Saudi Arabia campaign in Yemen masks widening domestic unrest

By Afshin Shahi, University of Bradford

The conflict in Yemen, which is rapidly piling up a disturbing body count, is remarkable for the overt and prominent role played by Saudi Arabia which is the power behind an impressive coalition of regional states which support their campaign, largely seeing the conflict as a proxy for a campaign against Iran.

But while, understandably, Riyadh does not want to compromise on its regional sphere of influence, the Yemen conflict is also being used for internal political consumption. Saudi Arabia projects confidence, but in reality it is not a very stable nation. The threat of tribal, sectarian and class paradoxes within the kingdom is much graver than the threats imposed by so-called Shia Crescent.

The Saudi political elite either ignores the prevailing challenges or tries to compensate for internal problems with an assertive foreign policy. Using foreign policy as an effective tool to control internal dynamics has been common practice for a very long time in the region – an “external enemy” can be used to generate unifying nationalism or to legitimise a security state. It’s an especially useful tactic for authoritarian regimes.

For Saudi Arabia, the ramifications of this conflict go way beyond Riyadh’s regional ambitions. The war in Yemen has significant internal political implications for the new king and his new political entourage. King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud took over his position in January 2015 and in less than three months he embarked on the most ambitious Saudi foreign policy in years. Although Salman’s early political manoeuvring suggest that foreign policy is going to be his main preoccupation, there are also various factors threatening the stability of his kingdom internally.

A nation divided

Since 1973, when the oil crisis loomed large over the world economy, Saudi Arabia has been portrayed as a powerhouse which is a centre of wealth, prosperity and stability. However, this image does not reflect the prevailing realities on the ground. Although the kingdom has one of the highest concentrations of super rich households in the world, more than 20% of its population live in poverty. The net worth of the royal family is around $1.4 trillion and thousands of princes enjoy the glitz and glamour of their membership of the richest family in the country. Yet many struggle to get by on the fringes of Saudi society.

Not so impressed with Saudi foreign policy: Houthi protesters in Sanaa, Yemen.
EPA/Yahya Arbah

More than two-thirds of Saudi nationals are under the age of 30 and almost three-quarters of all unemployed Saudis are in their 20s. Many of them are graduates and expect secure government posts – but jobs are getting scarcer and people closer to the corridors of power always have a better chance of securing them.

Although the previous ruler, King Abdullah took some positive measures to address internal economic problems, poverty and anger over corruption continues to grow. Saudi Arabia has an expensive welfare programme, yet this extreme gap between the haves and the have nots is becoming a ticking time bomb which at any given time could break the surface and reveal hidden tensions in the Saudi society.

Not too surprisingly, a large segment of the foreign fighters in ISIS are young men from Saudi Arabia. There are reportedly more than 2,500 Saudi nationals who have joined trans-national jihad and many of them regard the Saudi state as religiously and politically corrupt. Having a large presence in ISIS may also indicate that there is a body of the population which is sympathetic to the Islamic Caliphate – and this could be a very serious security threat for the state. Factors including poverty, corruption and social injustice will continue to transform sympathisers into security dynamite.

Sectarian tensions

Sectarianism is equally threatening the stability of the Kingdom. About 15% of the population are Shia who have been subject to systematic discrimination from the inception of the modern kingdom in 1932. A large segment of the Shia population, lives in the oil rich Eastern Province, but their economic, social and religious lives are heavily restricted by the state which champions Wahhabism.

The Arab uprising, which unleashed a new wave of sectarianism in the region has fuelled sectarian tensions in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Shia protesters, who were initially inspired by the so-called Arab Spring now have a much more explicit sectarian tone. This is partly a reaction to the increasing sectarian policies of the Saudi state in the wider region, which have triggered an obvious backlash at home.

Since the beginning of the Saudi campaign in Yemen – which has a clear sectarian agenda, tension has increased at home. The verbal attacks against the Shia are increasing in the social media and many religious figures openly continue to insult the Shia creed. Lately, some Saudi Shia have carried out gun attacks on police in Qatif) and these scattered flashes of violence are increasingly making the country unstable.

On Wednesday 8 April, after two police officers were shot dead by unknown assailants in Riyadh, the governor of the Eastern Province, Saud bin Nayyef bin Abdel Aziz publicly stated that “evil filth” are living in the country’s Shiite community. This kind of rhetoric is only going to further antagonise the Shiite community which in its turn result in more clashes against the state.

The pressure is rapidly increasing on the Saudi state. While King Salman would like to portray himself as the policeman of Sunni Islam and the man who restored order to Yemen, there is growing evidence that House of Saud is built on sand and the the foundations are liable to shift.

Saudi nationalism may indeed be stimulated by confronting Iran through yet another proxy war in Yemen, but whatever happens in Yemen can only mask the deep-seated structural problems which are starting to cripple the state.

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