Saudi Arabia’s public image began to change in a positive sense in early 2018: the first cinema opened in 35 years, beginning in June women were finally permitted to drive cars, and the entire country was set to gradually open as part of what the government calls “Vision 2030”. The plans of the state’s new strongman, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (popularly known as “MbS”), sounded promising, but all hopes for a Saudi Spring were destroyed when the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered in Istanbul last autumn. The fact that his assassins were most likely connected to the highest echelons of Saudi power sent a clear—and ominous—signal to all oppositional forces in the country.
The country on the Arabian Peninsula plays an important role in the region’s geopolitical affairs. Central to this is the alliance formed between the Saud tribe and the Wahhabis, the group around Islamic preacher Abd al-Wahhab, in the mid-18th century. The latter presided over the country’s religious and spiritual leadership, while the Saudis consolidated military power. This led to a mutual legitimation of two powerful factors—an alliance that led to the founding of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 and continues to hold today. Saudi power has been kept alive by shipments of Western weapons and other armaments: despite prominent criticisms of the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, many Western states including Germany continue to do business with the regime.
The first signs of critical currents developing in this largely isolated country emerged during the bloody hostage situation in the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. The attack, leading to nearly 1,000 deaths, targeted the Saudi royal family directly and is regarded as a pivotal moment in the emergence of Islamist terrorism. The attackers all came from a Sunni-Islamist background, which continues to represent the largest oppositional current in Saudi Arabia today. It is the biggest threat to the ruling family, as it targets the regime’s religious and spiritual legitimacy. The Saudi king’s self-image as “protector of the holy cities” of Mecca and Medina allows the regime to depict itself as without alternative in the global Muslim context.
Today’s Islamist opposition has its roots in the Sahwa Movement, which began to articulate a religiously grounded critique of Saudi politics beginning in the 1980s and increasingly in the 1990s. The movement consisted of a circle of intellectuals, small but well-connected in the education sector, who sought to instigate a reform discourse on a strictly Sunni-Islamist foundation. In 2009 and over the course of the Arab Spring in 2011, representatives of the Sahwa Movement organized petitions to the ruling family calling for an elected parliament and the release of political prisoners. Today the Islamist opposition is heavily restricted, as the regime fears that it could mobilize a critical mass of its citizens.
Quantitatively less significant is the Shiite opposition. Half of the population belongs to the Shiite faith in some cities in the country’s east, comprising roughly ten percent of the population across the country. The regime reacts harshly to critical voices from this current for three reasons: firstly, Shiites are not considered real Muslims by Wahhabi hardliners. More important, however, is the strategic element: the country’s east is the core area for Saudi oil production. The state firm Aramco controls the second-largest oil reserves in the world and has its headquarters in the eastern province of Dhahran on the Persian Gulf. The third reason is because the Saudi rulers suspect all Shiites of being receptive to Iranian propaganda and acting as a kind of fifth column of their reviled neighbour, and thus exercises a zero-tolerance policy against (even alleged) Shiite criticism. According to actual research, however, there is no evidence for an actual proximity to Iran on the part of the Shiite population in the eastern province. Saudi Arabia also suspects Iranian influence in Yemen, where it has waged a war since 2015 that has now become one of the world’s biggest humanitarian catastrophes.
The third oppositional current in the country is comprised of non-religious forces, also including progressive left-wing movements. It is rather small, unorganized, and hardly dangerous to the regime, yet simultaneously gets attention in the West: for here is where activists for general human rights, women’s rights, the rights of minorities like Shiites and atheists, or for the rights of migrant labourers are found. Until Muhammad bin Salman’s assumption of power criticism from this direction was possible to some extent—protests against the ban on women driving were repressed and punished, but with less draconian sentences than critique from Shiite or Sunni oppositionists.
Muhammad bin Salman’s rise prompted the regime to tighten the screws on the opposition. Although his “Vision 2030” planned for an opening of the country also in terms of society, these reforms are all determined exclusively from above, while political participation remains utterly foreign. Since Muhammad bin Salman took command, Wahhabi clerics have been majorly restricted. As media reported, death sentences were recently issued for the prominent Muslim scholars Salman al-Auda and Awad al-Qarni. Such executions are always also intended as demonstrations of power and intimidation.
The Saudi government is currently violently suppressing public discussion—observers agree that the repression of critics was never as intense as it is now. Leftist, progressive, and activist voices like well-known women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul or Walid Abu al-Khair, winner of the 2018 alternative Nobel Prize and former lawyer of arrested blogger Raif Badawi, are either in prison or keeping their divergent opinions to themselves. In the past, the Saudi government often managed to quiet or hold back critical voices through financial contributions. After taking office in early 2015, King Salman distributed generous subsidies to associations and organizations as well as bonus payments to certain segments of the population. A majority in the country prospered for a long time, health care and social insurance are free for all citizens, allowing many Saudis to live a seemingly comfortable life.
This is now changing: many well-educated Saudi men and women want more than just to just live the easy life and are entering the labour market. Unemployment numbers are rising while at the same time the economy remains far too dependent on the ultimately finite supply of oil. Muhammad bin Salman is attempting to concentrate all power in the state (which is changing faster than ever before) in his hands—dividend payments from the Aramco oil company are to flow directly into the PIF state funds, which are directly controlled by MbS. Whether this power grab will ensure that hitherto oppressed groups like women or minorities can win a degree of political participation in the country appears doubtful, to say the least.
Christopher Resch works as a freelance journalist primarily on West Asian and North African issues, and edited the volume Medienfreiheit in Ägypten (2015). Before that he worked for the Goethe Institute in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Translation by Loren Balhorn.