Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Saudi Royal Stability

Aha! Perhaps the charming charm about absolute depotries is they absolutely collapse! And despotic collapses are not very pretty
Saudi Arabia is the world’s last absolute monarchy. Like Louis XIV, King Abdullah has complete authority to do as he likes. But while a revolution in Saudi Arabia is still not likely, the Arab Awakening has made one possible for the first time, and it could come in44's 2nd term

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a proven survivor. Two earlier Saudi kingdoms were defeated by the Ottoman Empire and eradicated. The Sauds came back. They survived a wave of revolutions against Arab monarchies in the 1950s and 1960s. A jihadist coup attempt in 1979 seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca but was crushed. Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda staged a four-year insurrection to topple the Sauds and failed less than a decade ago. Saudi al Qaeda cadres remain in the kingdom and next door in Yemen.

Today the Arab Awakening presents the kingdom with its most severe test to date. The same demographic challenges that prompted revolution in Egypt and Yemen, a very young population and very high underemployment, apply in Saudi Arabia. Extreme gender discrimination, long-standing regional differences, and a restive Shia minority add to the explosive potential. In recognition of their vulnerability, the Saudi royals have spent more than $130 billion since the Arab Awakening began to try to buy off dissent at home. They have made cosmetic reforms to let women sit in a powerless consulting council.

 If an awakening takes place in Saudi Arabia, it will probably look a lot like the revolutions in the other Arab states. Already demonstrations, peaceful and violent, have wracked the oil rich Eastern Province for more than a year. These are Shia protests and thus atypical of the rest of the kingdom. Shia dissidents in ARAMCO, the Saudi oil company, also have used cyberwarfare to attack its computer systems, crashing more than 30,000 work stations this August. They probably received Iranian help.

The critical defender of the regime would be the National Guard. Abdullah has spent his life building this Praetorian elite force. The United States has trained and equipped it with tens of billions in helicopters and armored vehicles. But the key unknown is whether the Guard will shoot on its brothers and sisters in the street. It may fragment or it may simply refuse to suppress dissent if it is largely peaceful, especially at the start.

The succession issue adds another layer of complication. Both the king and crown prince are ill, and both are often unfit for duty. If Abdullah and/or Salman die as unrest begins—a real possibility—and a succession crisis ensues, then the kingdom could be even more vulnerable to revolution.

Revolution in Saudi Arabia would be a game changer. While the U.S. can live without Saudi oil, China, India, Japan, and Europe cannot.

 We should plan very quietly for the worst. The intelligence community should be directed to make internal developments, not just counterterrorism, its top priority in the kingdom now. We cannot afford a surprise like Iran in 1978, and we need to know the players in the opposition, especially the Wahhabi clerics, in depth. This will be a formidable challenge, but it is essential to preparing for a very dark swan.