Whither Saudi Arabia? (& Refusing to join a UN that abets mass murder)

October 21, 2013

Saudi women and children in Riyadh


(This is another is an occasional series of dispatches about Saudi Arabia.)

* “Allowing the ruling regime in Syria to kill and burn its people by chemical weapons, while the world stands idly, without applying deterrent sanctions against the Damascus regime, is also irrefutable evidence and proof of the inability of the Security Council to carry out its duties and responsibilities,” said the Saudi statement. Which is exactly right.

* Wall Street Journal: “The Obama Administration continues to portray the U.N. as a moral arbiter and the linchpin of global security, which shows the continuing power of liberal illusions. After more than 100,000 Syrian deaths, the Saudis are unenthralled.”


* Whither Saudi Arabia? According to energy consultancy PIRA, the U.S. oil output, including biofiels, now beats Saudi Arabia after the shale oil revolution has swelled production.


* This summer, disgruntled Saudis took their grievances online in droves, complaining of ever-growing inequality, rising poverty, corruption and unemployment. Their Twitter campaign became one of the world’s highest trending topics. It caused great alarm within elite circles in Saudi Arabia and sent ripples throughout the region.

* Christopher Davidson: “Many experts believe that the Gulf states have survived the Arab Spring because they are different. After all, they’ve weathered numerous past storms. But they are not different in any fundamental way. They have simply bought time with petrodollars. And that time is running out.”


* Abdel Bari Atwan: “Paradoxically, Assad – who lost the media war at the beginning of crisis – is now all over the international media looking well-groomed and statesmanlike. Recent interviews have included the prestigious U.S. channel CBS and German magazine Der Spiegel.”


You can see these and other items that are not in these dispatches if you "like" this page: www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia.

* There is another dispatch today, which you can read here:
The four things we know about how civil wars end (and what this tells us about Syria).


1. “U.N. Insecurity Council” (Editorial, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 21, 2013)
2. “The Last of the Sheiks?” (By Christopher Davidson, NY Times, Oct. 18, 2013)
3. “U.S. surges past Saudis to become world’s top oil supplier” (Reuters, Oct. 15, 2013)
4. “Saudi Arabia to join U.S. as shale gas producer” (Reuters, Oct. 14, 2013)
5. “Saudis: Swallowing bitter pills” (By Abdel Bari Atwan, Raialyoum, Oct. 9, 2013)
6. “Saudi King’s female advisers ask him to let women drive” (Reuters, Oct. 9, 2013)


I attach six articles on Saudi Arabia, including the editorial from this morning’s Wall Street Journal.

There are many previous dispatches on this list concerning Saudi Arabia, as well as various items on events in the country, the most recent being the sixth item here:

Saudi preacher found guilty of torturing his 5-year-old daughter, beating her to death.

-- Tom Gross


U.N. Insecurity Council
Saudi Arabia declines the honor of joining a body that abets mass murder.
Editorial, The Wall Street Journal
Oct. 21, 2013

Membership in the United Nations Security Council is supposed to be like a Nobel Prize – no one ever turns it down. So when Saudi Arabia declined its invitation to join the Security Council as a two-year, non-permanent member on Friday, you could hear diplomats gasping around the globe.

The decision was even more shocking because of the way the Saudis explained their decision. They essentially said the U.N. body that is supposed to enforce international order has become an abettor of rogues and mass murder.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia believes that the manner, the mechanisms of action and double standards existing in the Security Council prevent it from performing its duties and assuming its responsibilities towards preserving international peace and security as required,” the Saudi foreign ministry said in an October 18 statement, “leading to the continued disruption of peace and security, the expansion of the injustices against the peoples, the violation of rights and the spread of conflicts and wars around the world.”

Specifically, the Saudis mentioned the failure of the U.N. to settle the Palestinian conflict and rid the Middle East of nuclear weapons. But those are old stories. The proximate cause of Saudi anger is Russia’s decision, abetted by China, to veto any Security Council action against Syria.

“Allowing the ruling regime in Syria to kill and burn its people by the chemical weapons, while the world stands idly, without applying deterrent sanctions against Damascus regime, is also irrefutable evidence and proof of the inability of the Security Council to carry out its duties and responsibilities,” said the Saudi statement. Which is exactly right.

