The death of King Abdullah last week in Saudi Arabia has led to an international focus on the regime that is famous for buying US political support, opposing and financing terrorism, flogging bloggers, and preventing women from exercising even the most basic individual liberties.
Saudi Arabia is a place of seeming contradictions. Long-held as an American ally in the region since the tacit approval of the West in the establishment of the House of Saud as the governing entity of the majority of the Arabian Peninsula in the early 20th century. For nearly 100 years, Saudi Arabia has been an example, for both good and ill, of a stable theocratic Islamic government. That stability, as most any human rights organization would immediately note, has been bought on the blood of violent crackdowns against perceived insurgencies and sleights against the religious government. However, when compared to the breakdown of nations like Yemen to the south, Saudi Arabia’s stability, at least for the majority of its population, has led to a degree of security in an area where such is very rare.
Much of the Saudi stability has been decidedly and definitively purchased with revenue from oil. Leveraged numerous times for power over western leaders through the latter half of the twentieth century, the Saudi King became the de facto premiere of the Islamic world (and not just because of the resurrection of the ancient title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.”)
The political relationship between the West and Saudi Arabia changed in the early years of the twenty-first century largely as a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the inconvenient fact that a majority of the terrorists who performed those attacks were Saudi nationals. The Islamic government in Riyadh, definitively Sunni, now had to rush to distance itself from Sunni terrorist groups like al Qaeda and its early affiliates. It should be noted that in the early manifestos of al Qaeda, the group is strongly critical of the United States and the Saudi government for the Saudis allowing American bases on Saudi territory during the staging and execution of Operation Desert Storm and the decade that followed.
Thus, in the early part of the twenty-first century, Saudi Arabia changed from being merely the primus inter pares of the Islamic States and OPEC to being a begrudging United States proxy in the war against fundamentalism and non-state-actors in the Middle East. This irony should not be lost on the observer who clearly sees Saudi Arabia as being one of the most repressive Islamic governments.
The apex of Saudi power came during the latter-half of the first decade of the twenty-first century when oil was at all-time highs and the American government was reliant on the stabilizing influence of the Saudi government as a bulwark against the perceived threat of a resurgent Shiite Iran.
The dynamic in the Middle East began to change at the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century in 2010 through 2012. While oil prices still allowed the Saudi government to buy stability, import western arms and mercenaries to train its soldiers, a growing discontent was spreading across the region. In a matter of months from late 2010 through the end of 2011, governments in the Middle East and North Africa, even those previously thought to be stable, began to crumble to civil unrest.
While the Saudi government was able to crack down on dissent within the Kingdom, and use significant military resources, as well as a free-hand from the United States, to destroy dissent in Bahrain, the King was little more than a spectator as the region burned and fundamentalists opposed to the Saudi hegemony became better organized and better financed.
The revolution in Syria, which remains a flashpoint in international politics, was, at its outset, a potential boon to the Kingdom as it reduced the Iranian control of Syria. However, despite its lobbying, the United States declined to intervene as it had in Libya, and Syria was allowed to fester. As the war reached a stalemate, one of the more organized and better funded non-state terrorist organizations, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) began making significant gains.
In late 2013 and early 2014, the next, and as history will doubtlessly determine more-critical, phase of the “Arab Spring” was unfolding. ISIS launched a major offensive in Iraq at a time of major political instability. While the Saudi government had not supported the new Iraqi government, as the new Iraqi government was predominantly Shiite, the rapid destabilization of its border sent shockwaves through the Kingdom. When the United States did not immediately act with regards to ISIS’ advance, the Kingdom began its own financing of counter-insurgency in the primarily Sunni regions of Iraq.
The movement of ISIS in Iraq and the decision by the United States to make no real commitment to the fight in either Syria or Iraq (note that the use of air power was late in coming and has been, at best, a mild setback to ISIS) has caused Saudi Arabia to move to defend itself with its own resources. Notably, Saudi forces joined with other Arab powers to strike at terrorists in Libya and have moved to counter ISIS in Iraq.
However, in the latter-half of 2014, the American oil industry, exploiting new methods of extraction, began to make significant supply increases as a hedge against OPEC control of production. Saudi Arabia, rather than cut production and allow Iran and other nations a larger share of the total output, has made the decision to keep its output stable for the time being. This has led to a rapid and sharp decrease in the price of oil. The idea, from the Saudi perspective, is to gamble that the American oil explorers will not be able to maintain the cheap cost of production and will have to scale back in 2015. Thus, for the Saudis, any movement now to decrease the Kingdom’s production would allow Iran to increase as a total percentage of production and challenge the Kingdom when oil prices stabilize.
In making this decision not to decrease production, the Kingdom has showed its hand. While it was always well-known that Saudi Arabia was the bipolar check to Iranian power, this decision belies the new reality that Saudi Arabia does not trust the United States to hold the Saudis as the de facto leaders in the Middle East. Rather, the Obama Administration’s push for Iranian cooperation in the battle against ISIS (though made through back channels) coupled with the moves to normalize relations with Iran, are seen with distrust in Riyadh. Beyond its oil revenues being used to buy power and influence, the Saudi government runs the risk of major destabilization. Clearly the House of Saud would survive most internal division at this point because of the sheer amount of modern weapons and hardware at their disposal. However, in the event that their market share of oil production is unable to produce the same levels of income that have driven it to be regional hegemon, coupled with the United States seeking a broader coalition of support with traditionally Shiite powers, the days of Saudi influence begin to wane.
Thus, the death of King Abdullah comes at a perilous time for the Kingdom. Not only has the government in Yemen collapsed on its southern border, but there have been raids by ISIS against the northern border. Notably one such raid killed the Saudi general tasked with the protection of the same border.
Attacks within the Saudi Kingdom would likely raise the price of oil considerably and cause the United States to pivot to support the regime. Despite this dark upside of chaos, such an attack would also show the permeability of the Saudi Monarchy and lead to both an increase in boldness of fundamentalist groups inside the Kingdom and embolden more attacks.
In the end, 2015 looks to be an important year for Saudi Arabia. King Salman, reportedly already ill or suffering from early stages of a degenerative disease, will have to guide the Kingdom as it strikes out on a path of its own.