“Since (the 1920s), the Saud tribe has been torn by ambition, resentment and intrigue. The Saudi royal family has more in common with the Corleones than with a Norman Rockwell painting”
For nearly a century, Saudi Arabia has been ruled by the elders of a royal family that now finds itself effectively controlled by a 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman. He helms the Defense Ministry, he has extravagant plans for economic development, and a fortnight ago arranged for the arrest of some of the most powerful ministers and princes in the country.
A day before the arrests were announced, Houthi tribesmen in Yemen but allied with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, fired a ballistic missile at Riyadh. The Saudis claim the missile came from Iran and that its firing might be considered “an act of war.”
Saudi Arabia was for a long time the unchanging, even rigid, centre of the region. But things changed after 2008.
Saudi Arabia, like Russia, had counted on oil revenue to maintain the stability of the regime. The financial crisis pushed the world into an extended stagnation where even 2% growth in gross domestic product was considered a boom. This of course put a cap on industrial production, which ultimately cut the ground out from under oil prices. The increased capacity developed while oil was nearly $100 per barrel – including the stunning transformation of the United States into an oil exporter – also forced prices down. OPEC, Saudi Arabia and Russia all tried (and continue to try) to boost prices using various schemes. The problem was that, whenever production was cut, some producer, desperate for oil revenue, rushed in to a fill the vacuum. This placed the Saudis in a terrible position.
Saudi Arabia was created between the two world wars under British guidance. In the 1920s, a tribe known as the Sauds defeated the Hashemites, effectively annexing the exterior parts of Saudi Arabia they did not yet control. The United Kingdom recognised the Sauds’ claim shortly thereafter. But since then, the Saudi tribe has been torn by ambition, resentment and intrigue. The Saudi royal family has more in common with the Corleones than with a Norman Rockwell painting.
The Saudis maintained their rule partly through financially supporting particular segments of Saudi society.
For the House of Saud, cash was a strategic weapon. Spread around prudently, most of it to the royal family, but a generous amount to other groups in the kingdom, it bought stability, hiding but never eliminating the malice that was always there.
Among the most critical recipients of money were the Wahhabi clerics, the gatekeepers of Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative brand of Islam. When the Sauds conquered Mecca and Medina, they became the protectors of the holy cities. This was an honour, a singular responsibility and a political burden. The Saudis had to fund the Wahhabis and became trapped by them. The royal family and others knew how to have a good time in London, Paris and other European cities. Some, though not all, clearly didn’t take conservative Islam seriously. But others in the kingdom did, and this became a fault line in Saudi Arabia, one that was buried under money.
Money, however, eventually ran short, and a faction of the royal family began to grasp their vulnerability. Oil on the global market was plentiful, and the United States was less than solicitous of Saudi needs, particularly while the Saudis – the Wahhabi side of the royal family – was underwriting jihadist groups.
With oil prices low, the Saudis also lost their lever within the peninsula. Countries like Yemen, that had historically