Like so many other events these days, the Saudi decision seems to have caught the U.S. by surprise. A day earlier, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power had issued a statement congratulating the Saudis and the other new non-permanent members, including Chad and Chile, on their election to the Security Council.

The Obama Administration continues to portray the U.N. as a moral arbiter and the linchpin of global security, which shows the continuing power of liberal illusions. After more than 100,000 Syrian deaths, the Saudis are unenthralled.


Tom Gross adds:

Saudi Arabia’s rejection of a UN Security Council seat could also have been because sitting on the council may have exposed the highly repressive kingdom to increased scrutiny over its appalling human rights record, which according to Amnesty International has grown significantly worse over the past year, with an increase in the number of people being tortured and held without trial, among other abuses.



The Last of the Sheiks?
By Christopher M. Davidson
The New York Times (Opinion)
October 18, 2013

DURHAM, England -- This summer, disgruntled Saudis took their grievances online in droves, complaining of ever-growing inequality, rising poverty, corruption and unemployment. Their Twitter campaign became one of the world’s highest trending topics. It caused great alarm within elite circles in Saudi Arabia and sent ripples throughout the region. The rallying cry that “salaries are not enough” helped to prove that the monarchy’s social contract with its people is now publicly coming unstuck, and on a significant scale.

Many experts believe that the Gulf states have survived the Arab Spring because they are different. After all, they’ve weathered numerous past storms – from the Arab nationalist revolutions of the 1950s and ‘60s to Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait to an Al Qaeda terror campaign in 2003.

But they are not different in any fundamental way. They have simply bought time with petrodollars. And that time is running out.

The sheiks of the Persian Gulf might not face the fate of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya or Hosni Mubarak of Egypt next year, but the system they have created is untenable in the longer term and it could come apart even sooner than many believe.

Saudi Arabia is the kingpin of the six Gulf monarchies, so its internal stability is crucial for the region, especially since so much attention has now been turned toward these anachronistic political systems in the wake of the 2011 uprisings.

Although it’s never healthy to treat any state as exceptional, Saudi Arabia is indeed a bit different from its neighbors. Unlike Mr. Mubarak or Colonel Qaddafi, Saudi Arabia’s octogenarian king, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, has had the oil-financed means to buy off protesters. He has managed to calm the anger that has flared up in his backyard by ramping up subsidies, dramatically increasing public-sector employment and announcing huge and unprecedented government spending programs. So far, this has been a fast and effective way to keep the masses off the streets.

But this is not evidence of royal resilience, as some Western diplomats and academics have argued. On the contrary, Saudi Arabia’s resource-fueled strategy is a response to rising discontent across the region, and it is driven by a deep-seated fear that restive populations across the Arab world could incite unrest closer to home.

Moreover, spending for stability’s sake in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies will necessarily be quite short-lived. The kingdom pledged a record-breaking $500 billion for “welfare” this year – most to be spent on social security subsidies and new public sector jobs.

Such vast wealth distribution can’t be kept going for much longer. That level of public expenditure is not sustainable and it flies in the face of decades of efforts to promote better fiscal accountability in the kingdom and wean the population off handouts and public-sector entitlement.

Thus, on top of declining oil reserves, rapidly rising domestic energy consumption and increasing energy-supply diversification among its allies, the kingdom’s spiraling spending is also fast raising the break-even oil price for Saudi Arabia and all five of the other Gulf monarchies; in other words, the price of a barrel of oil that these states need in order to balance their books is getting higher and higher. In Bahrain it’s now over $115 (far higher than yesterday’s price of around $102) while in Oman it’s up to $104.

In Bahrain and Oman, dependency on a high oil price is becoming perilous, while in the small oil-rich monarchies, ministers are starting to talk openly of a break-even price. That would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. In early October, even Kuwait received a warning from the International Monetary Fund. It was told it had to rein in its spending on welfare and public sector jobs and boost non-oil income as soon as possible.

