Saudi Ara­bia’s un­cer­tain­ties

It’s overly op­ti­mistic to as­sume the king­dom can grow eas­ily into a post-oil gi­ant in the Mid­dle East

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Yoel Guzan­sky

OPEC mem­ber’s de­ci­sion last week to cut oil out­put won’t help Saudi Ara­bia in the long term. The king­dom prob­lems run far deeper and even at $50 a bar­rel, it will face a large deficit re­quir­ing more bor­row­ing and sub­si­dies cuts that will bring more pain on a pop­u­la­tion ac­cus­tomed to easy life.

Saudi Ara­bia has man­aged to es­cape the “Arab Spring” us­ing its oil profit re­serves and a strong and ex­pe­ri­enced lead­er­ship. To­day the king­dom is in a dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion as it faces grow­ing pres­sures that might even­tu­ally lead to po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity. Eco­nomic un­cer­tainty grows as cuts to sub­si­dies and salaries im­pact Saudis that are ac­cus­tomed to the pros­per­ity brought by oil while the govern­ment has been run­ning mas­sive deficits over the last two years. Salaries are go­ing down and costs are go­ing up. So is the frus­tra­tion of or­di­nary peo­ple. Con­struc­tion work­ers torched buses dur­ing demon­stra­tions in the holy city of Mecca be­cause they had not been paid in months.

Added to that is the po­lit­i­cal un­cer­tainty caused by the ri­valry for the throne be­tween Crown Prince Muham­mad bin Nayef, and Deputy Crown Prince Muham­mad bin Sal­man who’s in­ex­pe­ri­ence, some would even add reck­less­ness, has led U.S. of­fi­cials to worry about pos­si­ble regime col­lapse. Se­nior Saudi princes have al­legedly-called for regime change ex­press­ing dis­trust of the 31-year-old prince. Saudi roy­als, once pru­dent and cau­tious, are now de­ter­mined to lead a sense­less and costly war in neigh­bor­ing Ye­men. In­ter­nal se­cu­rity is another prob­lem as ISIS re­peat­edly has shown that it has a strong pres­ence in­side the king­dom.

Po­lit­i­cal shocks may have many trig­gers and many out­comes: Would it be a quiet palace coup by a com­pet­ing branch in the al-Saud clan, the seizure of the govern­ment by Is­lamist groups hos­tile to the West, or civil­ian un­rest aimed at a range of tar­gets? Also, would it mean a com­plete, sud­den “shut down” im­ply­ing loss of gov­ern­abil­ity and to­tal chaos, or, al­ter­nately, a last­ing cri­sis sim­mer­ing on the back burner? Nat­u­rally, each sce­nario and its ev­ery level of in­ten­sity may lead to dif­fer­ent out­comes. Be­cause of the im­pact that Saudi in­sta­bil­ity presents, it is never too early to be­gin to as­sess its im­pli­ca­tions.

A quiet palace coup or­ches­trated by a com­pet­ing, dis­em­pow­ered-feel­ing branch of the fam­ily is a pos­si­bil­ity, but the king­dom might be able to main­tain sta­bil­ity and con­ti­nu­ity through the process. There­fore, this sce­nario, which is some­what more prob­a­ble than the fol­low­ing ones, also poses fewer risks to Saudi Ara­bia’s po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity and to Western in­ter­ests in the king­dom.

Un­em­ployed Saudi youth, af­ter decades of fun­da­men­tal­ist Is­lamic in­doc­tri­na­tion, would prob­a­bly not em­brace lib­eral demo­cratic val­ues if put in dire straits. The few lib­er­als might quickly be over­whelmed by Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ists. So, a takeover by Is­lamic el­e­ments hos­tile to the West is ar­guably the most dan­ger­ous be­cause they might use the king­dom’s vast re­sources and put them to use against western in­ter­ests.

Another pos­si­ble sce­nario in­volves un­rest aimed at dif­fer­ent tar­gets, sparked by more lib­eral forces, which could lead to chaos and the break-down into prov­inces, the ma­jor ones be­ing Na­jad, He­jaz, and the east­ern prov­ince where most of the oil and most of the king­dom’s Shi­ite pop­u­la­tion re­sides.

It is overly op­ti­mistic to as­sume that the king­dom has the re­sources, the ur­gency, and the tal­ent needed to swiftly push into a post-oil era. Sure, a re­form, such as Vi­sion 2030, is ur­gently needed. How­ever, it’s not clear how Saudis will ac­cept the need to work for a liv­ing. The U.S. should bet­ter scru­ti­nize Saudi sta­bil­ity and make con­tin­gency plans in case it would be at risk. It should also ask: How so­phis­ti­cated weapons sys­tems be se­cured? How can Iran be kept in check? Who will in­ter­vene to se­cure Is­lam’s holy sites? Or what does Saudi in­sta­bil­ity mean for its neigh­bor­ing monar­chies, some con­fronting sim­i­lar chal­lenges?

It’s not clear how Saudis will ac­cept the need to work for a liv­ing. The U.S. should bet­ter scru­ti­nize Saudi sta­bil­ity and make con­tin­gency plans in case it would be at risk.

Yoel Guzan­sky, for­merly head of strate­gic is­sues at Is­rael’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, is a re­search fel­low at the In­sti­tute for Na­tional Se­cu­rity Stud­ies, Tel Aviv Uni­ver­sity. He has served un­der four na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vis­ers and three prime min­is­ters.


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