The role of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East

Public beheadings take place each year by the score, frequently for taking part in political protests

by Lutte Ouvriere

For more than two and a half years, Saudi Arabia has been waging a war on Yemen that has already caused 10,000 deaths. Bombing has hit hospitals, schools and military positions indiscriminately. On January 1, 2018, a gas station in the marketplace of Al Hudayadh in West Yemen was hit, killing at least 20 people. According to the Red Cross, the cholera epidemic that is a direct result of the war has affected a million people since March 2017. Due to the embargo imposed by the Saudi regime, famine now threatens 70% of the Yemeni population of 27.5 million.

NZ prime minister John Key visiting Saudi Arabia 2015; what’s a few score of public beheadings a year between friends? Photo: Radio NZ/Kim Baker Wilson

Led by the US, imperialist powers gave their go-ahead, and the Saudis launched Operation Decisive Storm on March 25, 2015. The UN Security Council immediately approved. Great Britain, France and the U.S. supplied arms and military intelligence and continue to do so, ignoring the catastrophic effect on the Yemeni people. Saudi Arabia is now bogged down in this endless conflict.

The Saudi ambassador to the US, Adel al-Jubeir, declared, “We’re doing this to protect Yemen.” Saudi Arabia has interfered in the region for decades, but its aim has never been to protect the population – it has always been to protect its own interests and prove itself a faithful ally of U.S. imperialism. Its role of “gendarme” for imperialism, together with its regional ambitions and the instability of its regime, are the ingredients of an explosive cocktail.

Saudi Arabia’s Regional Ambitions

The ruling dynasty in Saudi Arabia has been scheming in the Near and Middle East for a long time, aided and abetted by imperialist countries.

When the British sought them out early in the 20th century as allies to weaken the Ottoman empire, the Saouds were simply governors of Nejd and Riyadh. On the strength of the financial and strategic help he received from the British, Ibn Saoud used the Ikhwan religious militia to conquer Arabia in a series of bloodthirsty raids. After Ibn Saoud conquered the holy cities of Mecca and Medina between 1924 and 1926, the kingdom of Arabia was born on September 24, 1932.

At that time, Great Britain was the major power in the Middle East, pillaging its main resource, oil. When black gold was found in his kingdom, Ibn Saoud tried to benefit from it. When he couldn’t reach a satisfactory agreement with Great Britain, he turned to the United States. As early as 1933, American companies took control of immense oil deposits. This guaranteed several decades of fabulous income for the oil companies and made the fortune of Ibn Saoud and the royal family.

The United States sealed an agreement with the Saudi kingdom on February 14, 1945, an alliance between master and servant. Ibn Saoud offered oil concessions to the U.S. for a period of sixty years – this period was extended in 2005 – in exchange for U.S. protection. From that moment on, the Saudi kingdom became one of the pillars of imperialism. When the Shah of Iran was overthrown in 1979, Saudi Arabia became the strongest power in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel.

Its pre-eminent position was called in question by the nuclear agreement the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China signed with Iran on July 14, 2015. The agreement liberated Iran from a good number of sanctions. And it demonstrated that U.S. imperialism was willing to let Iran back into the diplomatic game. This increased the Saudi regime’s fear of having to share its regional influence with Iran both politically and economically. For instance, the end of trade sanctions against Iran could well lead to a significant increase in Iranian oil exports to the West, competing with the Saudi oil exports and threatening a heavy blow to the Saudi economy.

Many times during his electoral campaign in 2016, Trump accused Saudi Arabia of being “ the biggest financial backer of terrorism” but, once elected and just like his predecessors, he acted in the interests of imperialism. In May 2017, he chose Saudi Arabia for his first official overseas visit. Once there, he declared the American administration to be in full support of the Saudi regime. He called for a change of regime in Iran. He also announced a 110-billion-dollar contract for arms sales to the Saudis. This encouraged the Saudi regime to initiate a more aggressive policy toward all those within the Saudi zone of influence but who looked to Iran for support. It was time to remind them who was running the show.