Much worse for the Gulf’s ruling families than the looming economic crisis is the fact that their repressive response to protests is now starting to have a demonstrable impact on their legitimacy as carefully honed social contracts begin to fray.

The initial slew of arrests and small number of deaths in the first half of 2011 have since been dwarfed by huge crackdowns. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have been the most brutal, with dozens dead in Bahrain and about 18 killed in Saudi Arabia. All the neighboring states have taken many political prisoners. Last year, Qatar even sentenced a poet critical of autocracies to life imprisonment, later commuted to 15 years.

These moves have caught the international community off guard – especially those institutions and governments that had bought into the myth of Gulf monarchies’ benevolence. But far more important, the rulers’ increasing heavy-handedness has not gone unnoticed by domestic populations.

In countries that enjoy some of the highest broadband and smartphone penetration rates in the world, there is more access to information than ever before. People are now openly questioning the large numbers of political prisoners, the use of counterterrorism laws to justify mass arrests and the open assaults being made on what’s left of civil society, academia and the media.

Bahrain is a tiny island just a few miles across a causeway from Saudi Arabia and now increasingly something of a vassal state to Riyadh. The country’s pro-democracy activists have borne the brunt of state repression. Their protests, which were on the cusp of full-blown revolution in mid-2011, were repeatedly attacked by mercenaries – often from Pakistan and Jordan – while the government invited direct military interventions by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The bulk of the country’s population – who are Shiites – are unlikely to ever again accept living under a traditional Sunni monarchy.

The iconic Pearl Roundabout, which had served as a rallying point in Manama, was bulldozed in 2011, and dozens of Shiite mosques were destroyed. More dangerously, Shiites in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia have been victims of a vicious sectarian strategy, as the Saudi government has sought to persuade Sunni citizens and Western allies that they are fighting against the proxies of a dangerous, expansionist Iran, rather than the democratic vanguard of a popular revolt.

Even the U.A.E. has played this foreign boogeyman card. Lacking a substantial Shiite population of its own, the Emirati authorities have instead attacked what they claim to be the “Emirati Muslim Brotherhood” by arresting hundreds of citizens, including dozens of members of a peaceful longstanding local Islamist organization. Now, with one of the highest political prisoner per capita rates in the world, the U.A.E. has human rights lawyers, academics and students behind bars. Even a former judge and a ruling family member have been accused of “plotting to overthrow the state.”

Much like the spending strategy, these clampdowns have bought some time, but at a huge cost to rulers’ legitimacy. Divide-and-conquer measures like stoking sectarian tensions and blaming foreign meddling can keep attention away from autocratic political systems for only so long.

When the Gulf monarchies’ exceptionalism inevitably runs out of steam, and it will, their populations will be well placed to take their part in the bigger, regionwide shift in the political order that is happening at the expense of unaccountable repressive elites and in favor of a more vocal, politically conscious and better-connected youth.



U.S. surges past Saudis to become world’s top oil supplier
Oct 15, 2013


The United States has overtaken Saudi Arabia to become the world’s biggest oil producer as the jump in output from shale plays has led to the second biggest oil boom in history, according to leading U.S. energy consultancy PIRA.

U.S. output, which includes natural gas liquids and biofuels, has swelled 3.2 million barrels per day (bpd) since 2009, the fastest expansion in production over a four-year period since a surge in Saudi Arabia’s output from 1970-1974, PIRA said in a release on Tuesday.

It was the latest milestone for the U.S. oil sector caused by the shale revolution, which has upended global oil trade. While still the largest consumer of fuel, the rise of cheap crude available to domestic refiners has turned the United States into a significant exporter of gasoline and distillate fuels.

Last month, China surpassed the United States as the largest importer of crude, according to the U.S. government, as the rise of domestic output cuts the U.S. dependence on overseas oil.

“(The U.S.) growth rate is greater than the sum of the growth of the next nine fastest growing countries combined and has covered most of the world’s net demand growth over the past two years,” PIRA Energy Group wrote.

“The U.S. position as the largest oil supplier in the world looks to be secure for many years,” it added.

Total liquids produced by the United States, which PIRA defined broadly to include supplies such as crude oil, condensate, natural gas liquids and biofuels, should average 12.1 million bpd in 2013, pushing it ahead of last year’s No. 1 supplier, Saudi Arabia.

