, Al-Qaeda’s leading man in Saudi Arabia who was in jail since 2004. Described at the time by the government as `one of the heads of strife, a preacher of takfir`, Zahrani had helped articulate the jihadist view that the Al Saud had abandoned Islam, and that it was the duty of Muslims to kill them and their allies.
To guard itself against this Sunni opposition, the House of Saud has been using cleric establishment—a source of power for them which has been quite successfully fanning out the official view that these people (Sunni opposition) are extremists involved in a wanton excommunication of other Muslims, in disobedience to the “rightful ruler” and in sowing dissension and disorder in the (holy) land. Execution of Zahrani in this context is a reaction against the internal threat the House of Saud is facing from them.
However, the crucial question is: can the House of Saud turn the tide of events through such executions? While these executions do certainly have flared up Iran, which is all set to start supply of oil in the international market once sanctions are lifted, these executions are going to be only small firecrackers in the great saga of wars in the Middle East. Since Russian appearance in Syria, Saudi Arabia’s role has become marginal while that of the U.S. increased manifold. By inciting Iran through these executions and by inciting Sunni opposition within Saudia, the House of Saud is only trying to be relevant in regional geo-political games. However, by adopting such drastic measures, it is only creating more problems for itself both domestically and internationally.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.