Middle East & Africa
Self-confidence Challenged Using petrodollars as soft power to gain influence abroad and secure loyalty internally, the kingdom seems self-confident enough, or overconfident, to feel secured on its own.Speaking at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, on March 11, Prince Turki al–Faisal, chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies in Riyadh and former Saudi Ambassador to the US, said:“Saudi Arabia represents over 20% of the combined GDP of the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region (and over a quarter of the Arab World’s GDP) making it … an effective partner and member of the G20.“The Saudi stock market represents over 50% of the entire stock market capitalization of the MENA region.“The Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA), the Kingdom’s central bank, is the world’s third largest holder of net foreign assets … Last but not least, Saudi Aramco, the Kingdom’s national oil company, is the world’s largest producer and exporter of petroleum and has by far the world’s largest sustained production capacity infrastructure.”However, veteran journalist Karen Elliot House, has presented a starkly ominous picture.“Sixty percent of Saudis are 20 or younger, most of whom have no hope of a job,” House wrote in her 2012 book. “Seventy percent of Saudis cannot afford to own a home. Forty percent live below the poverty line. The royals, 25,000 princes and princesses, own most of the valuable land and benefit from a system that gives each a stipend and some a fortune. Foreign workers make the Kingdom work; the 19 million Saudi citizens share the Kingdom with 8.5 million guest workers.”According to House, regional differences are “a daily fact of Saudi life.” Hejazis in the West and Shiites in the East resent the strict Wahhabi lifestyle. Gender discrimination is a growing problem. Sixty percent of Saudi college graduates are women but they account for only twelve percent of the work force.Moreover, according to Anthony H. Cordesman, published by the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) on April 21, 2011, “There are serious gaps between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots,’ regional differences in wealth and privilege, and tensions between Saudi Shi’ites and Saudi Sunnis.”The kingdom has been squandering billions upon billions of petrodollars in a lost battle to finance a regional counterrevolution. Some $20bn dollars were pledged to bailout Bahrain and the Sultanate of Oman out of the Arab Spring. Three billions more was pledged recently to buy French arms to prop up the Lebanese army against the Hezbullah-led pro-Syria coalition. Several billions more have been pledged to Egypt to reinforce the successors of the ousted former president Mohamed Morsi, let alone the reportedly other billions spent on financing “regime change” in Syria. Reportedly, Obama tried to convince King Abdullah during his latest visit to bail out the transition in Ukraine.To contain the repercussions of the Arab uprisings internally, the Kingdom has already spent even more on buying the loyalty of its own people; for the same purpose twenty Royal Orders, which were economically dominated, were issued in March 2011.In February 2011, King Abdullah pledged more than $35 billion for housing, salary increases for state employees, studying abroad and social security. The next month the king announced another financial package worth more than $70 billion for more housing units, religious establishment and salary increase for military and security forces.Bailing the population out of protests economically seemed not enough to secure internal stability as the kingdom, instead of relaxing the internal situation, has recently tightened the screws with the issuing of the Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and Its Financing on last January 31, the Royal Decree No. 44, which criminalizes “participating in hostilities outside the kingdom,” three days later and on March 7 the Interior Ministry’s “initial” list of groups the government considers terrorist organizations, both inside and around the country and both Sunni and Shiite.“These recent laws and regulations turn almost any critical expression or independent association into crimes of terrorism,” said Joe Stork, the deputy director of the Human Rights Watch for the Middle East and North Africa region. “These regulations dash any hope that King Abdullah intends to open a space for peaceful dissent or independent groups,” Stork added.Internally and externally, the kingdom overconfidently seems intent on creating more enemies, neutralizing none, alienating world and regional powers, mainstream Sunni, Shiite, liberal, pan-Arab and leftist forces, wrecking regional havoc, all in what looks like an unbalanced reaction to threats, real and perceived, to the survival of the ruling dynasty. However, the kingdom seems like shooting its survival in the legs.
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The author Nicola Nasser, who serves as Palestinian Correspondent for The Seoul Times, is a veteran Arab journalist based in Bir Zeit of the Israeli –occupied Palestinian Territories. He can be reached at email@example.com
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