Output from the OPEC state also rose last year, but the gains lagged those from the United States, the consultancy said.

PIRA said the increase in oil from shale, which has been centered in areas such as Eagle Ford in Texas and the Bakken in North Dakota, has seen U.S. supply grow by 1 million bpd in 2012 and again 2013.

The United States still lagged both Saudi Arabia and Russia in production of just crude oil by abut 3 million bpd, PIRA noted. Rounding out the top 10 oil suppliers were China, Canada, UAE, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and Mexico.



Saudi Arabia to join U.S. as shale gas producer
By Florence Tan and Meeyoung Cho
Reuters Middle East
October 14, 2013


DAEGU, South Korea, Oct 14 (Reuters) - OPEC heavyweight Saudi Arabia is preparing to be among the first countries outside North America to use shale gas for power generation and thereby save more of its crude oil for lucrative exports.

Inspired by a shale gas boom in the United States, which has transformed the country from the world’s largest gas importer to a budding exporter, Riyadh plans to take its first steps to commercialise its own large unconventional deposits.

“We are ready to start producing our own shale gas and unconventional resources in various types in the next few years and deliver them to consumers,” Saudi Aramco Chief Executive Khalid al-Falih said on Monday at the World Energy Congress in South Korea.

“Only two years after launching our own unconventional gas programme, in the northern region of Saudi Arabia, we are ready to commit gas for the development of a 1,000 megawatt power plant which will feed a massive phosphate mining and manufacturing sector,” said Falih.

The Saudi Arabian Mining Co (Maaden) plans to invest in a phosphate project which is part of a new industrial city called Waad al Shimal City for Mining Industries, with production expected to start by the end of 2016.

By unlocking its gas reserves, the world’s top oil exporter could use the fuel to power its domestic economy and allow more room for oil sales to world markets.

Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi has given an estimate of over 600 trillion cubic feet of unconventional gas reserves, more than double its proven conventional reserves.

That would put Saudi Arabia fifth in a 32-country shale gas reserves ranking compiled for the U.S. Energy Information Administration. China tops the list and has already signed production-sharing deals and awarded exploration blocks as it targets output of 6.5 billion cubic metres a year by 2015.

But Riyadh - hampered by scarce water and prices fixed far below production costs - is unlikely to produce much shale gas this decade.

Neighbouring Oman is likely to lead the way with development of tight gas that could start commercial production by 2017 and yield up to 30 trillion cubic feet.

Saudi Aramco meanwhile has been mapping unconventional reserves in the hope it will help meet an expected doubling of demand by 2030 in a country that bans gas imports.

It has carried out appraisal drilling and piloting of three prospective areas for unconventional gas in the northwest, in south Ghawar and for condensate-rich shale gas in the Rub’ al-Khali.

The gas will feed a proposed power plant in Jizan, which will be connected to a 400,000 barrels-per-day (bpd) refinery.

The Saudi state oil giant hopes to complete the project by early 2017, Falih said.

Industry sources have said this could be delayed by up to a year because work on associated infrastructure is running behind schedule.

The Aramco chief said Riyadh is making massive investments to maintain the world’s largest spare oil production capacity of more than 2 million bpd.

“As part of our drive to become the world’s most integrated energy company, we have increased our annual capital budget tenfold from $4 to $40 billion in the last 10 years,” the Aramco boss said.

“In the past two years alone, we have swung our production by more than 1.5 million bpd in order to address market supply imbalances,” Falih said.

Saudi Aramco is also on track to increase the average recovery rate of its conventional oil to 70 percent - more than double the current world average, he said. (Additional reporting by Jane Chung; editing by Ed Davies and Jason Neely)



(Tom Gross: This article was written before the Saudi decision not to take its UN Security-Council seat – and unlike the BBC and others doesn’t dwell on the Palestinian issue, but makes clear that the Saudi displeasure with the UN is over Syria.)

