Skip Navigation

Burning Down the House of Saud: The Conditions for Saudi Arabian Political Reform

In 2006, a teenage girl in Saudi Arabia was blackmailed, held at knife point and gang raped by seven Saudi men. As a response to this abhorrent crime, the country’s Sharia Court issued its judicial punishment for the offender: 90 lashes for the woman who was guilty of “being alone with a man who is not a relative.” Such displays of institutional callousness are not aberrations in Saudi Arabia, where capital punishment is still legally exercised through public beheading, firing squads, stoning, and posthumous crucifixion — the country carried out 157 executions in 2015 alone. As a consequence of the rise of ISIL — a group that is often viewed as an ideological cousin to Saudi Arabia — many recent articles have condemned the US-Saudi alliance. This is at least partially a consequence of the increasing transparency and coverage of Saudi Arabian human rights abuses, such as the aforementioned example, which have helped to offer a more distinct portrait of the state-sponsored sadism and totalitarian enforcement of orthodox Islamism upon which the country is founded.

Beyond this, the House of Saud, currently led by the cognitively declining King Salman, has incited and encouraged sectarian conflict domestically and internationally while simultaneously fostering an orthodox interpretation of Islam (pejoratively referred to as Wahhabism) that has directly contributed to the rise of radical Islamist groups. In addition to the mounting criticism directed towards the Saudi monarchy for its human rights record, the possibility of more amicable US-Iran relations, as well as a dramatic fall in oil prices, seem to have situated the leadership in an existentially precarious position. However, geopolitical circumstances in the Middle East have obstructed substantial regime change and blunted reformist movements, helping to maintain the dominion of the House of Saud despite these factors.

The Saudi Arabian regime has been accused of provoking sectarian strife domestically and internationally in order to consolidate power; they have consistently utilized the 10-15 percent Shia minority in the country as a scapegoat to crackdown on political dissent. Preexisting religious divisions between the Sunni and Shiite Saudis have been exacerbated by the systematic subjugation of the Shia minority since the founding of the House of Saud. This state-sanctioned oppression has included infringements on religious freedom as well as obstructions to political and social involvement. Shiites have been arrested for public religious practices, Shia students are often unable to gain admission to military academies, and there are no Shia government ministers or high-ranking military officers. Moreover, a large portion of the Shiite population lives in the eastern provinces that contain the majority of Saudi oil reserves, yet they have not experienced the economic benefits of oil revenue.

By kindling sectarianism through the oppression of the Shia minority, the House of Saud has attempted to conjure a helpful scapegoat and justification for its authoritarian suppression of reformists. That is, by contending that reformers -many of whom are Shia- are un-Islamic traitors and infidels who threaten the dominance of the Sunni denomination in Saudi Arabia, the House of Saud has been able to limit the effectiveness and support of Shia reformist protests. This approach has resulted in increased sectarian tension that has sometimes manifested in violence. Such flares of antagonism include the 2014 shootings that killed 8 Shiites, the 2012 protests, where 600–800 Shiites were confronted by percussion grenade and rubber bullet wielding police, and the 2011 peaceful protests, in which approximately 20 Shiites died during exchanges with Saudi police officers. In addition to the Shiite community’s economic abjection, political frustration and historical subjugation, these conflicts have led to an increasingly radicalized Shiite population. Today, many young Shiites view the past efforts of moderates to promote political change as ineffective and are increasingly advocating for more extreme approaches to reform the country.

Throughout these protests, the House of Saud has attempted to draw a connection between the Shia protestors and the Iranian government, proposing that such efforts are surreptitious attempts to undermine the Sunni majority. Since Iran maintains a strategically and ideologically antagonistic relationship with Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government’s opposition to Shia groups that they allege are supported by Iran can help improve its popular support. This is why the Saudi execution of the Shia rebel Nimr al-Nimr, the first execution of an Ayatollah since April 1980, evoked outrage from Iran while seemingly bolstering the House of Saud.

In many ways, al-Nimr’s execution exemplifies Saudi Arabia’s precarious position amidst sectarianism; his sentence was issued predominantly because the House of Saud was simultaneously executing a large group of radical Sunnis associated with terrorist movements. Consequently, Saudi Arabia was trying to avoid the dissent of the conservative Sunni members of the country by also executing al-Nimr, but found itself simultaneously enraging Iranian and Shia rivals.

