Riyalpolitik and black gold: The scourge of the petrodollar

Riyalpolitik and black gold: The scourge of the petrodollar
Comment: Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman is using the kingdom's vast wealth to back dictators, toy with the fates of other nations and ignite sectarianism, writes Nael Shama.
7 min read
22 Jan, 2018
The Saudi budget deficit totalled $80 billion in 2016 [AFP]
The Middle East, perhaps more than anywhere else, is a region of contrasts and contradictions, the kind that life throws our way to teach lessons and lift the fog of ignorance. 

One of those popped up last month, when The New York Times spared no detail in describing the world's most expensive home; a chateau near Versailles owned by Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman.

With text and image, the article described the exquisite chateau and its 57-acre landscaped park: Ceilings adorned with chandeliers and fresco paintings, Carrara marble statues, an underwater chamber with fish swimming overhead, and the park's gold-leaf fountain and hedged labyrinth. An earthly paradise, no doubt.       

In his short-yet-speedy ascent to power, which included his appointment as minister of defence in 2015 and as crown prince last June, Mohamed bin Salman (often referred as MBS) has exhibited a penchant for a lavish lifestyle and splurge spending.

The list of splashy purchases he made over the past two years includes a $500 million yacht, the record-breaking $450 million "Salvator Mundi" painting by Leonardo da Vinci and that $300 million French mansion.

Rather ironically, MBS acquired these extravagances against the backdrop of a Saudi budget deficit totalling 297 billion riyals ($80bn) in 2016; growing poverty and high youth unemployment; the recent detention of hundreds of businessmen and princes on opaque anti-graft charges; and massive spending on a pointless war on Yemen.

The kingdom's conservatism has undermined the efforts of liberal religious reformers in Egypt and the Levant

In foreign relations, MBS (the de facto Saudi ruler since 2015) has wrought havoc on a regional cauldron already bubbling with volatile conflicts. Under his direct leadership, Saudi Arabia blockaded Qatar, forced Lebanon's prime minister to resign - keeping him against his will in Riyadh - intensified a cold war against Iran, and waged a ruthless war against the Arab world's poorest country, Yemen. 

Yemen has borne the brunt of Saudi military might, but it has also exposed its folly. Since the Saudi war on Yemen began in 2005, at least 13,000 civilians have been killed, more than three million people have been displaced, and the country has been hit by the world's largest outbreak of cholera in five decades.

Today, of 28 million Yemenis, around 20 million (71 percent) are in need of some humanitarian assistance, including 17 million who are considered food insecure and 14 million who do not have access to safe drinking water or sanitation.

Read more: Saudi Arabia to criminalise smelling bad in a mosque

With around seven million Yemenis just "a single step away from famine", the country is facing a disaster "of biblical proportions", warned one aid worker.

If we juxtapose these two images - the joie de vivre of the Saudi crown prince, and the hellish misery resulting from the war he wages - a thorny question will inevitably hover in the air: Other than towards securing a luxurious life for the ruling family and bankrolling military adventures in the region, where has the largest influx of wealth in the modern history of the Arab world gone?

These windfall gains began pouring into Saudi coffers in the 1930s. A 1945 State Department memo described the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia as "one of the greatest material prizes in world history".

Yet, rather than focusing on enlightenment, social progress and human development, the "black gold" was invested in power; its building, consolidation and projection.

To be sure, the new wealth elevated Saudi Arabia in the scales of power from a playground - where regional and international forces grappled with each other in pursuit of influence - to a major player to be reckoned with on the regional and global stage. But then what? What has this massive political and economic power brought?

The untold truth in regional discourses, the elephant in the room, is that the largest windfalls bestowed on the Middle East in modern history have been a curse in disguise, and a major source of misery in the region. 

Since it was founded, Saudi Arabia has been ruled by a single family. The rule of the country and control of its riches have been passed down from one generation to the next like a family heirloom.