Saudi Arabia: Swallowing Bitter Pills
By Abdel Bari Atwan
Oct. 9, 2013


It is rare for Saudi officials to publicly exhibit their feelings. The foreign Minister of another Gulf country told me that this is because the Saudi Royals have been brought up to exhibit self-control in diplomacy, avoiding any kind of extreme reaction or losing their tempers. So when Saudi Foreign Minister, Saud al-Faisal refused to give his tabled speech at the UN General Assembly last week in protest at US-Iran rapprochement and the US-Russian Syria initiative it came a surprise to commentators.

Saud al-Faisal has only displayed his irritation in the diplomatic context twice that I am aware of. Both over Syria. Well before September’s UN demonstration, he walked out on a meeting of the Friends of Syria in Tunisia eighteen months ago in protest at Washington’s hesitance about arming the Syrian opposition . Saud al-Faisal’s spokesperson added a second cause for the UN speech strike which was the lack of progress on Palestine.

The Saudis have faced a lot of set-backs over their Syria policy recently. They worked hard to get their own men into the top positions in the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) instead of those backed by regional rival, Qatar. They also managed to reduce the influence of the Moslem Brotherhood in the coalition. Imagine the shock waves in Riyadh, then, when the Syrian Free Army (SFA) suddenly announced that they no longer had any faith in the SNC! The newly-appointed head of the SNC, Ahmad al-Jarba, who is close to the Saudis, was the subject of a blistering attack by a SFA spokesperson who then said the army was withdrawing its recognition of the SNC as representative of the opposition.

The biggest headache for the Saudis in their Syria policy is the rise of jihadi groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and al-Nusra Brigades. There are more than 20 al-Qaeda affiliates active in Syria and they all consider Saudi Arabia to be their main enemy following the last decade’s clampdown on their confreres in the Kingdom.

It is relevant here to mention the drone strikes on al-Qaeda targets in Southern Yemen. The drones fly from a base in Saudi Arabia near the Yemeni border and, clearly, with Saudi blessing.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar may be competing to control the Syrian opposition but they shared in a concerted media attack on Assad using the heavy weaponry of al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera. The media managed to hasten regime change in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

But these heavy weapons have become a bit rusty over the course of the two and a half years that the Syrian crisis has endured. As time goes by and the opposition fails to unseat Assad, the media – which confidently predicted the fall of the regime in every analysis and commentary – has lost its bite and its credibility.

Paradoxically, Assad – who lost the media war at the beginning of crisis – is now all over the international media looking well-groomed and statesmanlike. Recent interviews have included the prestigious US channel CBS and German magazine Der Spiegel.

At the beginning of conflict, the only outlets willing to broadcast his point of view were Iranian and Hezbollah channels (like al-Manar) and Turkish opposition channels who wanted to annoy the ferociously anti-Assad PM Recip Erdogan.

What I want to say is that, somehow, Assad has regained credibility as Syrian leader and, in doing so, has broken the media seige imposed on him and resisted the media bombardment against his regime by Saudi and Qatari satellite channels.

The Saudi regime is like a wounded tiger nowadays, not only over Syria but also because the US gave it another huge stab when President Obama – who was massing warships in the Gulf to threaten and possibly even attack Iran – suddenly performed a U-turn and started cosying up to Tehran’s new President Hassan Rouhani. Now Iran -Saudi Arabia’s regional nemesis – is America’s new best friend.

Iran will now be invited to the Geneva 2 conference intended to solve the Syrian crisis; Tehran has also been in discussions with Washington about influence-sharing initiatives in the Middle East which are extremely alarming for the Gulf states, the Saudis in particular.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the Saudi regime’s crisis may become more complicated than Assad’s because it is a strategic crisis and it is deepening. The Syrian president’s problems are military and the pressure on him – for the time being – is gradually receding because of the change in the US position occasioned by a newly friendly Iran and the cunning of the Russians.

Saudi Arabia lost its influence in Iraq, and is losing Syria because Assad did not fall quickly; as a knock-on effect, the kingdom will also lose its influence in Lebanon because Iran’s exit from the cage of American political embargo will strengthen its allies in Lebanon – Hezbollah, in particular – at the expense of the March 14th Alliance.

