Arabian frights

Still unpacking the past few days of erratic diplomacy coming out of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). First came the refusal to accept their election to the UN Security Council after they had actively campaigned for the seat, then the announcement that the kingdom would “reassess” its strategic relationship with the United States. David Ignatius at the Washington Post suggests that this is about attention; the Saudis, frustrated (as are other American allies) at recent American moves in the region (chiefly the decision not to lay waste to Syria and potentially not to lay waste to Iran either), are holding their breath until they turn blue or until America recognizes KSA’s importance and starts catering to their needs again:

The bad feeling that developed after Mubarak’s ouster deepened month by month: The U.S. supported Morsi’s election as president; opposed a crackdown by the monarchy in Bahrain against Shiites protesters; cut aid to the Egyptian military after it toppled Morsi and crushed the Brotherhood; promised covert aid to the Syrian rebels it never delivered; threatened to bomb Syria and then allied with Russia, instead; and finally embarked on a diplomatic opening to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s deadly rival in the Gulf.

The thing is, if you’re a fan of long-term peace and stability, not to mention America’s standing in the region, these are all good things. America should support free and fair elections in places that haven’t had them before. We should not be backing crackdowns by authoritarians against popular uprisings. We should cut aid to governments installed by military coup that then go on to kill a few hundred protesters. We probably shouldn’t be providing significant military aid to the increasingly radicalized Syrian opposition. We should be looking for resolutions to the problem of Middle Eastern WMD that don’t involve airstrikes. And, most importantly, we should be negotiating with Iran. But none of these things are in Saudi Arabia’s interests just now, and so they’re looking to leverage a policy shift or at least some recognition that they still matter to America.

If only we could go back to a simpler time, when a Saudi king and an American president could hold hands as they strolled through the garden together...
If only we could go back to a simpler time, when a Saudi king and an American president could hold hands as they strolled through the garden together…

But there’s more to KSA’s actions over the past week than simple frustration with American policy; there’s also the fear that they may be increasingly shunted to the side in regional and global geopolitics. I agree with Marcy Wheeler on this; the Saudis have a problem, which is that they’re running out of oil. There’s no consensus as to how quickly they’re running out, but there’s no question that they are. Wikileaks released cables in 2011 suggesting that the Saudi government had overstated its accessible oil reserves by as much as 40%. Saudi influence within the global oil market is on the decline as well, thanks to development of non-OPEC sources of oil and to skyrocketing demand for Saudi oil to meet domestic needs rather than to be exported. At least one estimate has KSA on course to become a net oil importer by 2030. The Saudis themselves dispute these kinds of assessments, but if they are anywhere close to accurate it presents two serious problems for the Saudi monarchy: one foreign, and one domestic.

The domestic problem is the more serious one. The Saudi dynasty, to put it simply, has no experience ruling without the cushion of its vast oil reserves. After Ibn Saud, the eponymous founder of the kingdom, conquered western Arabia in 1926 he spent the next five years first containing the global ambitions of his religious zealot backers (Ibn Saud may have been a Wahhabi, but he keenly recognized that provoking a fight with the British by going to war with British protectorates in the Transjordan and Iraq was not a good idea), then defeating a revolt by those same backers. The new kingdom was officially proclaimed in 1932 and almost immediately became one of the poorest countries on earth, with an economy dependent on sporadic pilgrimage revenue and barely-above-subsistence agriculture, but that lasted all of 6 years before oil was discovered in the Gulf, the Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO) was formed, and the money started rolling in.

The living in Saudi Arabia has been easy ever since, but scratch the surface and you can see the massive internal problem that the money has been covering up. Unemployment hovers around 10%, but youth unemployment is a staggering 30%, and this is in a country where two-thirds of the population is under 30. Job growth for native Saudis stagnates because it’s cheaper and easier for private firms to hire foreign workers (who, incidentally, are also generally better trained) and because Saudi nationals prefer the higher pay and easier hours of public-sector work to working in the private sector. Limiting the inflow of foreign workers might free up jobs for Saudis, but it’s not even clear that they would take them; when a country like KSA relies on badly paid and mistreated foreign migrant workers to fill certain kinds of jobs, those jobs tend to become identified as demeaning and beneath the dignity of native citizens. It’s even worse for women, who struggle to find any employment in a climate where it’s considered immoral for unmarried men and women to mix. The result is a growing number of people in the supposedly-wealthy kingdom are living on the fringes of society, in poverty, with few prospects for getting on their feet.

