By Sammy Barker
The vile murder of Jamal Khashoggi has prompted an apparently unexpected crisis within the Saudi regime. All its imperialist backers are writhing with embarrassment. Angela Merkel has, perhaps, suspended arms transfers. Justine Trudeau is, maybe, seriously considering breaking contractual delivery of armoured vehicles. Jeremy Hunt, on behalf of the Tory government, is not just concerned, he’s animated even to the point of introducing sanctions against named Saudis. Donald Trump is introducing sanctions against the same individuals, and threatening more if the agony doesn’t cease. Simultaneously, some tax exempt billionaires and CEO’s aren’t appearing at an investment bazaar in Riyadh this week.
And all because the energetic, young, modernising reformer turned out to be the aristocratic despot he always was, and will be.
At the same time, Mark Lowcock, UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Energy Relief Coordinator, reported that Yemen, already the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world, could become the worst famine in the world for the past hundred years. Strangely, there has yet to be a comparable shift within the bourgeoisie against supporting the Saudi led war on Yemen which has created this genocide of a nation.
The peculiar nature of the immediate crisis is surely expressed in the disproportionate response to these two events. But nothing is explicable without investigating the roots of the political impasse in Saudi Arabia, and its military impasse in Yemen.
The Saudi state – imperialism’s absolutist protégé
At the start of the twentieth century, the Saudi state was created by imperialism sponsoring the rise of one particular tribal family as part of integrating the region into the world economy. The Al-Saud family was assisted by military and political means in a series of tribal wars which resulted in a centralised power over a large part of the Arabian peninsula. The British government recognised Ibn Saud’s domination in 1915, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was declared in 1932.
The decline in British power in the region meant that the real consolidation of the state was under US promotion, with the regime never having been a British colony or protectorate. The first oil concession was signed in 1933, and the first export of oil began in 1939. The initial concession was given to Standard Oil of California. Under the patronage of the US, and with the rental income from its huge oil reserves, the modern Saudi state became viable – the only state named after a family.
The nature of the Saudi state reflects this combination of a tribal aristocracy within the world market. The state is bourgeois, but dependent. It is absolutist, but the princes are trained in bourgeois universities. Society is led by a large aristocracy, thousands strong, but these warriors of the desert have engaged in nothing more dangerous than playing an X-box in a palace.
The governance is then aristocratic, with the princes receiving posts in the bureaucracy and state owned industries. The state is large but with no democratic accountability. It is extremely repressive, with an inflated security apparatus; including forces to police the restrictive morality of the state sponsored religion. The state is sectarian, its Wahhabis theology characterising other sections within Islam, such as the Shia, as heretics. It is highly militarised, in 2017 military spending accounted for 10.3 per cent of GDP.
In 2017, Saudi Arabia was estimated to have the second largest oil reserves in the world, after Venezuela. In 2016, Saudi Arabia was the second largest producer of oil, after Russia. This is a state built up from the proceeds of a single commodity.
Two sources of the current crisis
The current crisis of the state has one of its sources in the revolutions of 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt. Clearly any popular movement is a mortal threat to such a closed and socially exclusive state. Consequently the regime engaged in an extensive intervention across the Arab world to reverse the generalised uprising of young Arabs. Thus the Saudis undertook major political, military and diplomatic counter-revolutionary initiatives in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen.
Yet since King Salman came to the throne in 2015, and Muhammed bin Salman was appointed Crown Prince in 2017, the Kingdom’s foreign policy has encountered serious setbacks. Despite superior military hardware the war on Yemen has been unsuccessful. The attempt to change the composition of the Lebanese government through the abduction of Prime Minister Hariri was a fiasco. The attempt to reduce Qatar to a vassal state through a siege has merely resulted in it strengthening relations with Turkey and Iran. The intervention in Syria has ended in the military defeat of the armed Salafist groups sponsored by the Saudis.