This does not mean that the Saudi leadership has no cards left to play for influence – it has, of course, enormous wealth ($ 500 billion annual oil revenues) and regional strong ties with the Military junta in Egypt.

But the Gulf region is riven with squabbles and conflicts – the Saudi dispute with Qatar has returned to the forefront, and the Sultan of Oman has decided to keep his options open – Qaboos visited Tehran three weeks ago where he received a very warm welcome from Rouhani.

Sectarianism continues to bubble under the surface, and other threats to the Kingdom cannot be ignored, such as the growing strength of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, turning the latter into a failed State, and strained relations with the Muslim Brotherhood – in Egypt and the rest of the region – because of its support for the Egyptian military coup led by General Al-Sisi. This has also led to a cooling of relations with Turkey.

In the cold light of day, after his protest at the UN, Prince Saud Al-Faisal can see his country’s foreign policy is in serious decline, as extent of the wounds inflicted by the American dagger become clearer. Saudi Arabia will now have to move with the times, and the shifting diplomatic relationships and international alignments they have brought.

That a new pragmatism is already colouring Saudi foreign policy is clear in the fact that they have invited new Iranian President Hassan Rohani to perform the Hajj this year. He has accepted.



Saudi King Abdullah’s female advisers ask him to let women drive
Members of Shura Council, which makes recommendations to the monarch, challenge conservative Islamic establishment
Reuters in Riyadh
October 9, 2013

Female members of Saudi Arabia’s influential Shura Council, which advises King Abdullah, have proposed allowing women to drive, challenging a tradition upheld by the conservative clerical establishment.

The council is the nearest the kingdom has to a parliament, though its members are not elected but appointed by the king and cannot make laws but only issue recommendations. However, these recommendations have often in the past prefigured Saudi reforms.

Conservative Saudis say letting women drive would encourage the sexes to mix in public unchaperoned and so threaten public morality. But it is an important demand of many women who rely on expensive private drivers to perform basic daily tasks.

There is no specific law to prevent women from driving in Saudi Arabia, but they cannot apply for driving licences and have previously been arrested on charges relating to public order or political protest after getting behind the wheel.

Hanan al-Ahmadi, one of 30 women appointed by King Abdullah to the council in January, said the issue of letting women drive came up on Tuesday during discussions about the transport ministry’s performance.

“Men and women members were discussing the obstacle of women’s transportation and how it’s a burden for women working with families and the lack of other options like public transport,” she said.

Then one of her female colleagues, Latifa al-Shaalan, stood and proposed that the Shura Council’s transportation committee should include a recommendation that the transport ministry make preparations to allow women to drive.

“Nobody raised their voice or opposed it. I think people were expecting it,” Ahmadi said. “I believe she received many notes of support afterwards from other members.”

The Shura Council’s transport committee must now decide whether to accept the recommendation and put it to the transport ministry, which is unlikely to happen for several weeks. If the ministry rejects it, the speaker might ask members to vote on whether to discuss the ban as a separate issue, Ahmadi said.

Women’s rights activists have called for a campaign on 26 October to push for an end to the ban. Previous campaigns in which women have defied the law to drive in public have ended with the arrests of participants.

Under Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam, women fall under the legal authority of a male relative, known as their “guardian”, who can stop them travelling abroad, getting a job or opening a bank account. The proposal on women drivers follows other cautious moves by King Abdullah aimed at giving women more say, including the decision to appoint them to the council. He has also urged the government to improve job opportunities for women.

The ban has long been debated in private circles in Saudi Arabia but rarely in public by senior figures or officials.

Religious leaders no longer argue, as some have in the past, that women are not allowed to drive under Islamic Sharia law. Opponents of change instead cite fears about public morality.

The head of the powerful morality police, Sheikh Abdulatif Al al-Sheikh, told Reuters last month there was no text in Sharia that forbade women from driving.

Ahmadi, who used to drive in the US when she lived there as a student, welcomed the recommendation but would probably not drive herself if it were permitted. “Some who are more courageous than me might do it,” she said. “But it is not an easy thing.”

“For a society that took so long to discuss this issue and has been subjected to so much preaching on the harm women driving might do, we are programmed to reject it rather than accept it.”

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.