NEW WORLD ORDER: SAUDI ARABIA
(Region E – The Middle East)
Estimated Population (2022): 36,557,000
Saudi Arabia, officially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), is a country on the Arabian Peninsula in Western Asia. It has a land area of about 2,150,000 km2 (830,000 sq mi), making it the fifth-largest country in Asia, the second-largest in the Arab world, and the largest in Western Asia. It is bordered by the Red Sea to the west; Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait to the north; the Persian Gulf, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to the east; Oman to the southeast; and Yemen to the south. Bahrain is an island country off the east coast. The Gulf of Aqaba in the northwest separates Saudi Arabia from Egypt. Saudi Arabia is the only country with a coastline along both the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, and most of its terrain consists of arid desert, lowland, steppe, and mountains. Its capital and largest city is Riyadh. The country is home to Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities in Islam.
Pre-Islamic Arabia, the territory that constitutes modern-day Saudi Arabia, was the site of several ancient cultures and civilizations; the prehistory of Saudi Arabia shows some of the earliest traces of human activity in the world. The world’s second-largest religion, Islam, emerged in what is now Saudi Arabia. In the early 7th century, the Islamic prophet Muhammad united the population of Arabian Peninsula and created a single Islamic religious polity. Following his death in 632, his followers rapidly expanded the territory under Muslim rule beyond Arabia, conquering huge and unprecedented swathes of territory (from the Iberian Peninsula in the west to parts of Central and South Asia in the east) in a matter of decades. Arab dynasties originating from modern-day Saudi Arabia founded the Rashidun (632–661), Umayyad (661–750), Abbasid (750–1517), and Fatimid (909–1171) caliphates, as well as numerous other dynasties in Asia, Africa, and Europe.
The area of modern-day Saudi Arabia formerly consisted of mainly four distinct historical regions: Hejaz, Najd, and parts of Eastern Arabia (Al-Ahsa) and South Arabia (‘Asir). The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932 by King Abdulaziz (known as Ibn Saud in the West). He united the four regions into a single state through a series of conquests beginning in 1902 with the capture of Riyadh, the ancestral home of his family, the House of Saud. Saudi Arabia has since been an absolute monarchy, where political decisions are made on the basis of consultation among the King, the Council of Ministers, and the country’s traditional elites that oversee a highly authoritarian regime. The ultraconservative Wahhabi religious movement within Sunni Islam has been described as a “predominant feature of Saudi culture”, although the power of the religious establishment has been significantly eroded in the 2010s. In its Basic Law, Saudi Arabia continues to define itself as a sovereign Arab Islamic state with Islam as its official religion, Arabic as its official language, and Riyadh as its capital.
Petroleum was discovered on 3 March 1938 and followed up by several other finds in the Eastern Province. Saudi Arabia has since become the world’s second-largest oil producer (behind the US) and the world’s largest oil exporter, controlling the world’s second-largest oil reserves and the fourth-largest gas reserves. The kingdom is categorized as a World Bank high-income economy and is the only Arab country to be part of the G20 major economies. The state has attracted criticism for a variety of reasons, including its role in the Yemeni Civil War, alleged sponsorship of Islamic terrorism and its poor human rights record, which has been characterized by the excessive and often extrajudicial use of capital punishment, failure to adopt adequate measures against human trafficking, state-sponsored discrimination against religious minorities and atheists, and antisemitism, and its strict interpretation of Sharia law.
Saudi Arabia is considered both a regional and middle power. The Saudi economy is the largest in the Middle East; the world’s eighteenth-largest economy by nominal GDP and the seventeenth-largest by PPP. As a country with a very high Human Development Index, it offers a tuition-free university education, no personal income tax, and a free universal health care system. Saudi Arabia is home to the world’s third-largest immigrant population. It also has one of the world’s youngest populations, with approximately 50 per cent of its population of 34.2 million being under 25 years old. In addition to being a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia is an active and founding member of the United Nations, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Arab League, Arab Air Carriers Organization and OPEC.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy; however, according to the Basic Law of Saudi Arabia adopted by royal decree in 1992, the king must comply with Sharia (Islamic law) and the Quran, while the Quran and the Sunnah (the traditions of Muhammad) are declared to be the country’s constitution. No political parties or national elections are permitted. Saudi Arabia is authoritarian, and some critics regard it as a totalitarian state. The Economist rated the Saudi government as the fifth most authoritarian government out of 167 rated in its 2012 Democracy Index, and Freedom House gave it its lowest “Not Free” rating, 7.0 (“1=best, 7=worst”) for 2019.