On June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia broke off relations with Qatar, accusing it of helping terrorists and working with Iran to unsettle the Saudi regime. These accusations were a bit ironic coming from a regime that has always helped jihadist groups directly and indirectly.

And it is not the real reason that the Saudis are upset. Qatar belongs to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) together with the Sultanate of Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. The Council was created in 1981 on the initiative of Saudi Arabia, which considers these petro-monarchies as its private preserve. But Qatar is getting too independent. The biggest natural gas reservoir in the world lies between Iranian and Qatari territorial waters in the Persian Gulf. The fact that Qatar and Iran have come to an agreement over the exploitation of this reservoir is an old bone of contention for Saudi Arabia. And then there are the Qatari monarchy’s plans for reconstruction in Syria that will be financed jointly with Turkey, not to mention the project for a pipeline linking the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf.

The Saudi authorities want to reign over the Gulf petro-monarchies and, on a wider scale, over all the countries, like Lebanon, that come under their sphere of influence in the Middle East. This preoccupation explains the extraordinary summoning of the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, in November last year. In the eyes of Saudi Arabia’s reigning prince, the Lebanese government is too favorable toward Hezbollah – a party that is linked to Iran and has a government agreement with Lebanon. Hariri’s “resignation,” announced from Riyadh, was a move by the Saudis to unsettle the Lebanese government.

Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s Private Hunting Ground

Saudi Arabia went to war in Yemen in 2015 as part of its aim to control the countries within its sphere of influence. Because of its geographical position, Yemen controls the Mandeb Strait, through which a quarter of the world’s oil moves, along with 10% of all international maritime commerce. Its frontier with Saudi Arabia stretches for 1,770 kilometers. The Saudi kingdom has always considered Yemen its own private domain.

At the end of the First World War and with the collapse of the Ottoman empire, North Yemen was claimed – unsuccessfully – by Saudi Arabia, which had only just been formed. Saudi Arabia was able to grab part of Yemen territory – the Asir, Najran and Jizan provinces – but North Yemen avoided its grasp and became an independent kingdom run by an imam.

Since then, Saudi Arabia’s interference in Yemen’s internal politics has never ceased. In the north, the Saudis gave their support to the imam’s forces. But those forces were overthrown on September 26, 1962, in a revolution led by a group of officers influenced by Arab nationalist ideas and Nasserism. On the strength of popular discontent, they proclaimed the Yemen Arab Republic. Throughout several years of civil war, Imam Badr, who had been chased from power, tried to restore his regime by the use of arms. He was backed by Saudi Arabia and armed by Great Britain. But, with the help of Nasser’s regime in Egypt, the Yemen Arab Republic managed to beat the coalition formed by the Saoud kings of Saudi Arabia and Hussein of Jordan. At the same time, South Yemen ceased to be a British protectorate and became the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), declaring itself socialist and looking to Russia.

The Saudi regime continued to work behind the scenes to weaken its neighbors, using numerous Yemeni tribes that benefited from its largess. Nonetheless, North and South Yemen were finally united in a single republic run by Ali Abdullah Saleh on May 22, 1990. Saleh had been in power in North Yemen since 1978.

When Kuwait was invaded by Saddam Hussein later that year, Saleh remained neutral. Saudi Arabia retaliated: 800,000 Yemeni working in Saudi Arabia were sent home, causing serious economic and social difficulties for Yemen. At the same time, U.S. aid was cut off to Yemen.

Three years later, Yemen imploded again. The southern leaders, helped by ex-PDRY soldiers, tried to secede. A feeling of injustice had spread with the privatization of land and businesses post-unification. The privatization was very profitable for wealthy families in the North, particularly President Saleh’s clan.

