The Saudi response to the current Rohingya crisis, in contrast to previous ones, has been noticeably low-key. During past attempts by Myanmar at ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas, Saudi Arabia would be in the lead in providing relief aid and taking up the cause in international forums. It is the only Arab state to have openly supported the Rohingyas; in 2013, in a rare move for the kingdom, it publicly condemned Myanmar at a UN meet. Much earlier, King Faisal had offered stateless Rohingyas safe haven; later King Abdullah extended them residency permits and access to free education, healthcare and employment. Today there are about 250,000 Myanmar Muslims in Saudi Arabia. Westerners have levelled broadsides at the Saudis for segregating them in slums, but with zero other options that criticism is neither here nor there. In the present crisis younger Arabs have been vocal on social media in supporting the Rohingyas and condemning Myanmar, but official Arab reactions have been routine and laggard. The lead this time was taken by Turkey and Indonesia, with an angered President Erdogan dispatching his wife on a high-profile visit to Bangladesh and the Indonesian foreign minister jetting in to Bangladesh and Myanmar to try and resolve matters.
It may be that the kingdom is distracted by its own set of crises.
Saudi Arabia has long been known to be opaque and enigmatic, but signs of disquiet can be discerned through the veil. One was the way the present King Salman rode roughshod over the traditional rules of succession to place his 31-year-old son Prince Muhammad bin Salman unassailably on the path to the throne. The concentration of the posts and powers of general secretary to the court, defence minister and crown prince in him, and an ailing 81-year-old king, means that the prince is effectively the ruler of the land. Potential dissenters to the new dispensation—such as three prominent clerics not on the royal payroll—have been silenced. Saudi Arabia is a wealthy nation yet is also a welfare state where, as Malise Ruthven recently wrote in the London Review of Books, “40 per cent of people between the ages of 20 and 24 are unemployed, where 40 per cent of Saudis live in relative poverty and at least 60 per cent can't afford to buy homes”. Its economy urgently needs to be diversified. It is critically dependent on both foreign technical expertise at the top and manual labour at the bottom. The younger generation is net savvy and restless, hungry for change and wanting a more equal distribution of the riches. The gerontocracy of the ruling house of Al Saud has signalled that its time is up, and that fresh blood and youthful energy are required to tackle these problems. So for the first time a grandson, and not a son, of the state's founder King Abd al-Aziz is poised to ascend to the throne. Appearances to the contrary, the Saudi ship is setting sail into uncharted waters and nobody can tell what turbulences lie ahead.
The 2011 Arab Spring was a shock to the Saudi monarchy, which tended to view it through the prism of its conflict with Iran, more as Shia uprisings instigated by Iran instead of a popular movement for democracy. It was especially alarmed by the Shia-led (that the Shias were also poor and marginalised seemed incidental to the Saudis) protests that seriously threatened the ruling royals of Bahrain, until Saudi troops dealt with the revolt. Uneasy, ever since, have been the heads that have worn the Saudi crown. The conflict has sharpened, with merciless proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia fought in Syria and Yemen. These wars are currently stalemated, frustrating the Saudis and the new crown prince who was gung-ho about them. The latest fiasco is the split with Qatar over its relationship with Iran, with the Qataris refusing to kow-tow and causing a crack in the Saudi-designed coalition of Sunni states. Though the Saudis portray the long-running conflict with Iran as a sectarian Sunni-Shia one, it is also rooted and energised by antagonistic ideologies that offer competing models of state and government for Muslims worldwide. Iran is deeply anti-monarchial, a modified theocracy armed with anti-colonial rhetoric and continuing hostilities with the USA. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is an absolute monarchy, tied umbilically to the USA and governed by a family currently numbering 7,000 members in a finessed partnership with extremely orthodox Wahabi clerics.
This is not a fight destined to end soon.
Which brings it right back to aid for the Rohingyas. While the UAE has given tents, Saudis have provided emergency relief and the Qataris have dispatched a medical team, Arab posts on WhatsApp noted that Qatar donated USD 30 million for Hurricane Harvey while giving, over the years, a grand total of USD 100,000 to the Rohingyas. Equally, the Saudis, who recently hosted Trump, aside from the USD 110 billion arms deal also, as reported in the American press, presented him with 83 gifts including a wool robe lined with white tiger fur and a jazzy collection of swords, daggers and holsters.
On reflection, perhaps Qatar could have shaved a million dollars off the Harvey relief cash and redirected them to the Rohingyas shivering under sheets of monsoon rain? And the Saudis could have presented 82 gifts, minus one jewel-encrusted sword whose cost no doubt could feed a thousand starving Rohingya families for a month?
Surely, the Americans were not going to miss a mere million bucks, or Trump threaten to nuke Riyadh over one fancy scimitar?
Khademul Islam is the editor of the literary journal Bengal Lights.