An inflexible, oil-rich state run by an elderly, out-of-touch elite in cahoots with kleptocratic, self-dealing vested interests, how long does Saudi Arabia have to wait for a true reformer? And what’s going to happen in the meantime?
The recent passing of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and the ascension of his brother Salman to the throne of Saudi Arabia highlights that this most quiescent of countries is anything but. As this space reportedin July, the late king had recently issued a royal decree establishing not only his own successor but that of the next king as well. In theory, King Salman could overturn this decision, but as things stand the next monarch after the present one to follow his brother into the great beyond will be Prince Muqrin, now 68.
Although much has been made of the late Saudi king’s reformist efforts, the reality is that, like his neighbors and predecessors, Abdullah was a cruel despot, who relied on a combination of routine and systematic brutality, welfare-state easy living and oil-fueled radical fundamentalism to keep his country under his family’s thumb. Under his watch, militant Salafism — much of which is supported by the Saudi elite and their clients among the Gulf Arab states, and actually taught in Saudi schools — burrowed itself into the heart the Arab world after first feasting upon the Kingdom’s oil wealth.
A Frankenstein movement turns on its creator
Unfortunately for the Saudi monarchy this reliance on religion seems to be backfiring. Instead of pacifying the country’s population and further legitimizing the royal family’s power, radical religion has empowered arevolutionary movement that increasingly sees the House of Saud as its real enemy. This philosophy was first articulated in 1979 when, in a mirror of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, religious radicals seized the Grand Mosquein a bid to start a popular uprising in Saudi Arabia. It failed, but liberal social reforms were thereafter permanently put on hold and the kingdom’s swing to the religious right has done little in the meantime to actually mollify discontent, religious or otherwise.
That’s because the monarchy and its parasitic royal family are understood by everyone in the region, especially in the country itself, to be corrupt to the core. Like the French aristocracy before the revolution or the Communist Party in the old Soviet Union or China today, they monopolize wealth and power at their countrymen’s expense and force everyone from commoner to corporate titan to pay homage to one scion of the family or another. Like The Party in the officially atheist states Saudi Arabia covertly fought in the 1980s, The Family ultimately serves no one but itself.
This basic discontent with the royal family could long be deflected in two ways. The first and most obvious was through welfare spending, while the second was the funneling of anger at the domestic state of affairs into righteous religious conflict abroad. This latter strategy saw Riyadh funneling both troublemakers and moneyinto the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan during the 1980s, which ultimately bore bitter fruit in the form ofal-Qaida in the 1990s and 2000s. Not satisfied with this disaster, however, Riyadh has done it one better byreplicating the policy of using shadowy militant groups it really doesn’t control in its not-so-clandestine efforts to combat Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East.
Yet this policy of using rebels to combat Iran’s battle-hardened clients in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere has taken a disastrous turn. Instead of pushing back Tehran, these Saudi-funded holy warriors have created a revolutionary army that has now taken over large portions of Sunni Syria and Iraq. They even threaten the kingdom itself, a point driven violently home when ISIS claimed responsibility for the killing of two Saudi border guardsmen and their commanding general in an apparent suicide attack on Jan. 5. This must strike panic into the Saudi elite because although Saudi Arabia has seen terrorism before, it has never been so clearly linked to a seemingly viable alternative to the family’s rule so close to their own borders.
Saudi princes are now finding to their discomfort that it is one thing to fund a revolutionary movement a thousand miles away, but quite another to do so next door. Coupled with the recent loss of much of South Yemen to the pro-Iranian Houthis, Riyadh must by now be finding its maneuvering room growing narrower by the day.
The oil weapon is a double-edged sword
There is also the old standby for the royal family: the kingdom’s famous welfare state. Things here are taking a troubling turn as Saudi Arabia is finding that competitors — most notably the hydraulic frackers in the United States as well as conventional oil powers like Russia and Brazil — have eaten away at its market share. The kingdom’s response has been to open the spigots in order to flood global markets with cheap Saudi crude in the hopes of crushing the competition, but as a consequence oil prices have plummeted and threaten to take over $300 billion away from the Gulf’s economies, Saudi Arabia’s included. This is problematic because the kingdom’s welfare spending and newfound defense commitments require oil to be priced much higher, at around $90 per barrel, for the government’s budget to be balanced.
Thus, Saudi Arabia will eventually be forced to make spending cuts — an unpalatable choice given the need to confront Iran and to keep up the status quo at home — or take on debt in order to make up the difference. Debt will be the obvious short-term choice due to the political dangers involved in cutting spending, but this raises the possibility of the kingdom eventually getting caught up in a debt trap as low prices force it to borrow more and more. If low prices continue, the long-term possibility of an economic collapse will loom as Riyadh finds itself unable to fund welfare at home and conflict abroad with Iran, while also simultaneously fighting a price war with its competitors.
