FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Cracks in the Kingdom: Saudi Arabia Rocked by Financial Strains

Photo by Black Zero | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Black Zero | CC BY 2.0

Hundreds of foreign hospital workers in Saudi Arabia, unpaid for seven months, were on strike this week and were blocking a highway in Eastern Province in defiance of the ban on strikes and demonstrations in the Kingdom. The employees’ anger was deepened by the belief that the very same employer who has been holding back their salaries regularly offers massive fees to international singers who perform at his parties.

Things are not well in Saudi Arabia and this week there were two pieces of bad news. Hitherto, there have been protests like this by foreign employees suffering from the knock-on effects of cuts in state expenditure following the drop in the oil price. In work camps far out in the desert workers complain that, not only have they stopped receiving money owed to them, but they are no longer even receiving supplied of food and electricity.

But today the cuts are for the first time hitting public sector workers who are Saudi citizens, 70 per cent of whom work for the government. So far the austerity is limited with lower bonuses and overtime payments and a 20 per cent reduction in the salaries of ministers, though those close to political power are unlikely to be in actual need.

There are political dangers in this move. In the oil states of the Middle East there is a trade-off between the spectacular wealth of a corrupt and autocratic elite and an extensive patronage system through which much of the rest of the native population plugs into oil revenues. Some $120 billion, or half of government spending, went on salaries, wages and allowances in 2015.

With a Saudi budget deficit of $100 billion in 2015, this haemorrhage of cash may not be sustainable but will also be difficult to rein in. Great construction companies like Oger and Binladen are having serious difficulties getting paid by the government with Oger alone reportedly owed $8 billion. South Asian construction workers, who once saw Saudi Arabia as an El Dorado, are going home after waiting for months for pay cheques that never come.

The woes of foreign workers, and even of the native public sector employees, are not necessarily going to destabilise an absolute monarchy like Saudi Arabia that mercilessly crushes dissent. The fall or destabilisation of the House of Saud has been forecast for decades with no real sign of the prediction coming true. What makes the present economic stresses more significant is that they come at a moment when Saudi political influence is visibly under strain in the region and the world.

Among those exempted from this week’s benefit cuts are Saudi forces in Yemen which may remind Saudis that they are still mired in a vastly expensive conflict there which their government voluntarily entered last year and shows no sign of winning. In Syria, the five-year-long effort by Saudi Arabia, together with Turkey and Qatar, to get rid of President Bashar al-Assad, has likewise failed. In the decade-long Saudi rivalry with Iran, today it is the Iranians who look like getting the upper hand.

But a more menacing development than this may be facing the rulers of the Kingdom in the US. For so long the ultimate guarantor of the status quo in Saudi Arabia, the US is increasingly ambivalent or hostile towards its old ally. On Wednesday, the US Senate will vote on whether or not to override a presidential veto preventing the families of victims of 9/11 suing the Saudi government. The measure is unlikely to become law, but it is a sign of the Kingdom’s ebbing influence where it really matters at a time of deepening troubles at home.

More articles by:

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

Weekend Edition
September 21, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Hurricane Florence and 9.7 Million Pigs
Andrew Levine
Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smear Campaign
Paul Street
Laquan McDonald is Being Tried for His Own Racist Murder
Brad Evans
What Does It Mean to Celebrate International Peace Day?
Nick Pemberton
With or Without Kavanaugh, The United States Is Anti-Choice
Jim Kavanagh
“Taxpayer Money” Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)
Jonathan Cook
Palestine: The Testbed for Trump’s Plan to Tear up the Rules-Based International Order
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Chickenhawks Have Finally Come Back Home to Roost!
David Rosen
As the Capitalist World Turns: From Empire to Imperialism to Globalization?
Jonah Raskin
Green Capitalism Rears Its Head at Global Climate Action Summit
James Munson
On Climate, the Centrists are the Deplorables
Robert Hunziker
Is Paris 2015 Already Underwater?
Arshad Khan
Will Their Ever be Justice for Rohingya Muslims?
Jill Richardson
Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault
Dave Clennon
A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and “The Vietnam War”
W. T. Whitney
US Harasses Cuba Amid Mysterious Circumstances
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
Things That Make Sports Fans Uncomfortable
George Capaccio
Iran: “Snapping Back” Sanctions and the Threat of War
Kenneth Surin
Brexit is Coming, But Which Will It Be?
Louis Proyect
Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9”: Entertaining Film, Crappy Politics
Ramzy Baroud
Why Israel Demolishes: Khan Al-Ahmar as Representation of Greater Genocide
Ben Dangl
The Zapatistas’ Dignified Rage: Revolutionary Theories and Anticapitalist Dreams of Subcommandante Marcos
Ron Jacobs
Faith, Madness, or Death
Bill Glahn
Crime Comes Knocking
Terry Heaton
Pat Robertson’s Hurricane “Miracle”
Dave Lindorff
In Montgomery County PA, It’s Often a Jury of White People
Louis Yako
From Citizens to Customers: the Corporate Customer Service Culture in America 
William Boardman
The Shame of Dianne Feinstein, the Courage of Christine Blasey Ford 
Ernie Niemi
Logging and Climate Change: Oregon is Appalachia and Timber is Our Coal
Jessicah Pierre
Nike Says “Believe in Something,” But Can It Sacrifice Something, Too?
Paul Fitzgerald - Elizabeth Gould
Weaponized Dreams? The Curious Case of Robert Moss
Olivia Alperstein
An Environmental 9/11: the EPA’s Gutting of Methane Regulations
Ted Rall
Why Christine Ford vs. Brett Kavanaugh is a Train Wreck You Can’t Look Away From
Lauren Regan
The Day the Valves Turned: Defending the Pipeline Protesters
Ralph Nader
Questions, Questions Where are the Answers?
Binoy Kampmark
Deplatforming Germaine Greer
Raouf Halaby
It Should Not Be A He Said She Said Verdict
Robert Koehler
The Accusation That Wouldn’t Go Away
Jim Hightower
Amazon is Making Workers Tweet About How Great It is to Work There
Robby Sherwin
Rabbi, Rabbi, Where For Art Thou Rabbi?
Vern Loomis
Has Something Evil This Way Come?
Steve Baggarly
Disarm Trident Walk Ends in Georgia
Graham Peebles
Priorities of the Time: Peace
Michael Doliner
The Department of Demonization
David Yearsley
Bollocks to Brexit: the Plumber Sings
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail