“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”

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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