Magazine article New Internationalist

The House of Saud

Magazine article New Internationalist

The House of Saud

Article excerpt

Job: Ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia

Reputation: Feudal despots modernized by the sheen of oil

World leaders stumbled all over themselves to express their condolences on the death of Saudi monarch King Abdullah in January. Barack Obama praised the brutal dictator as being 'candid and having the courage of his convictions'. Canada's Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper referred to the king as 'a strong proponent of peace', while Britain's erstwhile prime minister Tony Blair thought him a 'patient and skilful modernizer'. The political class tends to reverse Shakespeare when one of their ilk dies - it becomes 'the good that men do lives after them, the evil is oft interred with their bones'. But even for them this was exceptional. Here is a feudal monarch who maintained a system of ruthless gender apartheid and a brutal version of sharia law that regularly involves beheadings, floggings and amputations. And it is not just murderers who get this treatment - mild social critics, such as the brave but unfortunate blogger Raif Badawi, recently sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for supposedly 'insulting Islam', do too. Badawi's wife, granted refuge in Canada, has been notably unsuccessful in getting the Harper regime to intervene on her husband's behalf.

The mechanics of rule by the House of Saud are maintained through a system both mysterious and elaborate. While the family is thought to number about 15,000, the 'inner circle', which holds most of the wealth and power, numbers closer to 2,000. Most Saudi governorships and all key cabinet posts are held by trusted family members. Although audits are not encouraged, the total wealth of the Saudi royal family is thought to be about $10.4 trillion - the country itself is literally 'owned' by the family. Each new king that ascends the throne is lionized as a 'moderate' and a 'modernizer', but changes to the structure of absolutism or the lack of rights for the Saudi population never materialize. Instead, each king throws around a little money to support high-profile philanthropic causes. The hopeless position of women is proving the most impervious to change - women must be totally covered, cannot go outside without a male chaperone, drive a car, go swimming or participate in most sports, or even read an uncensored fashion magazine.

It looks odd indeed (if hardly surprising) that our noble leaders, intent on defending the 'free world' against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, rally so easily around a Saudi regime that represents pretty much the same values as Islamic State is trying to impose. …

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