Saudi Arabia

A perfect storm of internal challenges in Saudi Arabia



On March 25, the Saudi newspapers reported that the services of the encrypted social media messages will be banned such as the “Skype”, “Viber”, and “Wattsapp” inside the kingdom, unless the government was allowed to monitor them.

The details of Riyadh’s request are unclear, but it seems that the involved companies had been given a period of one week to send their response to this decision. This step indicates that the Saudi authorities are increasingly concerned about the use of the Internet by the citizens to circumvent the lack of political freedoms and to undermine the traditional community-based reservations against the issue of the hierarchical structure within the Kingdom. This comes while the reports that criticize the government – which were quickly spread orally and this has never happened before – have almost immediately reached to a very large scale of local audience, and were also apparently being read. These along with other tensions at home and abroad may impose a number of major problems faced by the elder leaders in the Kingdom if they were left unchecked.


Despite the wealth of Saudi Arabia and the generous subsidies provided for the country’s population, there is still a huge economic disparity between people. Since the outbreak of the protests in many parts of the Arab world in 2011, the government increased the subsidies and governmental salaries to alleviate the internal discontent, but there is still a lot of resentment.

Also, in one of the sides of the Kingdom, there are parts of the Sunni majority communities, which are suspected to be showing sympathy with “Al-Qaeda” organization; while there are on the other side a raging revolution by the minority of Shiites, who are seen traditionally by the extremist Sunnis as second class citizens and perhaps even as not fitting to Islam. Earlier this month, the authorities announced the arrest of sixteen Shiites, accusing them of collecting information on important installations in the kingdom “for the benefit of other country”, and this is supposed to mean Iran.

On March 15, Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, who has a significant impact, delivered an open speech being published on his pages in “Facebook” and “Twitter” – where it is said that he has followers up to 2.4 million people – in which he warned the royal family of injustice and corruption adopted by it. The motivation behind this message was apparently an incident that took place in the previous week, when two political activists, who are intrepid in their criticism, were finally sentenced after a seven months trial for publishing “false” criticism against the Saudi government via the social media.

Despite the blackout imposed on the narrative by the national media, the activists themselves sent twits via the “Twitter” website about the details of the case. At the same time, another activist’s trial was resumed last week, and this time on charges of insulting the judiciary, contacting foreign media, and communicating with international human rights organizations that work as oversight institutions.

Sheikh Al-Awdah, who had been arrested previously for criticizing the government, is considered a moderate cleric compared to the Saudi religious establishment, which has supported over many years submissively the al-Saud family. Also, his open message accused the royal family of not wanting to acknowledge the truth, when it “overlooked the symbolism” of burning pictures of officials by Saudis. This was a clear reference to an incident that occurred last month, when some Sunnis protested against the arrest of members of their families for security reasons and burnt the pictures of the interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.


Over the decades, there have been a number of the members of the House of Al-Saud being complaint against regarding accessing financial benefits on the basis of their royal status and treating people with prejudice behavioral pattern. The latest episode in this regard was settling a lawsuit in Britain – during the current month, where one of London’s courts refused a lawsuit to provide royal immunity for two Saudi prominent figures: Prince Mishaal bin Abdul Aziz (half-brother of King Abdullah and the President of the “Allegiance Council” in the kingdom; the Council that could help to determine the next king), and his son Abdul Aziz.

In the midst of the legal wrangling, a commercial dispute emerged between the princes and a former business partner; he is Jordanian and it is alleged that Abdul Aziz incited the Saudi authorities to put his name on the list of the “Red Notice” wanted by the Interpol, and this is an international request for arrest and extradition. Until now, many of the details of this case are blocked from publication pending the outcome of an appeal. According to the forty pages verdict that was released last week, the defense board claimed that Abdul Aziz and one of his aides are going to be at risk of “death and revenge”, if details and other private issues were announced.

