Oil, dictatorship, terrorism and war.
Will Saudi-Arabia collapse?
Whoever was responsible for the drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities, they have made the kingdom very nervous and indeed, exposed their growing weaknesses. There is no doubt that the Saudis will struggle to maintain control over their somewhat fragile state, which is held together by a mixture of coercion and money, both of which could easily snap when put under enough pressure.
Saudi-Arabia has always been a fabricated kingdom, created by British imperialism and designed to be large, fragmented and weak. It’s ‘legitimacy’ was never derived from popular support, but from its functions as a puppet state, overseeing the world’s largest oil supplies and quashing any form of political dissent in the region, making sure that local people would never gain control over their own political destinies.
In the late 1960s and 70s, the Saudis fought tooth and nail against the popular appeal of Egyptian leader Nasser, who had successfully defied his country’s economic stranglehold by the West when he nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, becoming a hero across the region. His ascendancy sparked upheavals throughout the Middle East, which all demanded greater democratic freedoms and political control over local resources.
Of course, this clashed with the interests of the Americans as well as the Western-backed dictatorships in the region, who were committed to keeping both oil prices and political power under careful control of tiny minorities. But as the Saudi regime grew increasingly unpopular with its own population and within the wider region as well, the royal family turned to a dangerous game of divide and conquer, promoting sectarian rivalries by using religion to spread its influence. The Saudis started promoting a particular brand of radical religion: Wahhabism, which they exported, especially to the fringes of the Muslim world, to states torn apart by conflict and poverty, like Afghanistan and Somalia. Spreading Wahhabism would underpin the growth of Saudi influence and its ambitions to become a regional superpower. Up until the conflict in Syria, Saudi money and weapons have been associated with groups like the Taliban, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, ISIS and the al-Nusra front, which targeted foreigners or non-Muslims, but also the adherents of another influential denomination within Islam; the Shia.
But as is always the case, religion and politics are intimately intertwined. Saudi-Arabia’s biggest rival Iran experienced a popular revolution in 1979, in which the Shah (emperor) was toppled. The Shah had been an unpopular leader, installed by American and British intelligence in 1953 after they plotted to overthrow democratically elected Mossadegh, who had dared to raise the spectre of oil nationalization. Anglo-Iranian oil (present day BP) would have nothing of it and welcomed the strangling of popular democracy in the name of profit. The revolution of 1979 reflected the anger of a population that had been robbed, but it was unable to prevent a group of religious zealots led by Ayatollah Khomeini to assume leadership of the revolution and transform Iran into a Shia theocracy, only able to secure its power by its identification with the aims of the revolution, increasingly articulated in anti-Western rhetoric.
Iran formed a threat to Saudi regional leadership, as most countries in the Middle East contain multiple ethnic or religious groups and Shia minorities found themselves voiceless within Saudi Arabia itself, but also in other Gulf monarchies and Iraq, where they are in fact a majority group. When the Iranian theocracy assumed power, Saudi-Iranian rivalry became increasingly framed along sectarian lines, with both sides using religious loyalties to undermine their rival’s influence abroad. Furthermore, as Iran positioned itself as an enemy of the US and the West, Saudi-Arabia and other Gulf dictatorships increasingly aligned themselves to them, in turn encouraging Russia and China to seek the opposite direction. Effectively, the Shia dictatorships of Iran and Syria became Russian (formerly Soviet) and Chinese allies, whilst the Sunni dictatorships of Iraq, Egypt, Saudi-Arabia and the Gulf were courted by the West.
This rivalry intensified after the disastrous 2003 US-led intervention in Iraq, a majority Shia nation, which increased Iranian influence in the region, a development the Saudis could only counter by sponsoring proxy forces of radical Sunni Islam. This continued in Syria, a long-standing ally of the Iranians and the survival of Assad only boosted the Iranian position in the region. As the Iranians were able to negotiate their nuclear deal with the Obama administration and the EU, its reach as a regional power was advanced even further, a development the Saudis were keen to match, reflected by the renewed commitment of the new Saudi crown prince Mohamed Bin Salman to intervene abroad. The assault on Yemen’s Houthi brought together a coalition of Sunni dictatorships backed by the West, whilst the Houthi were loosely backed by the Iranians.
But the Saudis have overplayed their hand. Their efforts in Yemen have only highlighted the cruelty of the Saudi regime which was amplified by the butchery of journalist Khashoggi in 2017. As Yemeni children starve and are blown to pieces by American and British supplied explosives, opposition is mounting. The Trump administration has firmly committed itself to the Saudis, as have the Israelis, a development which only highlights how estranged the regime in Riyadh has become from ordinary people in the Middle East, who are united in their opposition to Israel and the West.
The unilateral decision to annul the Iran-nuclear deal has raised the stakes. Trump is going after Iran, but only half-heartedly, in spite of hawks in Washington and Tel Aviv pressuring him to do more. John Bolton was sacked for insisting on a more aggressive stance. There has been no significant military response to the drone attacks, nor the earlier Iranian provocations against oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. Is Trump letting the Saudis sort it? Has their inaction exposed their incompetence? Are the Saudis losing the war in Yemen? Is Iran perhaps not really behind the alleged provocations after all? Who is? Many questions remain unanswered. But the fragility of Saudi Arabia is a certainty and although the regime’s collapse has been predicted before, its demise could change the geopolitics of the entire region. In a world threatened by devastating climate change, the instability of the world’s largest oil produces might be a blessing the long term. Unfortunately, violent dictatorships never just step aside but no doubt go up in flames. The human cost will be significant.