The other main source has been the deteriorating economic situation of the Saudi state. Whilst the Saudi state is repressive, it is not possible to sustain a modern state by repression alone. The vast resources coming to the state from oil revenues has meant that the state has been able to cushion its citizens. Without any form of direct taxation, Saudi citizens were provided with access to housing, health, education and public sector employment. This does not apply to all residents in the kingdom. The large numbers of migrant workers are excluded from these benefits. In 2012 migrants made up 32 per cent of the population, but constitute 55 per cent of the workforce. The overwhelming majority of migrant workers are in the private sector where there is no minimum wage, no rights to unionisation, no security of employment, and where residency can easily be lost. This differentiation gives Saudi citizens an interest in the continuation of the regime.
The economic crisis from 2008, and particularly the collapse of world oil prices after 2013, has meant that the Saudi regime’s model of sponsored civil peace has run into a funding crisis. A shift is being made to reducing state expenditure and increasing income through a neo-liberal policy, summarised as ‘Vision 2030’. Amongst its policies are increasing entry taxation of migrant workers, efforts to encourage Saudi citizens to work in the private sector, and privatisations including a partial float of the giant state oil company, ARAMCO. Despite much encouragement from imperialist circles, results appear meagre. The high profile flotation of ARAMCO has been cancelled.
Hoping for a scapegoat
Jamal Khashoggi’s murder has cast doubt upon the credibility of a regime already straining to address a deeper crisis. Although closer to the Muslim Brotherhood, Khashoggi was generally supportive of the regime’s foreign policy, particularly in Syria and Yemen. He was supportive of the economic liberalisation. The impact of his death in bourgeois circles in the imperialist countries derives from his very integration into Saudi/US relations. A well respected columnist for the Washington Post, and resident in the US, his arbitrary and apparently gruesome death suggests that doing business with the Saudi regime maybe risky.
The regime is hoping that supplying a few scapegoats will suffice to end the demands for a complete answer on the murder. Trump seems anxious to aid this, for he wants the Saudis to maintain the broad thrust of their policy. Whatever secondary differences may exist with the Saudis, such as on Qatar, Trump values the regime’s enthusiasm for confronting Iran. Equally Trump sees the Saudis as critical to cut the so-called deal of the century for Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.
Further, it will be of concern that there may be few avenues for a peaceful change in leadership inside the royal family. King Salman first overrode the anticipated protocol in appointing Muhammad ibn Nayif as Crown Prince. He then repeated the breach in appointing Muhammed bin Salman as Nayif’s replacement. Ignoring the royal family’s ‘Committee of Allegiance’ in this process weakens the sense of mutual influence which is part of the balance within the aristocracy. Further the current Crown Prince has centralised three offices of state security under his control, upending the traditional distribution of these posts.
Nor should the sheer ruthlessness of this regime be underestimated. Last year 326 prominent businessmen, including some of the richest in Saudi society, were detained without trial. Only by surrendering property or cash did they gain release. Many were tortured, and 56 are still detained. The Crown Prince has his own mother under house arrest, and a brother placed in exile. Change in the hierarchy is hazardous, but the depth of the crisis must mean it is still possible.
The long struggle for Yemen’s sovereignty
Undoubtedly the most intractable problem the regime faces is in the war on Yemen. Despite a huge military campaign, the war has been at a strategic impasse since 2015. The recent launching of an offensive against Hodeida on the west coast begun in June was an attempt to break the impasse. The Saudi-led coalition, and particularly the United Arab Emirates, had been lobbying the US for over a year beforehand, seeking support for the offensive. Finally Trump endorsed the action, and US and French Special Forces assisted, yet four months later it is evident that there is no essential military progress. The risks of this action are of a breach in the channel of imports to the majority of the population – hence the dangers of the worst famine in a century.
This most recent invasion and occupation is the latest in the long struggle for Yemen’s sovereignty. The formation of a centralised state in Yemen is also a relatively recent development. Before the twentieth century, the major interest of the colonial powers was in the natural port of Aden in the south, which the British occupied from 1839. The Ottoman’s occupied Sana’a in the north from 1872, although they had ruled part of the area previously.
The country was poor then, and even today is the poorest Arab country. Trading and subsistence agriculture were the main economic activities. At the start of the twentieth century, the British consolidated the southern border from the side of their South Arabian protectorate (current day Oman and smaller emirates). After the break-up of the Ottoman Empire from 1918, an independent Imamate was established in the north. This state, led by a minority Zaydi Shia Imam, negotiated a north/south border with Britain in 1934. The Saudis launched a war against the Imamate and seized three provinces in the north, which they retain today.