In the absence of national elections and political parties, politics in Saudi Arabia takes place in two distinct arenas: within the royal family, the Al Saud, and between the royal family and the rest of Saudi society. Outside of the Al-Saud, participation in the political process is limited to a relatively small segment of the population and takes the form of the royal family consulting with the ulema, tribal sheikhs, and members of important commercial families on major decisions. This process is not reported by the Saudi media.
By custom, all males of full age have a right to petition the king directly through the traditional tribal meeting known as the majlis. In many ways the approach to government differs little from the traditional system of tribal rule. Tribal identity remains strong and, outside of the royal family, political influence is frequently determined by tribal affiliation, with tribal sheikhs maintaining a considerable degree of influence over local and national events. As mentioned earlier, in recent years there have been limited steps to widen political participation such as the establishment of the Consultative Council in the early 1990s and the National Dialogue Forum in 2003.
The rule of the Al Saud faces political opposition from four sources: Sunni Islamist activism; liberal critics; the Shi’ite minority—particularly in the Eastern Province; and long-standing tribal and regionalist particularistic opponents (for example in the Hejaz). Of these, the minority activists have been the most prominent threat to the government and have in recent years perpetrated a number of violent incidents in the country. However, open protest against the government, even if peaceful, is not tolerated.
Monarchy and royal family
The king combines legislative, executive, and judicial functions and royal decrees form the basis of the country’s legislation. The king is also the prime minister, and presides over the Council of Ministers of Saudi Arabia and Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia. The royal family dominates the political system. The family’s vast numbers allow it to control most of the kingdom’s important posts and to have an involvement and presence at all levels of government. The number of princes is estimated to be at least 7,000, with most power and influence being wielded by the 200 or so male descendants of Ibn Saud. The key ministries are generally reserved for the royal family, as are the 13 regional governorships.
Long-term political and government appointments have resulted in the creation of “power fiefdoms” for senior princes, such as those of King Abdullah, who had been Commander of the National Guard since 1963 (until 2010, when he appointed his son to replace him), former Crown Prince Sultan, Minister of Defence and Aviation from 1962 to his death in 2011, former crown prince Prince Nayef who was the Minister of Interior from 1975 to his death in 2012, Prince Saud who had been Minister of Foreign Affairs since 1975 and current King Salman, who was Minister of Defense and Aviation before he was crown prince and Governor of the Riyadh Province from 1962 to 2011. The current Minister of Defense is Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the son of King Salman and Crown Prince.
The royal family is politically divided by factions based on clan loyalties, personal ambitions and ideological differences. The most powerful clan faction is known as the ‘Sudairi Seven’, comprising the late King Fahd and his full brothers and their descendants. Ideological divisions include issues over the speed and direction of reform, and whether the role of the ulema should be increased or reduced. There were divisions within the family over who should succeed to the throne after the accession or earlier death of Prince Sultan. When prince Sultan died before ascending to the throne on 21 October 2011, King Abdullah appointed Prince Nayef as crown prince. The following year, Prince Nayef also died before ascending to the throne.
The Saudi government and the royal family have often been accused of corruption over many years, and this continues into the 21st century. In a country that is said to “belong” to the royal family and is named for them,] the lines between state assets and the personal wealth of senior princes are blurred. The extent of corruption has been described as systemic and endemic, and its existence was acknowledged and defended by Prince Bandar bin Sultan (a senior member of the royal family) in an interview in 2001. Although corruption allegations have often been limited to broad undocumented accusations, specific allegations were made in 2007, when it was claimed that the British defence contractor BAE Systems had paid Prince Bandar US$2 billion in bribes relating to the Al-Yamamah arms deal. Prince Bandar denied the allegations. In 2010, investigations by both US and UK authorities resulted in plea bargain agreements with the company, by which it paid $447 million in fines but did not admit to bribery.
In its Corruption Perceptions Index for 2010, Transparency International gave Saudi Arabia a score of 4.7 (on a scale from 0 to 10 where 0 is “highly corrupt” and 10 is “highly clean”). Saudi Arabia has undergone a process of political and social reform, such as to increase public transparency and good governance, but nepotism and patronage are widespread when doing business in the country; the enforcement of the anti-corruption laws is selective and public officials engage in corruption with impunity. A number of prominent Saudi Arabian princes, government ministers, and businesspeople, including Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, were arrested in Saudi Arabia in November 2017.
