Spearhead Analysis – 01.10.2015
By Moaz Masood
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) seems to be lacking in savoir faire. The recent deaths at Mina and Mecca have spooked the royal regime that took charge this year. With nothing going in the right direction, the Saudis’, in an attempt to save themselves, aggravated the issue by fudging on this delicate matter. News circulated throughout the international corridors that the Saudi kingdom has blamed the citizens of Iran and Africa for this terrible accident that took more than seven hundred lives. Not to forget, the toll does not include the crane accident that pushes the victims performing Hajj to more than eleven hundred.
The Hajj, performed every year in the Islamic month of Zilhaj, drives thousands to the Holy Places in Saudi Arabia. 1924 marked the beginning of the time when the regime of Ibn Saud took over. The rulers had then pledged that they would take care of the Holy Places. At first, the assumption of the Ibn Saud was never accepted but time being the best advocate, consolidated their hold over the management.
Things changed when the House of Saud was charged with managing the Holy Places as its personal fiefdom. Rather than putting in efforts to curtail such remarks, the royalty in Saudi Arabia added fuel to the fire. Blames and attacks were made on the nations criticizing their administration. Actually, the culture of floating and fortifying their own ‘sect’ disengaged them from performing their task with efficiency. The great game for regional dominance came up to the surface which seems to have an everlasting impact. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 has especially deepened the divide as Tehran came up to be the strongest threat for the Saudi regime.
The recent incident at Mina is actually more than a tragedy. The realization has dawned upon the Muslim world globally but the politicization of the incident has caused an insult to the memory of the dead. With the politics that haunt the Muslim world, Iran did not leave a chance to score against the Saudi management. Although a hundred and forty Iranians passed away in this tragedy, this was actually a testing time for the Muslim community and their unity was looked up to. The Saudi management, if it has been derelict in its duty, must be taken to task. Proper investigation should be conducted but gaining political traction through this incident puts a black spot on the brotherhood that the religion of Islam promotes.
Hassan Rouhani, the President of Iran capitalized on the issue. In the ongoing United Nations General Assembly, he lambasted the Saudi regime mercilessly for its “mismanagement and negligence” during Hajj, calling for a de-Saudisation of the Religious Places. Hence, the monopoly that the Kingdom has pursued with is now being challenged.
Efforts to catalyze the indoctrination of one’s own religious identity are visible now. The turmoil in Syria and Yemen are examples of how the different sects have tried to foster and develop their ‘identity’ within the Muslim world. The kingdom and Iran have long been distant and project each other as detrimental to the cause of Islam. With many lives lost and taken, the Muslim world needs a resolve.
Inadequate facilities and pitiable management of the performers of the religious duty have long been haunting the Saudi monarchy. Since Islam doesn’t have monarchies, the legitimacy of the Saudi regime has long been questioned. To this, life taking incidents at Hajj have actually damaged the already shaky foundation. It is evident that there are two factors on which the monarchy has established itself, even without the role of the local citizens. One is that of the black gold; oil. The other is designating itself as the ‘Custodian’ of the Holy Places which are sacred for more than a billion Muslims, at least. Oil export is the core constituent of the revenues that the Saudi government makes up. However, recent figures point towards a hemorrhage of the oil export market and the money that it flew in. The Financial Times has reported that the Kingdom has taken out more than seventy billion dollars ($70 bn) from foreign investments due to the plummeting oil prices, adding to the weakness of the financial position that the monarchy faces. Weakness of the royalty is surfacing with the oil market operating below fifty dollars a barrel. With the engagement of the kingdom internally as well as externally in Yemen and Syria, balancing the budget is becoming a challenging task. A hundred and ten dollar per barrel ($110 pb) has been termed as the price that will balance out the fiscal demands. Despite lower revenue collections, the Royal largesse hasn’t taken any measure to tone down their huge spending. Saudi Arabia’s Index, the Tadawul All Share Index, has decreased more than thirty percent during the last year. This all points out to the weakening of the regime that operated through the wealth being thought of as everlasting. Seeing the shadowed future of KSA, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), predicted the deficit to exceed to a hundred and seven billion ($107 bn) this year. These figures portray King Salman and his passionate heirs floating their own interests or at least that of the Ibn Saud’s, ahead of the national interest.
With recent deal being signed between Iran and the USA, it is quite clear that the relationship KSA and the USA shared is not exclusive. Thought of being stabbed in the back with this deal, the Kingdom seemed distressed. With shale oil ending the dependence of the U.S.A on the kingdom, a new vision is being pursued. The U.S.A’s change of stance and the tragic incident of Mina weren’t the only setbacks; a Prince of the Kingdom labeled King Salman as “not in a stable condition”. He floated letters demanding a change in the royalty which now have more than two million views. Moreover, the improper strategies of the Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, taking care of Defence and a multitude of other ministries, have also been highlighted.
It is indeed disturbing to see a human tragedy being painted with a political brush. The Saudi Regime needs to understand that they have not been bestowed with the guardianship of the Holy Places by religious decree. This is something that the Ottoman Empire managed before them. The construction policies that are abuzz cannot come out as the sole savior of their stance to legitimize their management. Things have actually been made worse since the money-making structure that they have tried to evolve. Wealth has dominated the course of religious duties. Living, travelling and performance of the Hajj and Umra is made easier with money. Islam does not follow this path clearly. With equality, unity and brotherhood being part of faith, such policies actually diminish the values that the religion of Islam instills in its believers.
Also, there should not be any ambiguity that the money spent on the Holy Places should not put lives of the Hajjis in danger. Actions made, including that of the extension of the Masjid Al-Haram in Mecca, should actually address the problems that Muslims face and have to deal with. Stopping the construction during Hajj and the month of Ramadan, needs to be given a serious thought. Also, the kingdom should provide the victims of the crane incident and the Mina stampede with due compensation.
Iran, on the other hand, is enthusiastically campaigning for an International Islamic Body to manage operations of the Religious Places. Besides Iran, it is imperative for other Muslim states to give their own views and recommendations in context with the problems that their citizens face during pilgrimage.
Nefarious designs of division among the Muslim Ummah need to be warded off as the toxic sectarian division has torn the Muslim world apart. Muslim states need to understand that the time to be silent over such crisis undermining the true essence of Islam needs to end. They need to dispel such views and make efforts to unite the Ummah. Incidents such as that of Mina should not be made a basis for political victimization. Rather, it should have furnished grounds for unity among of the Muslim populace. Lessons need to be drawn out to avoid such life taking incidents in the future and proper training of the Hajjis needs to be considered by their respective nations. The Muslim states in order to play a pivotal role need to disenfranchise themselves from the sects that they have been long following as Islam comes first. Otherwise, in an effort to polarize the Islamic world, the deep structural deficiencies and the schisms that have developed might push the Ummah in deep waters.