The Saudis forged a drab state at odds with the order of modern nations. Its buildings, freeways, shopping malls and cars may be modern and fancy, but they are just a facade hiding an archaic polity.

The ruling family has opted for a sociopolitical system that is allied to the "ulema"; protected by a network of draconian security agencies that show no mercy towards dissidents; steeped in nepotism and influence-peddling; wedded to obscurantism; and that asserts its presence in world politics using the power of Riyalpolitik.   

Worse still, at the heart of this peculiar regime - depicted by one political scholar as a "pious kleptocracy" - is a culture that harbours a deep animosity towards liberties and any form of bottom-up change.

This hostility has been so powerful - as though freedom is a plague from which one should take refuge - that it has shaped the genes of this state, both politically and culturally.

Of course, in the Arab world, most, if not all, regimes tend to oppose reform, but the ruling Saudi family have the financial means to bail out autocrats, give them the kiss of life when threatened, and, if necessary, replace them with other subservient autocrats in order to buoy their regimes and the region's club of despots.

Unsurprisingly, then, the kingdom was, almost by instinct, unalterably opposed to the voices of the Arab street, clamouring for freedom in the potent 2011 Arab Spring protests.

From day one, Saudi Arabia became the Arab Spring's foremost enemy

From day one, Saudi Arabia became the Arab Spring's foremost enemy. Not only did it stand firm behind the region's dictators, but it also encouraged regional and international powers to toe the same line.

This belligerent posture soured Riyadh's longstanding relations with Washington. President Obama, the oil princes thought, did little to save Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Ben Ali - who, lest we forget, had killed hundreds of peaceful protesters in full gaze of the world.

Culturally, the kingdom's conservatism has undermined the efforts of liberal religious reformers in Egypt and the Levant, attempting to renew the religious discourse and reconcile Islam with modernity. Much has been written about the Islamic Republic of Iran's attempts to export its "revolution", but much less about Saudi Arabia's export of its Islamic "ideology".

Based on a marriage of power between the royal family and the clerics, the kingdom had espoused Wahhabism, a narrow, dogmatic and ultra-conservative variant of Islam. Not only is this version pitted against modernism, against life itself, but it is also against the true principles of Islam.

To buttress its image among Muslims as the voice of Islam and "the guardian of the holy mosques" - and to gain political currency - Saudi Arabia made a concerted effort to spread this narrow understanding to Muslim-majority countries in the Arab world, Africa and East and Central Asia.

Decades of extensive funding to charities, mosques, learning centres and, in Pakistan and Bosnia, madrasas and training camps run by zealot Wahhabis, produced generations of young Muslims who loathe non-believers, view women as a source of fitnah (temptation or affliction), and consider armed struggle to be the panacea for all ills. 

Can a democratic, progressive and non-sectarian Arab world ever see the light of day?

Similarly, years of generous support for the "mujahedeen" in Afghanistan bred al-Qaeda, which orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, and which has morphed into what is now known as global jihad.   

To add insult to injury, Saudi Arabia has in recent years been heaping oil on the fire of sectarian strife, adding an unnecessary cause of unrest to a region already awash with conflict and instability.

Today, nearly all civil conflicts in the region, especially in Yemen and Syria, have turned into proxy wars between Riyadh and Tehran, loaded with a heavy dose of sectarian overtures.

Various scholars have championed the argument that Saudi Arabia is heading for a quick collapse.

Renowned British historian Robert Lacey said of the kingdom: "In theory, Saudi Arabia should not exist - its survival defies the laws of logic and history."

But it did, and alas continues, to use its vast wealth to back dictators, hamper change, toy with the fates of other nations, ignite sectarianism and spread a radical version of Islam.

Saudi Arabia is certainly not the only source of evil in a region caught in the grip of numerous misfortunes.

However, if these practices go on unabated, can a democratic, progressive and non-sectarian Arab world ever see the light of day?  

Nael Shama is a political researcher and writer who is specialised in Middle East politics. 


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.