Its strength and resilience are greater than many realise, but there are real signs of strainby William Patey / November 11, 2015 / Leave a comment
There are reasons to be worried, and more than usual, but we should not exaggerate them. Saudi Arabia’s resilience is hugely underappreciated. But while the risk is small, the consequences for us would be calamitous. That is the real reason to worry—and there is quite a bit we can do to help.
Other governments have always worried about Saudi Arabia. I have never known a period when they did not. In the mid-1990s, everybody was worried because of low oil prices and the beginnings of terrorist activity, about which the Saudis were initially in denial. As western officials and diplomats, we were also going through the post-mortem of why we had not predicted the fall of the Shah in Iran, and the risk of being complacent was seared in all our minds. All the same, nearly every British ambassador had to spend a lot of time arguing to Whitehall that, contrary to its fears, Saudi Arabia was not about to collapse.
Nobody predicted the Arab Spring, but it did not surprise me that Saudi Arabia has proved resilient in the face of that upheaval. If you look at what was common to the republics that fell—I call them republics kindly, but they were more like republican dictatorships—it was that they had become family dictatorships built around one man, their leadership had become sclerotic, they had lost the confidence of the elites around them and they began to mismanage their economies. There was brutal oppression in order to stay in power, and widespread resentment towards the sons of the dictators, combined with an unwillingness among the army and the elites to defend the regime.
Saudi Arabia is different. There are a lot of reasons why there has not been an Arab Spring there. The elites have a huge vested interest in Saudi Arabia—the family is not run by just a small group of people. There is a very large royal family which reaches into the furthest parts of the country, with a good network for listening to people and a track record of delivering reasonable economic competence. They have run the country pretty well. That is a function of oil wealth but also of the fact that they promote good technocrats to run it, and have a system of not allowing members of the royal family into positions of power if they are essentially not competent. The selection of kings has been based on merit as well as seniority. That has been its strength.
There is also a kind of pact between the ruling family and the religious establishment. This is a constraint on how fast Saudi Arabia can modernise, but in a conservative Islamic country, it is also a force for stability.
These sources of resilience are unique to Saudi Arabia but you might argue that they are echoed in the Arab monarchies generally, and are a reason why those countries have not undergone the upheaval of an Arab Spring. Look at Morocco’s King Mohammed, King Abdullah in Jordan and al Nahyan family in the United Arab Emirates—none of them has resorted to armed repression of their people to maintain power. They have been sufficiently flexible in repressing some, co-opting others and in making adjustments. It obviously helps if you have got a lot of money—yet that is not true of Jordan or Morocco. The monarchies have proved more flexible than the republics.
The Saudi military is quite different from those of the republics that fell, and this is another source of stability. There are different command structures, and I think that is designed to reduce the possibility of a military coup. The command structure is so diffuse that the number of people who would have to be involved in a coup would make it almost impossible to succeed. So you can discount a military coup.
You can discount an Islamic popular revolution, too. The elites don’t like the idea—and the Arab Spring has reinforced their conservatism. It has proved a lesson for everyone that the uncertainty of what follows is too formidable. Too many people have vested interests in the success of al Saud. Given the importance of Saudi Arabia and its structure of alliances with the west you can discount external invasion, too, for example from Iran or in the past Iraq.
What are you left with? The one factor that has always been capable of threatening the stability of Saudi Arabia is serious disputes within al Saud itself—members of the family falling out with each other, and forming different factions. But we should remember that the history of al Saud is that they sort problems out among themselves. There have been disputes that we in the west have found out about only much later.
You can discount an Islamic popular revolution, too. The elites don’t like the idea—and the Arab Spring has reinforced their conservatism
However, what is interesting about the current state of affairs is that some of the tensions and discussions are beginning to surface in public. Whether or not the recent alleged letters from princes about King Salman’s competence really exist, there clearly is a much bigger debate going on about who will succeed him and who is exercising real authority currently. Rumours about King Salman’s health refuse to go away and the relationship between Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef is also subject to much speculation. There is also a suggestion that Prince Ahmed, one of the remaining sons of King Abdulaziz and King Salman’s full brother, may not have entirely given up his ambitions.
