The US alliance with Saudi Arabia has been something of an embarrassment for the political establishment for years now, what with the Saudi monarchy’s total hostility to the most basic democratic freedoms, its ultra-bigoted policies targeting women and religious minorities and the country’s generally quasi-fascistic social structure.
On the other hand, the Saudis have guaranteed the US access to endless supplies of cheap oil, facilitating its rise as a global superpower. You can see why generations of presidents have been prepared to look past a few pesky human rights abuses and give the Saudi monarchy carte blanche to arrest, torture and execute whoever it dislikes.
In recent times, though, things have been unravelling a bit for the Saudis.
At a regional level, their hated rival, Iran, has been gaining influence, especially in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. In 2015, the Saudi government used its enormous military hardware – purchased from Britain and the US – to intervene into Yemen’s civil war and send a strong message to its competitors. This has involved blockades denying millions of people food, medical supplies and drinking water, and thousands of air raids on civilian and military targets.
US and Australian forces have been providing crucial logistical and military support facilitating the onslaught, which has caused at least 10,000 civilian deaths and created widespread famine, the world’s worst cholera epidemic and almost total social collapse.
While not as immediately threatening for the house of Saud, tensions have been multiplying on the domestic front too. The Arab Spring of 2011 resulted in sizeable protests in Saudi Arabia, including several joint actions by Shi’ite and Sunni communities.
The regime punished this heroic activism by attempting to obliterate the Shi’ite areas in the east and south of the country and executing hundreds of activists. This opposition still exists, even if it is currently unable to mobilise on the streets. Making things worse for the government has been the collapse in oil prices, putting an enormous hole in the state budget.
Enter crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. As minister for defence in 2015 he initiated the barbaric assault on the Houthis in Yemen, hoping to unite his troubled nation behind a glorious war and build a reputation for himself as a decisive leader. On the military front, at least, he has spectacularly failed. The war has been an expensive disaster that has added pressure on already strained government coffers.
Despite this, Mohammad bin Salman has become the most powerful man in Riyadh, responsible for harsh cuts to government subsidies, wages and public sector employment as well as the unprecedented privatisation of part of the huge oil company ARAMCO. He’s also a champion of “special economic zones” where bosses can exploit the lucrative combination of a tax-free environment and a highly precarious, largely migrant workforce.
These atrocious policies have received sparse coverage in the liberal Western media, complicit as they are in the alliances and perspectives of US imperialism. Instead, we have been asked to celebrate the “modernising” project of the new crown prince, symbolised by his not so radical but highly publicised promise to allow women to drive by June 2018.
The sycophantic New York Times described the reform as “remarkable”, while here the ABC feted king Salman and bin Salman for bravely “testing the waters” in their honourable quest to improve women’s rights. At a recent economic forum, Tony Blair gushed over the Saudis for their incredibly progressive move of allowing men and women to sit together.
These social reforms are being implemented to build support for a regime in deep malaise and to distract from growing criticism of its economic, political and military failures. They leave untouched a highly sexist, racist, undemocratic and economically unequal society.
Further, they provide political cover for the crown prince’s blatant power grab. He has now announced a plan to lead an “anti-corruption campaign” that will allow him to marginalise rivals, with the long term perspective of marketising increasing sections of the Saudi economy.
By uncritically celebrating these superficial improvements to the appalling status of women and by presenting them as the work of enlightened elites rather than of years of grassroots resistance, Western states and their obsequious media are helping to defend a reactionary social system that is a key prop of US interests in the region.
The Saudi monarchy must be destroyed, not reformed, and it should be migrant women who operate the guillotines. That would be an achievement worth celebrating.