However, as Chas Freeman, the former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia stated in an interview, “the more Iran criticizes the kingdom, the more they strengthen support for the monarchy.” The sectarian conflict within Saudi Arabia, which is paralleled by a larger regional conflict between the two religious communities, has facilitated the regime’s efforts to maintain power by portraying Shia reformist movements as Iran-sanctioned and anti-Sunni, thereby alienating them from possible Sunni allies. A crucial point here is that the presence of this divide today is not simply a reflection of historical or religious differences within Islam; rather, it is the product of a modern cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

This approach seems to be working: on March 11, 2011, moderate Shia activists attempted to ally with Sunni reformists to protest in a “Day of Rage”. However, the inexorable distrust between the two groups undermined these efforts and ultimately destroyed the protest movement.

Sectarian divisions are one major reason why improved US-Iran relations are deeply worrisome for the House of Saud. In the West, a mutually beneficial relationship with Saudi Arabia has become increasingly difficult to justify as recent media coverage reflects the Saudi government’s blatant human rights abuses; Saudi Arabia is increasingly seen as the antithesis to Western democracy and global standards of human rights. As Ambassador Freeman explained, “Saudi Arabia was never colonized by the West and also never underwent a kind of enlightenment — rather, Islamic reformations repeatedly moved the country in the opposite direction of reform.”

This distrust for Saudi Arabia has manifested in President Obama’s increasingly apparent animosity for the Saudi government and has provided even more incentive to reconsider the US relationship with Iran. This is something that would be deeply threatening to the House of Saud; the Saudi regime has historically cultivated a relationship with the US and its allies by providing security intelligence from the region. Now, the recent Iran Deal may very well make Saudi Arabia a politically estranged nation, lacking both financial and military support from the US. However, as Ambassador Freeman pointed out, “we shouldn’t underestimate the difficulty of US-Iran rapprochement, in part because Israel has successfully demonized Iran in the eyes of the American public.” The unyielding Israeli opposition to Iran has ironically been coupled with Saudi Arabian support, and this could be a major reason the House of Saud maintains its special relationship with the US.

The issues facing King Salman’s regime today are augmented by economic concerns that have resulted from cuts to lavish government spending due to dropping oil prices. Historically, when the cost of oil has been higher, so has government revenue. Hence, the government, which collects no taxes apart from the Zakat religious tax, has seen limited opposition to its regime. This has partially been a consequence of the incredibly generous social services that the Saudi Arabian government provides, including the ability to receive fully financed healthcare both domestically and abroad, made possible by oil revenue. Therefore, during periods of high oil prices, reform has been something to be considered, but generally not implemented, and opposition to the House of Saud has remained tepid.

When King Salman ascended to the throne, he halted a brief period of moderate reform; however, as a consequence of decreased revenue from lower oil prices, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef has reinstituted some modest reforms to confront opposition. The reduction of oil prices is problematic especially because an estimated quarter of the population lives beneath the poverty line; the austerity measures that have resulted from the drop in oil prices have had a pernicious effect on lower income families and confounded the country’s ongoing dilemma of youth unemployment.

Moreover, these struggles starkly juxtapose with the apparent financial extravagance of the Saudi Royal Family. For example, stories have surfaced of Princess Maha spending $20 million on luxury designer clothing, and a prince spending another $20 million on a Disneyland birthday party. Although, as Freeman points out, the royal family is a diverse group that has produced “[a prince] who was almost a member of the communist party…religious reactionaries, and one [prince] who was said to be a transvestite ballet dancer in Paris,” there is still considerable backlash against the House of Saud’s extreme wealth and financial waste.

Since the Saudi government generously allocates its resources and doesn’t collect taxes, any regime change would likely be brought on only by more drastic economic turmoil. It is difficult to see the US establishing friendly relations with Iran given regional politics and the sectarian conflict within Saudi Arabia is so inextricably ingrained in the society that serious, unified reform seems unlikely. Consequently, the maintenance of the House of Saud’s power is contingent on a multiplicity of factors, including the results of the upcoming US elections, which will presumably affect US-Iran relations and America’s relationship with Israel, as well as the ability of the royal family to cater to orthodox Sunnis in the country.

About the Author

Julian Jacobs '19 is a Senior Staff Writer and Interviews Associate at BPR concentrating in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE). He is a former Opinion's Columnist for The Brown Daily Herald and the Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Brown University Journal of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (JPPE).