There has been mounting pressure to reform and modernize the royal family’s rule, an agenda championed by King Abdullah both before and after his accession in 2005. The creation of the Consultative Council in the early 1990s did not satisfy demands for political participation, and, in 2003, an annual National Dialogue Forum was announced that would allow selected professionals and intellectuals to publicly debate current national issues, within certain prescribed parameters. In 2005, the first municipal elections were held. In 2007, the Allegiance Council was created to regulate the succession. In 2009, the king made significant personnel changes to the government by appointing reformers to key positions and the first woman to a ministerial post, however, these changes have been criticized as being too slow or merely cosmetic.
The House of Saud
The House of Saud is the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia. It is composed of the descendants of Muhammad bin Saud, founder of the Emirate of Diriyah, known as the First Saudi state (1727–1818), and his brothers, though the ruling faction of the family is primarily led by the descendants of Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman, the modern founder of Saudi Arabia. The most influential position of the royal family is the King of Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarch. The family in total is estimated to comprise some 15,000 members; however, the majority of power, influence and wealth is possessed by a group of about 2,000 of them. Some estimates of the royal family’s wealth measure their net worth at $1.4 trillion. This figure includes the market capitalization of Saudi Aramco, the state oil and gas company, and its vast assets in fossil fuel reserves.
The House of Saud has had three phases: the Emirate of Diriyah, the First Saudi State (1727–1818), marked by the expansion of Salafism; the Emirate of Nejd, the Second Saudi State (1824–1891), marked with continuous infighting; and the Third Saudi State (1902–present), which evolved into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 and now wields considerable influence in the Middle East. The family has had conflicts with the Ottoman Empire, the Sharif of Mecca, the Al Rashid family of Ha’il and their vassal houses in Najd, numerous Islamist groups both inside and outside Saudi Arabia and Shia minority in Saudi Arabia.
The succession to the Saudi Arabian throne was designed to pass from one son of the first king, Abdulaziz, to another. King Salman, who reigns currently, first replaced the next crown prince, his brother Muqrin, with his nephew Muhammad bin Nayef. In 2017, Muhammad bin Nayef was replaced by Mohammad bin Salman, King Salman’s son, as the crown prince after an approval by the Allegiance Council with 31 out of 34 votes. The monarchy was hereditary by agnatic seniority until 2006, when a royal decree provided that future Saudi kings are to be elected by a committee of Saudi princes. The king-appointed cabinet includes more members of the royal family.
COVID-19 pandemic in Saudi Arabia
The COVID-19 pandemic in Saudi Arabia is part of the worldwide pandemic of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The first case in the kingdom was confirmed by the Ministry of Health on 2 March 2020 and in the following months, the kingdom held the highest number of confirmed cases in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.
The kingdom announced the suspension of all domestic and international travel on March 21; domestic travel being reinitiated on May 21. After curfews and lockdowns were placed on several administrative levels, the number of daily confirmed cases shrunk dramatically and by June 21, all curfews were lifted through a three-phase program enacted throughout the country, except the city of Mecca. By mid-July, the kingdom was seeing more daily recoveries than cases. The Hajj took place with only 10,000 socially-distanced pilgrims allowed to take part in the annual pilgrimage, which fell during the last week of July and the first week of August.
The economy of Saudi Arabia also suffered a heavy impact; a budget deficit of 9 billion US dollars was reported in the first quarter of 2020 caused by the decline in oil prices and the economic effects of the pandemic. Several measures were taken to help stimulate the economy, including increasing the value-added tax from 5% to 15%, effective 1 July, and cutting spending by 100 billion riyals (US$26,600,000,000). As of September 7, the kingdom has seen a little over 320,000 confirmed cases with more than 4,000 deaths attributed to the virus, and international air travel is still suspended. A budget deficit of 40.768 billion riyals was posted by the government in its third quarter of 2020, which was reportedly more than half of the deficit calculated in the previous quarter. The change in figures resulted following the spike in non-oil revenue, which kicked off a continued fall in oil income. The economy is said to further shrink by 3.8% in the remaining months of 2020, as per government estimates due to the impact of coronavirus crisis on the global demand for crude. Riyadh plans to cut down on its spending in 2021 to 990 billion riyals.