A country that is home to millions of destitute people living under the authoritarian control of a royal family that extracts billions of dollars from the economy every year in stipends to itself is probably a country that is heading for some kind of popular insurrection. Add that kind of economic struggle and inequality to a country that already has a historically restive Shiʿa population in its eastern regions, one that is also dealing with increasing resentment from its female population over conservative religious restrictions on their rights and freedoms, and you’re really looking at a powder keg. Even the Saudi royal family understands this, as their response to the Arab Spring demonstrates. After the initial uprisings began in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, Saudi King Abdullah quickly pledged $130 billion in new domestic spending to try to head off any protest movement at home; this seems to have blunted the impact of the Arab Spring movement in KSA, but clearly the potential for widespread unrest is there. The problem now is that the Saudis need to maintain relatively high global oil prices to finance their domestic largesse, but with Iraq now a full player in the world oil market and renewables becoming a bigger and bigger part of the world energy picture, KSA doesn’t have the kind of direct control over those oil prices that it once did.

The foreign problem is more straightforward; as KSA’s influence in the world energy market diminishes, so does its global influence. If the Saudis can’t threaten an oil price spike, or crank out more supply to bring prices down to levels that stimulate American and European markets, they don’t have a whole lot of leverage over the behavior of stronger countries. Their way around this has so far been to pursue regional aims, but in ways that will ideally buy them new global leverage moving forward. So they’re directly intervening to put down a revolt in Bahrain, financing extremist Sunni rebel groups in Syria, and sending billions to support the military government in Egypt. The Saudis no doubt envision that these efforts will give them two, potentially three, direct client states in the Arab World, as well as at least one bit of leverage against America, access to the the Suez Canal, and potentially a second if the rebel network they’re backing should happen to take power in Syria. Meanwhile, though, they’re at odds with America in all three of these cases and would prefer not to be, particularly in Syria where they’d like American air power working on behalf of their clients.

This struggle for foreign influence also feeds back into the kingdom’s domestic tensions; as the Arab Spring showed, protest movements in the Middle East can quickly grow from local to national to international. The Saudis, by trying to stamp out unrest in nearby Bahrain and channel unrest in Syria in a direction favorable to their interests, are also trying to minimize the chances of more regional unrest that spreads over their borders. If the Saudi monarchy can co-opt the popular uprising in Syria with their aid then it can cast itself as a champion of popular Arab sentiment and maybe short-circuit any potential for domestic uprising. That Shiʿa minority in KSA’s eastern provinces looms large here; it’s not a coincidence that the Saudis are backing a Sunni insurgency in Syria (to show their support for Arab populism while being safely removed from its consequences) while trying to squash a mostly-Shiʿa one in Bahrain (so Saudi Shiʿa don’t get any big ideas).

Looming in the background of all of this is the potential reincorporation of Iran into something approaching normal diplomatic and economic relations with the rest of the region and the world. Iran is the only other player in the Middle East that could challenge KSA’s power, both from a size and resource perspective and as the nexus of Shiʿi Islam. Right now Iran is marginalized; outside of its regional Assad-Hezbollah client network and some Russian and Chinese support internationally, the ongoing situation with their nuclear program and their support of groups like, well, the Assads and Hezbollah, has left Iran isolated and contained. If, however, Iranian negotiations with the P5+1 over its nuclear program lead to sanctions being lifted and Iran fully rejoining the global economy, the Saudi position with respect to the oil market would become even weaker. Also worrisome from the Saudi perspective is Iran’s increasingly close relationship with Iraq and the possibility of Iran staking a wider claim to regional hegemony. Hence KSA’s strong preference that America stop talking to Iran and start bombing it, and their efforts to back Sunni rebels in Syria and Iraq (although “protesters” is a better description of what’s happening in Iraq right now) and to subdue Shiʿa rebels in nearby Bahrain.

None of this new Saudi anger at America and the West is likely to impact anything. The bottom line is that the Saudis just don’t have the leverage, built up with oil money and greatly increased while other major oil producers like Iraq and Iran were/have been marginalized, that they once had to manipulate great power geopolitics toward their ends. There’s little reason to think that their efforts in Syria are going to bring about Assad’s demise at all, let alone his demise in favor of their sponsored extremists, as opposed to the extremists allied with Al-Qaeda, or the moderates backed by America. The one place they might be able to squeeze the US is in terms of encouraging Egypt’s military government to restrict American access to the Suez Canal, but it’s hard to imagine Egypt or the Saudis really pushing that tactic in the face of serious American pressure. The United States holds the biggest card here, because if the Saudis really start to become a thorn in America’s side we could simply choose to stop serving as the Gulf’s main defensive military force. At that point the whole peninsula would be at much heightened risk of everything from Iranian aggression to domestic terrorism, and the Saudis really don’t want that, nor do they want to incur the expense of building a military that can stand on its own without American muscle behind it.

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