With King Abdallah in the hospital and very aged, a round of speculation has begun about when Crown Prince Salman, 79, will take over. At the same time, the kingdom faces a severe budget shortfall because of the plummeting price of petroleum. All this instability takes place against a backdrop of substantial regional turmoil. Ailing King Abdallah looks out over the region and sees civil war in Syria, popular unrest in Bahrain and Yemen, democratic elections in Tunisia, the rise of Daesh (the Arabic acronym for ISIL or ISIS) in Iraq and eastern Syria. He worries about the prospect of a warming of ties between the United States and Riyadh's arch-enemy, Shiite Iran. The borders of the kingdom are insecure as seldom before in recent decades.
The typical Saudi way of dealing with such threats is to throw money at them, which is why it is significant that petroleum prices have hit five-year lows this month. When the Arab youth revolutions began in 2011, the Saudi Arabian regime reacted quickly to ensure that they did not spread to the kingdom. Its tool of counter-revolution? Domestic welfare spending in the tens of billions. That tool has been blunted by the prospect of an enormous budget deficit. Saudi Arabia pumps 9.7 million barrels a day of the some 93 million b/d produced in the world, and would rather run some deficits than lose market share. But the domestic implications of this export policy are a question mark.
In some ways, the very efforts of the Saudi regime to make the region safe for absolute monarchy and hard line Wahhabi fundamentalism have boomeranged on the House of Saud. It probably is not the case that Riyadh ever directly supported Daesh, but it has supported rebels in Syria, and likely Iraq, that differ little from the latter in religious ideology. The Saudi princes are used to a domestic situation where ultra-conservative religion is a pillar of support for the status quo and the monarchy. They seem not to realize that similar religious puritanism, when rebranded as "Salafism" in Sunni republics, has a tendency to turn radical and revolutionary, even to turn to terrorism. Martin Luther, after all, had not intended to provoke peasant revolts, and he ultimately denounced the Protestant revolutionaries.
In Syria, the Saudis are backing militias that hived off from the Free Syrian Army and declared themselves "the Islamic Front." They are hard for outsiders to distinguish from the radicals, such as the Support Front (Jabhat al-Nusra, which has affiliated with al-Qaeda) and Daesh. The Islamic Front now rejects democracy in favor of a state ruled by their medieval interpretation of Islamic law (sharia). While the Islamic Front has had some successes, it has suffered reversals at the hands of the other fundamentalists and could not be said to be the leading rebel force. In the past year, the regime that the Saudis are trying to overthrow, that of President Bashar al-Assad, has regained some momentum in the civil war, taking the central city of Homs decisively.
Even as the Saudi-backed Islamic Front has been confined to a few enclaves, its rival, Daesh, is expanding its territory in Syria and has taken over much of Sunni Arab Iraq. That expansion puts the "caliphate" of Ibrahim al-Samarra'i (who styles himself Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) on the borders of Saudi Arabia. Daesh would like nothing better than to infiltrate Saudi Arabia and get hold of its oil riches. It is thus ominous that on Monday, suicide bombers managed to kill the Saudi general, Oudah al-Belawi, who was in charge of security on the border with Iraq.
The Saudis are also concerned that if Daesh is defeated, it will be at the hands of the Shiite Iraqis and Kurdish fighters backed by Iran, and that with the subduing of the Sunni Arabs militarily, the country will become decisively an Iranian sphere of influence. In a bid to retain influence, the king is opening a Saudi embassy in Baghdad for the first time in 25 years and is pressing that the interests of Iraqi Sunnis not be sacrificed to the defeat of Daesh. In Yemen, the Saudis had long feared the Zaidi Shiites of the north, whose tribes predominated along the Saudi border. Saudi efforts to proselytize Yemenis and to convert them to hard line Salafi Sunnis, backfired when the religiously moderate Zaidis developed a radical wing led by Husain al-Houthi, which rebelled against the nationalist government a decade ago. The government was weakened by the 2011 revolution, with President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi widely considered at most a transitional figure to democratic elections. Last fall, the Zaidi tribesmen took the capital, Sanaa, subordinating the government to themselves, and expanded their reach to major Sunni population centers. The Saudis, miffed at Houthi denunciations of Riyadh and Wahhabism, threatened to cut off aid to Yemen (one of the few things keeping the government afloat). The Zaidis are seen by Saudi Arabia as friendly toward Shiite Iran, and Riyadh is distressed that a hungry neighboring country of 24 million has been captured by a fierce critic.
As a result of the protests in Bahrain since 2011, the Saudis sent in troops to prop up the Sunni Arab monarchy. The vast majority of protesters were from the country's Shiite majority, though some Sunni reformists joined in. They are opposed by the Sunni court, though some wealthy Shiite firms in the capital are also opposed to the turmoil. Most Bahrain Shiites do not believe in ayatollahs and take a literal approach to scripture, and so are not the cat's paws of Iran that the monarchy accuses them of being. The refusal of the government to allow fair and representative parliamentary elections (fearing a victory by the Shiite majority) led the main Shiite party, Wifaq, to boycott last November's elections. On December 28, the monarchy arrested Wifaq leader, Ali Salman, leading to social unrest about which the US State Department has expressed concern. Bahrain is the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet, which ensures that Persian Gulf petroleum is exported freely. The problems in Bahrain are problems for Saudi Arabia as well, given its own restive Shiite population in the Eastern Province.
The Saudis have not succeeded in any of their regional initiatives except possibly their collaboration with the Egyptian officer corps in repressing the outbreak of democratic movements and ideals in that country. Still, even in Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has admitted that no one can any longer lead that country without a popular mandate won at the ballot box. This ideal, of popular sovereignty, is one the Saudis have sought to defeat. The relatively successful Tunisian transition to democracy is therefore a powerful challenge to their preference for elite authoritarianism in the region. In addition, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Bahrain are not going the way Riyadh would prefer.
Saudi petroleum wealth will be scaled back for at least a year, and the transition to green energy places the kingdom's long term geopolitical power in doubt. If Iran does succeed in concluding successful negotiations with the Obama administration and gaining more legitimacy in the Middle East, its powerful challenge to Saudi primacy will continue. A Lebanon, Syria and Iraq allied with Shiite Iran and the victory of a revolutionary republican form of government, would serve as a standing rebuke of Saudi absolutism. When he does come to power, Crown Prince Salman will reign in interesting times.