Saudi Arabia was again working behind the scenes, sending militias into combat in Yemen. After hard fighting, the secession attempt was subdued in 1994 by the former Northern army, and Saleh held on to his authority. War broke out again in 2004 in the region of Sa’dah. It opposed the Yemeni regime to the Houthi – a movement that grew from the Shiite tribes in the north of the country near the Saudi border. The war lasted for six years. The Saudi regime intervened once again, by helping Saleh’s army to stop the Houthi from coming to power. The emergence of a Houthi regime might have served as a rear base for the Saudi Shiite opposition. And this threatened not only Saudi Arabia’s political stability but also its oil revenue, since most of the Saudi reserves are grouped in the area where the Shiite minority lives.

A Long-term War That Is Disastrous for the Yemeni Population

When the Arab Spring movement of 2011 reached Yemen, challenging the power of dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, Saudi Arabia helped the U.S. to set up an alternative authority to try and damp things down. Working together, they readied Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi – the second in command of the previous regime – in the wings. On November 23, 2011, President Saleh signed an agreement whereby authority would be handed over to Hadi. On February 21, 2012, Hadi was elected president. But the new authority was immediately unsettled by Houthi militia.

These militias had already conquered the north and now moved on to the capital, Sana’a, where they managed to reach an understanding with part of Saleh’s army. In the end, they compelled Hadi to take refuge in Saudi Arabia and Saleh held on to his seat.

On March 26, 2013, the Saudi defense minister announced the beginning of a new Saudi war on Yemen. He had the formal cooperation of nine other Arab countries. He planned to defeat the Houthi and put President Hadi back in power and to do it all within a few days. Two and half years later, this still hasn’t been achieved. On December 2, 2017, Saleh opened an exit route for the Saudis by publicly announcing that he wanted to “turn the page,” breaking off his contingency alliance with the Houthi. His assassination two days later closed that route.

The Saudi-imposed blockade is still in place and the Yemeni population continues to die in the carpet bombing carried out by the Saudis with bombs that are manufactured in imperialist countries. The Saudi forces are the only ones of the Arab coalition fighting, the coalition having no real existence: Egypt refused to send in ground troops, the Pakistani government vetoed all participation, and the support of other countries is purely symbolic. The U.S. armed forces intervene directly only against Al Qaeda positions. It would appear that U.S. leaders prefer to let Saudi Arabia be the only one entangled in this war, all the while publicly expressing their support. On December 14, U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, stated that there was “concrete evidence” that the missile fired on a Saudi airport by the Houthi was of Iranian origin. But the evidence for this is no more convincing than the evidence for “weapons of mass destruction” that George W. Bush brandished to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Authorities in the Saudi capital of Riyadh continue to denounce Iran’s “direct military aggression” against Saudi Arabia. The religious dignitaries continue their invective against “heretical Shiites.” But Iran refuses to be pulled into an all-out war in Yemen.

The Saudi Regime Is Not Stable

On January 4, 2013, Le Monde published the following passage from the blog of Saudi businessman Turki Faisal Al Rasheed, “The real danger for the Saudi authorities […] is not Iran or terrorism but the aspiration toward political, social, economic and cultural reform that would lead to good governance, to development and to the eradication of scheming and corruption.”

A quarter of the world’s oil fields are to be found in Saudi Arabia along with the lowest extraction costs. Oil is what makes the country rich, but the dependence also makes it fragile, since 90% of its budget depends on oil exports. The drop in oil prices since June 2014 has affected the country. As an indication, the price per barrel dropped from $114 in June 2014 to less than $30 in January 2016. During the same period, the kingdom increased its public spending.

The great majority of public money is spent on arms. The Saudi monarchy now spends nearly 90 billion dollars on defense every year. They have the third largest defense budget in the world, behind the U.S. and China, but ahead of Russia. With the war in Yemen continuing, arms purchases are unlikely to diminish.