So there is a level of uncertainty about the future beyond King Salman which is being played out more in public than would normally be the case. But my prediction is that the family councils of al Saud will sort it out. They have always done so in the past.
Many Saudis have pointed out to me that the decision-making lines have been shortened, and that decisions are now taken much more quickly. There are a number of younger, technocratic ministers who have not been in their posts for 30 years. That doesn’t mean they are making the right decisions, of course, but they are making them much faster. The test of this will be how they handle the two big external strains which have now appeared.
The first is the fall in the oil price to around $50 a barrel—half the level of two years ago—which confronts them with some hard and urgent decisions. It does give them budget problems. They can adjust in the longer term, but their budget is currently based on a price of $90-100 a barrel and in the short term, they are having to cash in some of their assets. They have a lot of liquidity but I would not expect to see the same levels of expenditure for the next five years. There will be budget adjustments, and probably a slowdown in some of the big infrastructure projects.
Separately, the instability of the region is adding to the strain on the Saudi government—and on relations with its allies in the west. The Middle East is as unstable as it has ever been in the modern history of Saudi Arabia. Following the nuclear deal, the Saudis fear an emboldened Iran increasing its influence in the region at their expense. They see themselves as surrounded by Iran and its agents, whether Hezbollah in Lebanon or President Bashar al-Assad in Syria or a Shia majority government in Iraq. The future of Yemen for them is existential: they cannot afford Yemen to be run as an Iranian satellite, and firmly believe that the Iranians were behind the Houthi rebellion.
Traditionally, the Saudis might have looked to the US to sort out Yemen for them, as they would once have expected the US to be sorting out Syria and Iraq. A firm pillar of Saudi foreign policy has been a confidence that Gulf security was in the hands of the US, that the US was committed to this, that the US would be a friend and competent ally. This pillar has looked more insecure since the Arab Spring.
A firm pillar of Saudi foreign policy has been a confidence that Gulf security was in the hands of the US
The Arab Spring and the US reaction to it shook their confidence badly; they noted the ease with which the US abandoned its support for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. They have seen the reduction in US engagement in the region, the absence of any coherent strategy and an unwillingness to get involved. In Iraq, they blame the Coalition forces for deposing Saddam Hussein and handing influence over the government to Iran. They have been genuinely worried that the Iran nuclear deal marked a strategic shift on the part of the US back to the days when the Shah was its favourite ally, and no amount of discussion about the value of engaging Iran in the region’s problems seems to shake that. When the US appeared to draw a red line in Syria, over Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and then did nothing when Assad then crossed it, America then seemed a less reliable ally.
The Saudis have started to hedge their bets and become more forthright, self-reliant and outward-looking in their policy—not necessarily consulting the US before acting.
Given these tensions in the relationship, the US has made some effort to reassure the Saudis, but more needs to be done. The US would not allow Saudi Arabia to be threatened in any meaningful way by Iran, and it could usefully reinforce that point in Riyadh.
We need to engage more with the Saudis, not only to reassure them, but to listen to them. They have legitimate interests and it is hard to argue that we got it right and they got it wrong over Iraq. We have shared interests in engaging with Iran to see if there is scope to reduce tensions in the region. If in Syria we don’t have an immediate alternative to Assad and Islamic State, then there will have to be some sort of transitional political agreement among the main regional powers who have a stake in all this, and that will be hard do without Iranian cooperation.
If you put all this together, it is not to imply that there is a huge risk of the House of Saud falling. There isn’t. But given the huge downside risk (imagine, from our point of view, the current Middle East without a stable Saudi Arabia), the external pressures from low oil prices and regional unrest, this is not a time to be distancing ourselves from our traditional ally. We should intensify our engagement, and yes, we can raise the issue of human rights as candid friends, but we should also take the long view on issues of reform.