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Unrest brews in Saudi Arabia as economy weakens

Saudi women shop at a mall in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has announced on Monday, Dec. 28, 2015 a projected budget deficit in 2016 of $87 billion (327 billion riyals), as lower oil prices cut into the government's main source of revenue. (Credit: AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)Saudi Arabia made headlines recently when their execution of a popular Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, placed even greater tension on an already perilous relationship with Iran, a Shiite majority nation. However, as CNN describes, the Saudis' financial troubles at home are perhaps a more pressing concern than their struggles abroad. As Heather Long succinctly puts it, "Saudi Arabia is running out of money."

Around seventy-five percent of the government's budget comes from their global oil sales. As oil prices have fallen from over $100 a barrel in 2014 to roughly $36 currently, the country has experienced increasing financial hardship. They ran a deficit of almost $100 billion last year and 2016 is not expected to bring much improvement. The International Monetary Fund predicts that the country will be out of money in roughly five years unless oil prices improve to $50 a barrel or better.

As a result, the Saudi government has begun contemplating some rather profound changes to the structure of their economy. In addition to increasing the price of gas by fifty percent, though it is still only twenty-four cents a liter, they are also raising the prices of water and electricity while scaling back improvements to their infrastructure such as roads and buildings. Given that nearly ninety percent of Saudis are employed by the government, such cutbacks in government spending could have grave repercussions for an unemployment rate that already sits at roughly twelve percent.

If those measures do not sufficiently stem the economic bleeding, the government may have to cut back on some of the perks it offers citizens. Currently Saudis receive free health care and schooling in addition to not having an income tax. That last part could be especially troubling given that the Saudi royal family has largely used the lack of an income tax, in addition to the other benefits, to appease a people that have little to no say in the governing of a nation that functions as an absolute monarchy.

As Robert Jordan, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, describes, "The Saudis have used their economic power to buy off their population…Part of the leverage the regime has had on their people is that they don't impose taxes and therefore people don't expect representation. But once they pay taxes, you're likely to see an increase in political unrest." He sees the recent execution of forty-seven Saudi prisoners, including that of the cleric that caused the recent trouble with Iran, as an attempt by the government to demonstrate that any dissent will be dealt with forcefully and decisively.

Ultimately, changes of some sort seem inevitable because the Saudi citizens have no ownership in their government. That can work when those in power are able to maintain a status quo that the people find acceptable, but it breeds instability when that status quo is disturbed. Is that how your relationship with God works as well? Is your love of God and your willingness to obey him directly related to whether or not you feel like he's holding up his end of the bargain and blessing your life?

Too often we fall into the trap of basing our relationship with God on what he's done for us lately. When things are going well, we feel at peace with him and are more than willing to speak his praises to those around us. But when things go wrong, even if the troubles are of our own making, we tend to question his goodness. After all, if God is really all-powerful and all-loving, it makes no sense that he would allow us to face the inevitable trials of this life.

While we may not actively think like that and might even recognize the mistake inherent to such a view, it can be difficult to keep those kinds of thoughts from creeping into our walk with the Lord and slowly eating away at our closeness with the Father. The key to avoiding that mistake is making sure that our relationship with God is based on a reciprocation of the love that he showed on the cross and a commitment that transcends our circumstances rather than just on what he can do to make our lives better.

The failure to embrace that kind of relationship was at the heart of Israel's problems with the Lord, and the same is true for far too many Christians today. So set aside some time to take an honest assessment of your relationship with God. Do you really love him? If so, why? How you answer those questions is foundational to the quality of your relationship with the Father. God loves you unconditionally. Can you say the same about him?

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