According to the international organization, Human Rights Watch, the U.S. sold 7.8 billion dollars of arms to Saudi Arabia between May and September 2015. In March of the same year, the British government agreed to deliver military supplies worth 2.8 billion pounds sterling. France also has its finger in the pie: the Saudi crown is its top arms client. According to the 2016 parliamentary report on arms exports, Saudi Arabia was France’s main client for the period 2006-2015, spending 12 billion euros to buy weapons from France – more than Qatar, Egypt, Brazil and India.

Until now, petro-dollars from the sale of black gold have more or less bought a certain level of social peace in Saudi Arabia from top to bottom of the social scale. Some of the oil revenue has been used to guarantee the loyalty of thousands of princes in the royal family and of their clients. The “salaries” thus paid account for two billion dollars a year, i.e. 5% of the kingdom’s public spending. Petrodollars have allowed Saudi Arabia to provide jobs for thousands of public servants, and to subsidize the price of gasoline, water and electricity for households. A great number of gifts are included in what petrodollars buy, cronyism being the kingdom’s way of functioning.

But in the slums of the capital where basic public services don’t exist, there are poor people who haven’t even caught a glimpse of petrodollars. Twenty percent of the Saudi population lives below the poverty line. Unemployment is a scourge that, according to the official figures, touches 12% of the working population. But other studies set this figure somewhere between 20 and 30 percent. Saudi Arabia relies on the cheap foreign labor that constitutes much of private employment. Out of 18 million workers in a population estimated at 33 million, half are immigrant workers.

Due to the crisis caused by the drop in oil revenue, the authorities are having to find solutions to avoid both bankruptcy and a reaction from the population, while maintaining their public assistance policy, their arms spending, and the general financing of their foreign policy.

In order to pay for the 2016 budget deficit, the kingdom resigned itself to issue bonds for the first time since 2007, borrowing 10 billion dollars from JPMorgan, HSBC and Citigroup. Mohammad bin Salman presented a plan modestly named Vision 2030. The plan consists of a number of measures that will reinforce the private sector, including partial privatization of Aramco (Arabian American Oil Company). It appears that 5% of this public oil company may have been put up for sale. This would give foreign investors control over some of the country’s natural resources.

The first austerity measures to hit the population have been drawn up. Employees in the public sector must now pay the totality of their gas, water and electricity bills. There was some protest over the amount of these bills during the first quarter of 2016 but it was limited to social networks. There has been talk of requiring private employers to hire only Saudi citizens and Vision 2030 plans to enact this. The implicit hunting down of immigrant workers in this policy is not new; it has already been implemented in the past, making life even more difficult for immigrants, subjecting them to fines and ill-treatment from the police. Nevertheless, the country still needs this over-exploited proletariat even if it represents a permanent danger for the wealthy.

As the crisis gets worse and its consequences are felt more acutely, the population might well react. Even if the regime is a harsh dictatorship that crushes any attempt at opposition, its use of floggings and decapitations may no longer be a deterrent. At the time of the Arab Spring revolts in other Arab countries in 2011, the previous Saudi King Abdullah set up exceptional measures – wage increases and unemployment benefits – to try and avoid revolts spreading into Saudi Arabia.

Economic difficulties are not the only problem that the authorities have to face in Saudi Arabia. For decades, the Shiites have been a political problem for the Saudi regime, since it relies on a religious hierarchy that preaches Wahhabism, a particularly regressive Sunni variety. Shiites represent 10% of the labor force and mostly live in the eastern provinces of Hassa and Qatif, which are of crucial strategic worth because they hold all of Saudi Arabia’s natural resources. Shiites are a poor population, and no Shiite holds a high-up position in administration, the army or security forces. But Aramco, which does have a monopoly on oil exploitation, employs a large number of Shiites – 40% of its workforce.

There have been quite a few Shiite revolts, including the Qatif and Hofuf riots in 1980-1981 and the demonstrations in support of the Shiites in Bahrain during the Arab Spring. They have been violently repressed every time but the embers are still smoldering.

