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On April 16, Saudi security forces admitted that they shot and killed Abdul Rahim al-Howeiti, an outspoken critic of Muhammad bin Salman’s plan to build a new megacity called Neom (Middle East Monitor, April 17).
Neom is a pet project of Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler. The fantastical city, which will supposedly feature flying cars and an artificial moon, is to be built in the northwestern province of Tabuk. However, much of the land that the city, which is estimated to be 33 times the size of New York City, will occupy, is tribal land.
Abdul Rahim al-Howeiti belonged to the Howeitat tribal confederation whose traditional territory extends across parts of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Palestine. Al-Howeiti refused to sell his land and home to the government and, in online protests, berated the government for ignoring the rights of landowners. The Saudi government, with little or no consultation with locals, is planning to forcibly relocate 20,000 people from the land that Neom will be built on.
The government’s response to al-Howeti’s opposition was to send security forces to his home, where they killed him. Following his death, al-Howeti’s family was arrested (Middle East Monitor, April 22).
The Saudi government’s response to al-Howeti is hardly surprising given its persistent and wide-ranging crackdown on dissidents, illustrated most notably with the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 (Al Jazeera, October 1, 2019).
The killing of al-Howeiti shows that under the leadership of Muhammad bin Salman the Saudi government is continuing its heavy-handed responses to those who oppose it. The chances that these kinds of tactics will result in blowback are steadily increasing. This is especially the case now that the Saudi government is cutting benefits and raising taxes (Al Jazeera, May 13).
Pillars of Support
The House of Saud has long relied on two pillars to hold itself above the people: first is its Faustian bargain with the fundamentalist Wahabbi religious establishment and the second is money. Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler has undermined both. Muhammad bin Salman has attempted to take on clerics who oppose him and his largely superficial reforms by sidelining and even arresting them. Concurrently, Muhammad bin Salman involved Saudi Arabia in an unwinnable war in Yemen which, only until recently, was costing the Kingdom five billion dollars a month. Even before the war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s finances were far from solid despite its immense oil wealth. Profligate spending on vanity projects, such as the proposed mega-city of Neom, and expenditures on bonuses and subsidies to Saudi Arabia’s growing population have undermined Saudi Arabia’s financial flexibility.
Now with a global pandemic and an oil-price war, which was instigated by Saudi Arabia, the state budget is under greater pressure than at any time since the first Gulf War. In response, Saudi Arabia is slashing state subsidies and increasing taxes. Saudi Arabia’s value-added tax will increase to 15 percent and will hit hardest those who can least afford it (The National, May 11). While Saudi Arabia reports the lowest poverty rate in the Middle East, poverty and falling standards of living are both significant concerns in a county where youth unemployment hovers around thirty percent. It is worth remembering that during the 2011 ‘Arab Spring,’ Saudi Arabia’s solution to the unrest was to flood the county with $130 billion in handouts. At the time, that was the equivalent to 80 percent of the annual state budget.
Due to a raft of bad policy decisions and external factors like the coronavirus pandemic, the House of Saud’s ability to paper over discontent with money is now limited. This comes at a time when many of Saudi Arabia’s tribes, like the Howeitat confederation, are being antagonized and sidelined.
Undermining Tribal Support
Nowhere is this conflict with traditional centers of power clearer than in Muhammad bin Salman’s efforts to ensure the loyalty of the Saudi National Guard (SANG). In November 2017, Muhammad bin Salman removed Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, the son of the late King Abdullah, from his post as Minister of the SANG (Egypt Independent, November 6, 2017). Prince Mutaib’s removal and subsequent arrest coincided with the arrest and detention of numerous senior royals, leading businessmen, and generals who were held at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh (Al Jazeera, November 4, 2019). Prince Mutaib, who was long thought to be a potential successor to King Abdullah, inherited command of SANG from his father who held the post for 40 years.
SANG is unique among the Saudi armed forces in that it has maintained its tribal structure. In its earliest iteration, SANG was a collection of tribal militias who were loyal to the House of Saud. The tribal character of SANG remains largely intact as does the loyalty of many of its members to its former commander Prince Mutaib. It is also worth noting that members of the Howeitat tribal confederation, to which the murdered al-Howeti belonged, make up a considerable number of SANG’s men and officers.
SANG was once thought of as a kind of Praetorian Guard for the House of Saud. It was a force where tribal loyalties and traditions were acknowledged yet funneled into support for the Saudi family. This was accomplished through the doling out of money and positions. Now, this support is being curtailed at the same time that Muhammad bin Salman is taking a hardline with tribesmen like al-Howeti.
The harsh measures taken against any who oppose the House of Saud, or, more accurately, Muhammad bin Salman, extend to southern Saudi Arabia as well. There, in the provinces that border Yemen, religious minorities and tribes whose territories extend into and border Yemen, face consistent persecution. This persecution did not begin with Muhammad bin Salman’s rise to power but goes back at least two decades. However, due to the war in Yemen and the threat posed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, persecution of border tribes as well as the region’s population of Zaidi and Ismaili Shi’a has increased. The result is widespread discontent among much of the population of the provinces of Najran, Jizan, and Assir. In these provinces, Houthi forces have launched attacks deep within Saudi territory. Despite the lackluster performance of the Saudi military, it is unlikely that these attacks within Saudi territory would be possible or as frequent without a disaffected local population.
Al-Howeti’s death has already turned him into a martyr. He is being referred to by many Saudis as the “Martyr of Neom.” As a member of a powerful and widely spread tribal confederation, his death will produce blowback just as the persecution of tribes in southern Saudi Arabia has impacted Saudi Arabia’s war with the Houthis. Attacks on tribal lands, loyalties, and traditional seats of tribal power like SANG could not come at a worse time. The House of Saud’s ability to remain in power is – at least partly – dependent on its ability to control and direct tribal loyalties. Yet, with Saudi Arabia facing growing financial pressures, defeat in Yemen, and an absence of prudent leadership, its ability to maintain these loyalties is more imperiled than it has been in decades.