Uncle Sam’s shifting sands
The bright side of all this is that Iran is arguably in worse economic straits than Saudi Arabia, while Russia, Iran’s main ally and another major oil power, is also facing financial ruin. In theory, Iran should give out first, but several factors mitigate against Iran’s economic weakness. First, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states’ ISIS Frankenstein is now so reviled and hated that everyone, including even Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states themselves, are fighting against it. This means that Iran is not fighting Saudi proxies alone, but is getting the assistance of the U.S., the Kurds and others, too — in Iraq, at least. Although the same does not apply in Syria, the fact nonetheless remains that Western bombs falling on ISIS in Iraq implicitly aid Syrian President Bashar Assad’s war against similar forces in neighboring Syria.
This in turn puts Iran and the U.S. into the odd position of being allied together in common cause against Saudi-inspired — and often Saudi-funded — Sunni extremism. Although this is not yet likely to last long, it nonetheless puts Saudi Arabia in an uncomfortable position that it has never really been in before: It’s the odd man out in Uncle Sam’s complex relations with the countries of the Middle East. What’s more, this strange situation could possibly continue as two other factors converge to bring Iran and the U.S. closer together.
The first, ironically, is Tehran’s nuclear program. Although very few people in the Middle East, including in Iran itself, would like to see Iran go nuclear, the U.S. does not yet seem willing to go to war with Tehran to ensure that it does not do so. This gives Iran a crucial bargaining chip with Washington that Saudi Arabia does not have: the ability to give the U.S. a huge strategic win in the form of inspections and a public dismantling of its nuclear program. What Iran may get in return for its program is not yet clear, but it would surely involve a lessening of tensions with the West, sanctions relief and perhaps a certain amount of strategic indifference as Tehran continues to confront Riyadh in their ongoing Cold War.
The second factor, in turn, could in the long-run prove even more valuable a trump card for Iran to play: democracy. Although Iran’s democracy is weak and still trodden upon by conservative clerics and much of the revolutionary establishment, both of which have a vested interest in maintaining a conflict with the U.S., the existence of the pro-Democratic Green movement and their recent success in forcing the election of reformist, or at least non-hardline, Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president speaks to the degree that the consent of the governed must be at least somewhat adhered to Iran. Indeed, the very fact that Iran’s conservative elements felt the need to steal the country’s 2009 presidential election out from under liberal reformers reflects just how important a role elections, democracy and thus the public play in Iran’s politics.
Is Riyadh now the odd man out?
All this is missing from Saudi Arabia, which has increasingly played the role of counterrevolutionary, Czarist Russia in the Mideast’s recent rendition of 1848. Rather than backing democrats, Riyadh threw its support toward Egypt’s autocrats and Yemen’s strongman presidents in a futile bid to preserve both a broad, anti-Iranian Sunni alliance and authoritarian, non-democratic rule throughout the Middle East. It even sent in the tanks when anti-government protesters in Bahrain threatened that country’s quiet and compliant client Sunni king. Given U.S. preference for democracy in the Arab world, this, too, puts Washington and Riyadh at odds. This notion was recently pointed out by reporters who noted that the late Saudi king “could not stand” Obama due to the president’s support for democracy movements throughout the Arab heartland.
Looking forward, all this bodes ill for the aging despots running Saudi Arabia. A revolutionary army that appeals to a large number Saudis sits across their border. Their traditional enemy, Iran, has made huge strides and has effectively encircled the kingdom to the north, south and east. Worse, technological changes have brought new oil supplies to market in a way that threatens the monarchy’s ability to pay for the guns and butter it needs to keep up its Cold War with Iran and buy off loyalty at home. Finally, and most depressingly, Iran and the U.S. seem to be slowly moving toward a détente of sorts reminiscent of Washington’s opening to Beijing during the last century’s Soviet-American Cold.
The Brezhnev is dead! Long live the Brezhnev!
Pity the elderly men now calling the shots in the Arab World’s most powerful country. They face a host of problems — many of which they’ve brought about themselves; many of which seem unlikely to be solved easily or peacefully. Strong leadership at the top that looks to end both the country’s Cold War with Iran and its dependence on ultra-conservative Islam as a legitimizing ideology would go a long way toward solving those problems, but it is extremely doubtful that the wizened hands now calling the shots there will show the gumption needed to turn the Saudi ship of state from its current disastrous course.
Thus, Saudi Arabia today is what the Soviet Union was under Leonid Brezhnev: an inflexible, oil-rich state run by an elderly, out-of-touch elite in cahoots with kleptocratic, self-dealing vested interests that can neither swerve from their conflict with the outside world nor loosen their dependence on a suffocating ideology that deprives the country and its people of the breathing room they need to survive a changing world. In the USSR, Brezhnev was eventually replaced by Andropov and Chernenko, a short-lived pair followed by the tragicGorbachev and the collapse his too-late reforms caused.