Small Wars Journal

Cracks Appear in Saudi Glass Palace

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Cracks Appear in Saudi Glass Palace

N. V. Subramanian

Saudi Arabia’s overweening confidence as a leading Sunni power has been enfeebled by the 14 September attack on its oil facilities. Its sworn enemy, Iran, has carried out the attack by itself or its Houthi proxy in Yemen. It amounts to the same thing.

Having dared and won the first strike without US reprisal, Iran may be expected to consummate its advantage with an imaginatively different second attack. It would likely be as strategically far-reaching as the first one. Can Saudi Arabia survive a successive assault on its sovereignty?

The odds are stacked against it.

Following years of marginalization and brutal persecution, including beheading and crucifixion, for nothing more than peaceful protests during the 2011 Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia may have pushed the Shias of the oil-rich Eastern Province to mull supporting Iran in whatever action it takes to weaken the kingdom. Should they baulk out of feelings of residual loyalty, Iran may ruthlessly reinsert the so-called Saudi Hezbollah which staged the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing on US air force crew. Since Riyadh is unlikely to differentiate peaceable citizen from militant overseas Shias, it would conceivably fuse the two. The southern Yemen-Saudi Arabia border thick with Shias on both sides may see a similar power play but its intensity may be more being a porous land frontier and active battle site. The Houthis have seized one hundred square miles of the kingdom since its intervention in the civil war in March 2015.

Citizen Sunni dilemmas in the event of Saudi Arabia being pushed to the brink by external factors may passably mirror those of Eastern Province Shias. While Shias continue to bear the brunt of state repression especially since 2011, Sunni religious, political and women’s rights groups opposing the ruling Al Sauds have suffered perhaps only marginally less. Anti-terrorism laws of 2014 and 2017 that outlaw peaceful protests, internet organization of mass demonstrations and the interrogation of the actions of the king and the crown prince have been applied severely to Sunnis no less.

The dilemma for sections of Sunni Salafis and banned Muslim Brothers seeking a constitutional monarchy for Saudi Arabia since 2011  alongside liberal groups like the Association for Political and Civil Rights or HASM, Shias, mothers of the thousands of “disappeared” since the post 9/11 crackdown and so on possibly is this: if in emergent troubles for the Al Sauds, transnational assistance at the cost of their ideals could depose them, should they make the Faustian bargain? What if the bargain joined with other factors including war dramatically produces a rump Saudi Arabia with its political legitimacy shorn by the passage of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to a new owner (rising Turkey wants them; the six fold increase in Hajj visa cost this month has embittered all Muslim nations) and its economic circumstances impaired by the oil-rich Al-Hasa region changing hands (unstoppable Iran should desire it)? It could be argued that the Al Sauds had it coming but that is also to support their claim of being the embodiment of Saudi Arabia.

All the same, the capacity of reformist Saudi citizens to mould the future of their country is limited by their numbers and embattled state and further by factors still more outside their control. With political parties banned alongside the formation of Saudi Arabia in 1932 and trade unions and strikes and demonstrations proscribed within the next two dozen years, citizens were deprived of the traditional institutions of mobilizing protest, a handicap acutely felt during Arab Spring. Having outsourced defence to the United States from the beginning for fear, inter alia, that a large and powerful military would tempt coups, even perverse hopes that generals would break the absolutism of the Al Sauds have been denied. While oil dependency was natural for a state floating on it, it, however, further choked the development of a pervasive political consciousness by aiding the Al Sauds in their absolutism to not consider nation-building, comprehensive modernization or economic diversification. Political consciousness and even the smallest sense of liberal interrogation was swamped by the Al Sauds’ loyalty-for-cash programme that ensnared everyone from entitled royals downward; and the opiated condition was further enlarged by inducing unquestioned adherence to state religion in which Shias have provided diversion as sacrificial lambs for the sectarian certitudes of the majority.

It is in such circumstances that the tyrannosaurus state has suffered the fright of its life with a tiny meteorite smashing through its hermetic kingdom.

There are likely many and not just of the Shia faith in Saudi Arabia who would be secretly pleased with the 14th September strike.

Is this then a build-up to some kind of cataclysmic denouement which began with the 1979 Khomeini Revolution and Grand Mosque seizure (Khomeini expressed “great joy” for it), caused Osama Bin Laden’s stirring onset, meandered through the Iran-Iraq War and Iran and Turkey’s rise after the second Gulf War, and powered itself into one of its highest orbits in the Arab Spring? If Iran is plotting the next move or even Turkey while the United States retrenches from active fighting in the region, the answers may lie in Ankara or Tehran. There may be no better illustration of Saudi Arabia’s rapid eviction from the Middle East high table than that the initiative is wrested from it.

As cerebral and hardened powers, Turkey and Iran would appreciate the significance of Saudi Arabia’s unravelling economy under Mohammed bin Salman to assess its vulnerability to another strategic strike. Their eagle-eyed geo-economists would know that Saudi foreign exchange reserves have contracted 32 percent since August 2014 and that the fiscal deficit has averaged above ten per cent for the past five years because oil prices have not kept pace with the crown prince’s mounting state expenditures.

Anything below $85 a barrel for crude is not helpful to Saudi Arabia. Now struggling around $60, oil cannot pay for Riyadh’s large defence spends ($67.6 billion in 2018), largesse to princes which contains family rebellions, the citizens’ loyalty programme, mounting internal-security costs and day-to-day running expenses (after rationalizations) in addition to the $100 billion-plus Yemen War costs (excluding unpaid bills to Pentagon) and the crown prince’s extravagant and unworkable infrastructure projects for a post-oil future.

Saudi Arabia’s oil-based superstructure is dangerously listing in full view of Ankara and Tehran.

If Saudi reformists and liberals should have rued the stranglehold of oil that stalled economic diversification and killed the prospects of either democratic capitalism or socialism with it, they can only now fear the financial consequences of what constitutes diversification in the crown prince’s playbook. The attack on 14 September on two Aramco facilities was explosively visible to the world and ruined its imminent IPO. But its forced co-option in Mohammed bin Salman’s impractical mega infrastructure projects like Neom on the Red Sea coast with the intermediation of the sovereign Public Investment Fund (PIF) should equally scare those concerned about Saudi Arabia’s future fundamentals and warm the hearts of its adversaries.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Aramco had no pressing need for PIF-owned SABIC chemicals. It had to buy 70 percent of it at $69.1 billion in May partly financed by bonds because the money was needed for Neom, etc. This advertises Aramco’s absent autonomy which further undermines its delayed IPO and proclaims in capital letters the crown prince’s skewed and eviscerating diversification plans.

Nothing would suit Tehran and Ankara better than to see Riyadh hollowed out.

While the major powers are not giving up on Saudi Arabia yet with the US sending additional forces after 14 September and Vladimir Putin turning up in Riyadh at the crown prince’s request (and to bolster OPEC-plus against US shale in shared interest), there is nevertheless a detectable sense of weariness about propping up a kingdom bent on hara-kiri and whose tawdry artificiality and relentless absolutism look increasingly anachronistic even for the Middle East. With Iran and Turkey on the prowl, the glass kingdom sees the rocks that its crown price recklessly hurls at others terrifyingly rebounding on it.

About the Author(s)

N. V. Subramanian is a political, geo-economic, strategic and risks analyst for media, think-tanks, industry and governments.