Is the beleaguered Saudi kingdom headed for collapse?
by Irfan Al-Alawi
Saudi Arabia is a flagrant violator of human rights, especially of women and religious minorities such as Shia Muslims.
The rigidly purist Wahhabi ideology that originated in central Arabia 250 years ago has suffocated the traditional spirituality of Mecca and Medina and is established as the official Saudi form of Islam.
Wahhabism claims the mantle of Sunnism, an allegation contested by many conventional Sunnis.
In a metastasised form, Wahhabism is now visible in the horrific atrocities committed by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
The income gap between the Saudi royal family and ordinary citizens is egregious, although specific data are lacking because of the absence of transparency in Saudi society.
But about eighty per cent of the workforce is foreign, according to the US CIA World Factbook, and many labourers from Pakistan and Muslim lands in Africa and Southeast Asia, as well as from India, Sri Lanka and South Korea toil in wretched conditions.
Abuses of domestic and other workers are well known.
Although numerous Western Christian specialists keep the Saudi energy industry going, they are denied the freedom to practice their religion.
These ills – mainly the domination of Wahhabism and the disparities in income – are visible particularly in the erection of a massive, overbearing hotel and commercial complex overlooking the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
Islam's holiest site now sits in the shadow of a clock tower reminiscent of a totalitarian monument under Russian communism.
According to Wahhabi doctrine, the sanctity of the Grand Mosque need not be preserved, as it might encourage 'idol worship'.
That attitude is reproduced in the destruction of cultural monuments by the 'Islamic State'.
Until recently, Saudi energy income could be used to balance off threats of unrest.
During the 'Arab Spring' Saudi Arabia was spared upheaval because of popular support for the late King Abdullah Bin Abd Al-Aziz, a reformer.
Further, the state provided large cash infusions for social welfare, including increases in pay and provision of housing.
The bill was reportedly £22bn (then $36bn).
But Saudi cash and oil reserves have diminished dramatically, according to the Financial Times of 28 September. Saudi Arabia has diverted millions of dollars from asset managers worldwide, to cover the growing deficit.
King Abdullah died at the beginning of this year, and was succeeded by King Salman, his half-brother.
Yet the deficient transparency of Saudi society has been aggravated by the new ruler.
On 28 September the Guardian reported that an unidentified member of the generation following Abdullah and Salman is circulating letters calling for the removal of King Salman.
Since they are unsigned, and the KSA is so closed a society, it is impossible to verify whether the letters are authentic.
But anecdotal evidence indicates that resentment is increasing against Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, the king's son and minister of defence, among other titles.
Two recent disasters – the collapse of a crane at the Grand Mosque on 11 September and the stampede during the hajj pilgrimage on 24 September – have taken many lives and underscored the sense among Saudis of a kingdom out of control.
In the crane fall, 111 workers were killed and 394 injured.
Typically, most were foreign: the largest numbers were 25 Bangladeshis and 23 Egyptians dead, and 51 Pakistanis and 42 Indonesians injured.
In the Mina stampede, which took place at a tent city housing hajj pilgrims, the number of dead and responsibility for the disaster are both contested.
The KSA first stated that 769 pilgrims were killed with 863 injured, but since the tragedy occurred higher figures for the victims have been suggested by foreign governments.
On 29 September, the BBC disclosed that Indian, Pakistani, Indonesian, and Nigerian officials had all stated that at least one thousand images of the dead had been received by foreign authorities for identification.
Iran, which is hostile to the KSA, has protested extensively over Saudi mismanagement of the hajj, a duty incumbent on every Muslim who is able-bodied and can afford it, at least once.
Tehran stated through its official medium, Press TV, that its citizens counted the largest number of dead, first at 228.
But then Saeed Ohadi, the head of Iran's Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization, asserted that '3,000 to 3,200' people had died.
The Guardian, citing the BBC, noted on 25 September that Saudi government sources denied a claim that the crush of people at Mina was caused by a traffic blockade headed by the previously-mentioned Prince Muhammad Bin Salman and his retinue.
All of which emphasizes the need in the KSA for transparency, including better policies in cultural preservation and administration of the hajj.