A major change occurred in the region occurred with the rise of Arab nationalism. This followed the overthrow of King Farouk in Egypt by the Free Officers movement, bringing Gamal Abdel Nasser to the leadership of Egypt. The Yemeni Imamate joined Egypt and Syria to form the short lived United Arab Republic in 1958. In the south, British imperialism established the Federation of Arab Emirates of the South bringing most of the west and part of the east under British domination.
Subsequently, between 1962-1970 a civil war was fought in the north, this resulted in the replacement of the Imamate with the Yemen Arab Republic. In the south, the National Liberation Front was established in 1963 to wage war against British imperialism. This ends with the defeat of Britain in 1967, and the establishment of the People’s Republic of South Yemen, later renamed the People’s Democratic Republic of South Yemen. The latter was the first workers state in the Arab world, led by the Yemeni Socialist Party.
These two states were on the opposite sides in the Cold War. The north was supported by the imperialist powers, and the south by the USSR. Commercial quantities of oil had been discovered in 1984, but the reserves are not large, so that the type of economic expansion seen elsewhere in the Gulf has not been possible. With the restoration of capitalism in Eastern Europe and the USSR, the position of the People’s Republic became unviable. Unity talks commenced on a single Yemeni state, and this was established in 1990 as the Republic of Yemen. There was a later attempt as secession by southern forces, but this was defeated militarily in 1994.
From nominal to real independence?
From 1994 the unified republic has been highly centralised under the Presidency of Ali Abdullah Saleh. In 1995 the country was placed under an IMF adjustment programme. Given the diversity of history, and the limited economic resources, the tensions within society remained profound. These were exacerbated by the methods of patron/client politics carried out by Saleh and associates.
In the north, the Saudis attempted to engineer social influence through the funding of madrassas. Given these promoted sectarian beliefs against the majority of the local population there was an inevitable response. A Zaydi revival movement arose, combining a defensive religious purification with an assertion of the independence of Yemen from Saudi Arabia and imperialism. This expressed itself first as the Houthi militias, and a parallel political movement, which evolved into the armed party, Ansarallah.
The regime’s system of patronage promoted corruption and the social marginalisation of forces lacking this patronage. This was domestic divide and rule, or ‘dancing on the heads of snakes’ in Saleh’s words. Inevitably serious social forces rejected the corruption and reacted against their isolation for power. In the north this was led by the forcers that made up Ansarallah, and in the south by former cadres of the People’s Republic, who established a new movement for secession, called Hiraak. The tensions were very acute, between 2004 and 2009 there were six wars between the Houthis and the state, including direct Saudi involvement at one point. In the south Hiraak was not militarily assertive, though there were major demonstrations, but it was much divided and the government marginalised it.
But the impact of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 meant that all the disaffected forces north and south found a common focus against the national government. Vast demonstrations were held, and there were uprisings throughout the country. The opposition alliances involved Ansarallah, Hiraak, Al-Islah (the affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood), newly radicalising youth and students, and others. This split the army and state apparatus. The revolutionary forces had brought the country to a standstill, but were not yet able to impose a solution.
To overcome this deadlock, the Gulf States – particularly Saudi Arabia – backed by the US, created a transition process. This saw Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi elected for a two year Presidency, in a single candidate election. During that period a national dialogue was to be held, creating a new constitution and an inclusive national government. In reality the old client networks were strong enough to play off the disparate opposition, and prevent a real transition. But these forces were not strong enough to impose the solution imperialism desired – the dissolution of all independent forces under a pro-Saudi government.
At the exhaustion of Hadi’s mandate the strongest forces, those with arms, asserted their needs. Ansarallah took over most of the north, including the capital Sana’a, and even went as far south as Aden. The army remained split, though many went over to Ansarallah. This course was rejected by Al-Islah, who also had militias.