Even at its summit, the stability of the kingdom has always been fragile because it can be challenged each time authority changes hands. Mohammad bin Salman has the support and legitimacy that comes with being the king’s son, at least as long as the king is alive. In 2017, he made a number of moves to consolidate his power, notably the eviction in June of Mohammed bin Nayef, previous holder of the title of crown prince, and, on November 4 and 5, the arrest of dozens of princes, ministers and businessmen, all accused of corruption. But that may not be enough.

The crown prince is trying to establish himself as a modernist by adopting measures such as opening cinemas and authorizing women to drive. The monarchy nevertheless remains that of another age and has certainly not stopped oppressing women – adultery still carries the death penalty. It continues to repress the slightest protest. Its morality police, the Mutaween, rule the population. A simple blog post can mean several years in prison or even a death sentence.

In 2014, a royal decree defined terrorism as “any act … intended to disturb the public order or to shake the security of society or the stability of the state or expose its national unity to danger … or insult the reputation of the state and its position.” According to an executive order from the minister for homeland security in the same year, the following are considered to be terrorist acts: “calling for atheist thought in any form … supporting, joining or sympathizing with any organization, group of people, movement, current or political party.” The regime still plays on fear to stifle any opposition.

Policing the Region for Imperialist Favors

The U.S., Great Britain and France consider themselves truly democratic countries but they are not in the least bit bothered by the ferocious, dictatorial nature of Saudi Arabia, which even managed to keep its seat on the UN Human Rights Council on October 28, 2016. Despite being what is probably the most reactionary regime in a region that counts several others, it has managed to establish itself as the principal defender, apart from Israel, of U.S. interests in general and U.S. oil companies in particular. The list of services it has rendered is a long one.

In the 1950s, Saudi Arabia served as a barrier against the threat of pan-Arabism and the emergence of Nasser-inspired regimes that were allied with the Soviet Union. In the 1970s, like the Shah’s Iran, it was a pillar of security in the region; the U.S. military spending for the kingdom went from 16 million dollars in 1970 to 312 million in 1972. The Saudis also helped the U.S. by financing the Afghani Taliban in the 1980s. The Taliban were not as useful as U.S. leaders had hoped in stopping the anarchy that followed the retreat of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1988-1989; but they would not have been able to establish themselves at all without Saudi and Pakistani support. Later, the Saudi regime was an ally against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the Gulf war in 1991. The Saudi Ulama even issued a fatwa that allowed American troops to transit through Saudi Arabia before entering Kuwait. Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen was waged with the agreement and active support of the U.S. leaders. But the regime’s loyalty to imperialism has a price that Middle East populations have been paying for decades.


In Yemen, as a result of the war, various jihadist groups have either emerged alongside the Houthi militias or been strengthened, including the Al Qaeda branch in the Arabic Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS. In April 2015, the chaotic situation enabled Al Qaeda to take control of Mukalla, the fifth largest city in the country, and to rule it for a year in alliance with local tribes.

This jihadist expansion was not hindered by the increasing number of U.S. drone attacks or by the raids launched by special forces once Trump came to power. Quite the opposite. Yemen might become a fall-back position for foreign jihadists but, if the conflict continues and degenerates, it could also have the opposite effect and spread Yemeni jihadists throughout the region and even beyond, as happened in Libya following imperialist intervention in 2011.

Yemen is already one of the poorest countries in the world and the state is disintegrating as poverty increases. Today’s bombing engenders despair that is pushing the country further into chaos, making it an excellent recruiting ground for jihadist militias. This dramatic evolution already took place in Iraq, in Syria and further away. Imperialist pyromaniacs are using local pyromaniacs and the fire they have started is spreading. To hold on to their economic and social domination, the major powers are using a bloodthirsty Saudi dictatorship that is helping to drive a whole region into barbarism.

The article above first appeared in Lutte de Classe (Jan/Feb 2018), a magazine produced by the French revolutionary current Lutte Ouvriere.  It was translated by the US-based Spark group. 

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