Even so, the British judge was criticizing much the royal family in Saudi Arabia. The court’s decision includes that many princes of the Kingdom, who are about “5000 Princes”, can obtain diplomatic passports, and are allowed to avoid all the matters relating to regular immigration proceedings upon their arrival to Britain, where the Saudi Embassy takes their passports, deals with the British authorities, and re-submits the documentation later to the visiting members of the royal family, whether they were at home or in the hotels where they are spending their time.

Moreover, the judge refuted part of the statement delivered by the Saudi ambassador in London, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdul Aziz, a nephew of King Abdullah. In response to the demand of Muhammad that Prince Mishal was the second to be entitled to assume power by right of his birth, the judge said: “Now it became apparent that this is untrue”. Despite the fact that Meshal is older than the descendant who was nominated by King Abdullah – Crown Prince Salman (who is 77 years old) – but he is not considered a likely king, because his mother was an Armenian maid of the kingdom’s founder Ibn Saud instead of being an Arab wife.

The Bad services

Ever since the uprisings invaded some areas of the Middle East in the past two years, the Saudi government announced spending an estimated $ 110 billion on social programs and subsidies, although it is not clear how much money is being spent effectively. Even in major towns and cities, services are often inadequate.

It is something unusual to publish a report on March 27 by the “Arab News” newspaper; its publications are in English in Jeddah, the commercial capital of the kingdom, entitled “The problem of water is hitting Jeddah again”. In this report, the story pointed out that many of the websites were suffering from a lack of reservoirs that deliver water to houses, (there are many neighborhoods that do not get the water through a major pipe). As for the shipments, which were previously delivered within one hour are now being taken within three days. In fact, Jeddah is known for having a history of inadequate infrastructure buildings: In early 2011, the heavy rains were impinging its dispensing health system in the winter, causing a number of deaths and has raised concerns about the flow of sewage inventory from nearby hills and destroying parts of the city.

The Challenges regarding the U.S. policy

As usual, Washington is at odds with providing political advice to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, especially with regards to the internal problems. The U.S. Ambassador James Smith has stated recently that “The three pillars” of the bilateral relationship are “oil security, stability, and fighting against terrorism, but the pressures relating to human rights and political change were unproductive”. The Kingdom plays a crucial role also in the two regional urgent issues: its growing exports of oil make up for the shortfalls caused by the sanctions imposed on Iran’s production, and it also works with Jordan to support the rebels in Syria, and this effort is backed by Washington. Moreover, it is almost certain that U.S. officials are going to ask the Saudis to play a key role in any revival of the Israeli – Palestinian peace process.

However, the advancing age and the endemic weakness among the leaders of Saudi Arabia remain one of the most prominent problems. During the events of the Arab summit in Qatar this week, King Abdullah (90 years old) was absent, as well as the Crown Prince Salman, who is believed widely to be suffering of a mental illness.

There is an additional complexity represented in the sensitivity of Riyadh about the embarrassing information. In 2008, London stopped a criminal investigation into allegations of bribery against Saudis after the British ambassador in Riyadh warned that this may harm the cooperation in fighting against terrorism if the investigation was not interrupted. Also, there is a parliamentary report looming about the British relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, what actually pushed the Saudi ambassador to announce that the kingdom had felt “humiliated” by the investigation.

Hence, in order to reduce the development of these internal challenges so as not to turn into a perfect storm engulfing the House of Al-Saud, Washington should put pressure on Riyadh to assume greater political participation and to work to accelerate the transition to a new leadership within the royal family. Given the prominent role of the Kingdom in the field of energy, the current political paralysis in Riyadh threatens the global economy. It also reduces the traditional Saudi role in the Arab and Islamic worlds, what jeopardizes the efforts led by the United States to stop Iran’s pursuit to produce a nuclear weapon.

Simon Henderson is Baker’s fellow, is the director of the Gulf program and the energy policy at the Washington Institute, and is the author of the book entitled “After King Abdullah: the Succession in Saudi Arabia”.


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