By: Gustav Isherwood
Saudi Arabia is running out of breath. As the flow of petrodollars is reduced to a trickle, Riyadh is no longer able to stave off political dissent through oil-funded welfare packages. As an alternative, it’s attempting to divert public grievances abroad. For this to work, it needs reliable enemies. To maintain its enemies, Saudi Arabia is dependent on British arms with which to stoke conflict.
The Kingdom has been tussling under water with its oil-producing rivals ever since the price per barrel nosedived in June 2014. It has continued to flood the oil market with the intention of squeezing its rivals out of competition. This tactic was employed successfully in the 1970s, with painful consequences for Iran. But this time around, Iran, Russia and the U.S. are all proving resilient. Meanwhile, the pressures for Riyadh are mounting. In fact, of all the oil-producing political heavyweights, Riyadh may be the most fragile.
A significant concern for the stability of the Kingdom is the escalation of internal agitations. Saudi Arabia shares many of the symptoms that heralded messy revolution for its neighboring autocracies. It suffers sectarian tensions and alarming youth unemployment – around 30 percent (ILO). At the same time it hosts an inflammatory youth population. According to the consultancy McKinsey, this will necessitate a trebling of the rate of job creation by 2030. The consequences of failing to do so are glaring in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Libya, where it was their respective youth bulges that spearheaded the uprisings in 2011.
The Kingdom exhibited the same symptoms in 2011 during the Arab Spring, but managed to avoid mass revolt. This was partly thanks to a reliable stream of oil wealth that was channeled into lavish welfare distributions. Days after the collapse of Egypt’s Mubarak, Riyadh announced a social welfare package amounting to $37 billion by the end of the month.
But with oil revenues dwindling and whispers of austerity measures emerging, Saudi Arabia may no longer be able to buy its people into submission. It does have an alternative strategy however— by diverting internal grievances abroad, towards external enemies, Riyadh is maintaining stability at home. This is a strategy in which Britain is a key accomplice.
Riyadh’s most valuable enemy is Iran. This indispensable foe is currently fulfilling its role on at least two fronts. In Yemen, it backs the Houthi rebels against the Saudi-led coalition. And in Syria, it supports the Assad regime against Saudi-backed opposition groups. Both of these battles require a huge amount of weaponry to sustain, which is where the UK comes in. Following closely behind the U.S. as Saudi Arabia’s largest arms supplier (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), the UK provides Riyadh with fighter jets, cruise missiles, assault rifles, hand grenades, and machine guns. It’s not a leap of the imagination then, to recognize the UK’s complicity in the Kingdom’s meddling in Yemen and Syria.
Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen has massive support from the Saudi population, including political dissidents. This is testament to Riyadh’s successful demonization of Iran. But Iran isn’t the only useful enemy pursued by the Saudi regime. Through its interference in the Syrian conflict, Saudi Arabia is nurturing an enemy besides a pro-Assad Iran.
The Kingdom is a munificent supplier of small arms to Syrian “opposition groups.” These groups are sustaining the conflict – along with Assad – and are by no means benign. Amongst them are what we would usually label as Islamist extremist organizations, if not “terrorists”. Jabhat al-Nusra, a group that shares Islamic State’s aspirations for a fundamentalist caliphate, is just one of these recipients. Another is likely to be the Islamic State itself. According to the head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, there is no doubt that private Saudi donors have been fueling the Islamic State surge in Iraq. A recent UK petition lends credence to this view. With over 11,000 signatures, it calls for an investigation into the UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Qatar that are being used by Islamic State.
But why would Saudi Arabia nourish its own terrorist threat? Because paradoxically, the benefits of a “terrorist threat” to the stability of the Saudi regime are great. As the Kingdom’s, if not the region’s, supreme protector, Riyadh is guaranteed acquiescence from its people. We saw a demonstration of this recently. The execution of the Shia Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr along with 46 others on charges of terrorism served to strengthen the support of Sunni hardliners for the Saudi regime.
By continuing to arm Saudi Arabia, the UK is enabling Riyadh to keep its valuable enemies alive and its population submissive, as oil revenues dry up.
Gustav Isherwood is a Masters graduate from the London School of Economics, specializing in demography and conflict in the Middle East. He has also studied ethnomusicology and Arabic at SOAS and worked at the INGO Islamic Relief as a conflict analyst.