In March 2015, the Saudis led a coalition of Arab states, with US and British backing, in a war against Yemen. Ansarallah have substantial social support, and though they had to concede ground where they lacked a base as in Aden and the south, they have essentially held the territory they secured from 2014 onwards. Effectively there is dual power in Yemen, the majority of the population under Ansarallah, and a minority of the population but a larger geographical area under the occupying forces led by the Saudis and UAE.
The Saudi war has been fully backed by imperialism. The US has provided arms, logistics, Special Forces, drone strikes and mid-air refuelling for the Saudi air force. Britain has provided arms, the majority of the Saudi air force planes, intelligence, and military and civilian staff in the Saudi command centre. Without these efforts from the US and Britain the Saudi war effort would have collapsed long ago in the face of the determined resistance of the Yemeni people.
Starving a nation into submission
The invasion may be deadlocked, but it has created Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe. According to the most recent UN figures, of Yemen’s 28 million population, 22 million need humanitarian assistance and protection. 8.4 million are dependent upon emergency food assistance, and this is expected to increase by between 3.5 to 4 million in the coming months. Currently 3 million are malnourished which includes 1.1 million pregnant women and 400,000 children. So far there have been two major waves of cholera, with a third wave underway – rates of infection doubled in September. The estimate is that this is the largest cholera epidemic in human history.
The situation has been made worse by the Saudi coalition’s siege of the country. Yemen is import dependent for 90 per cent of its food staples. Currently, 80 per cent of its food and other commodities arrive through Hodeida and Salif ports. The current offensive of the Saudis and UAE could cut this lifeline to a country where there are already reports of people surviving by boiling leaves.
The general economic situation is bad. The economy has contracted by 50 per cent since March 2015. 600,000 jobs have been lost in agriculture and the service sector. The national currency, the rial, has lost 47 per cent of its value since last year. The latter has an impact upon the cost of food, with obvious results. It also impacts upon the cost of transport, making it more difficult to travel to medical services, or to flee from bombings or fighting.
The exiled government of ex-President Hadi has so little credibility that it has not been able to establish itself inside Yemen, Hadi is resident in Riyadh. Yet it did manage to engineer the transfer of the country’s central bank from Sana’a to Aden two years ago. This was despite the bank working perfectly well in Sana’a, as Ansarallah did not interfere with it. But the transfer wrecked government finances, meaning that 2 million state employees have not been paid, or only infrequently, for the past two years.
Overall then it is hard to grasp the scale of the catastrophe inflicted upon Yemen by a foreign led war. This is not an example of civil war. This is an alliance of foreign powers, utilising mercenaries and a minority of local forces to starve a nation into submission. One expression of the real character of this assault is in the clear reports of agreements between UAE commanders and Al Qaeda gangs in the coalition occupied south. The UAE has been paying these groups to move out of towns, or villages. There is no fighting, the terrorists simply move on to another place.
Failing and falling apart
The coalition behind the Saudis is fragmenting under the strain. Earlier this year, there was fighting in and around Aden between the militias aligned to the Saud supported Hadi government and those funded by the UAE. The Al-Islah party and militias which had been supporting the coalition have split between pro Saudi, pro UAE and an anti-coalition group. The latter group includes the Nobel Prize winner Tawwakol Karman and is calling for armed resistance to the invaders. There have been major demonstrations inside the south against the UAE’s corruption, occupation and use of torture. Recently there have been protests in the easternmost province of Al Mahra against Saudi bases and the proposal to build an oil terminal. Hiraak, which had been supporting the Saudis, has split – with the most influential section, the Southern Transitional Council and the Security Belt militias calling for an uprising against the occupiers. The clamour of Saudi missiles and guns cannot hide its military failure.
The scandal of Khashoggi’s murder, and the report of the famine in Yemen, is combining to spotlight Yemen. The Labour leadership’s strong stance and demand for an arms embargo is greatly to be commended. Given Theresa May’s insistence upon the British government’s continued support for the war it is evident that mass action will be needed to change government policy. The Stop the War Coalition is promoting a range of activities, along with allies in the Arab community, peace movement, etc., which need to be supported. Now is the time for all concerned to demand an end to arms sales, an end to British complicity with the Saudi war, and to defend the right of self-determination for the Yemeni people.