Thursday, February 18, 2016

Collapse of the Saudi Kingdom

For half a century, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been the linchpin of U.S. Mideast policy. A guaranteed supply of oil has bought a guaranteed supply of security. Ignoring autocratic practices and the export of Wahhabi extremism, Washington stubbornly dubs its ally “moderate.”

So tight is the trust that U.S. special operators dip into Saudi petrodollars as a counterterrorism slush fund without a second thought. In a sea of chaos, goes the refrain, the kingdom is one state that’s stable.

But is it?

In fact, Saudi Arabia is no state at all. There are two ways to describe it: as a political enterprise with a clever but ultimately unsustainable business model, or so corrupt as to resemble in its functioning a vertically and horizontally integrated criminal organization. Either way, it can’t last. It’s past time U.S. decision-makers began planning for the collapse of the Saudi kingdom.

Understood one way, the Saudi king is CEO of a family business that converts oil into payoffs that buy political loyalty. They take two forms: cash handouts or commercial concessions for the increasingly numerous scions of the royal clan, and a modicum of public goods and employment opportunities for commoners. The coercive “stick” is supplied by brutal internal security services lavishly equipped with American equipment.

The U.S. has long counted on the ruling family having bottomless coffers of cash with which to rent loyalty. Even accounting today’s low oil prices, and as Saudi officials step up arms purchases and military adventures in Yemen and elsewhere, Riyadh is hardly running out of funds. 

Still, expanded oil production in the face of such low prices—until the Feb. 16 announcement of a Saudi-Russian freeze at very high January levels—may reflect an urgent need for revenue as well as other strategic imperatives. Talk of a Saudi Aramco IPO similarly suggests a need for hard currency.

There are a few ways things could go, as Salman’s brittle grip on power begins cracking. 

One is a factional struggle within the royal family, with the price of allegiance bid up beyond anyone’s ability to pay in cash.

Another is foreign war. With Saudi Arabia and Iran already confronting each other by proxy in Yemen and Syria, escalation is too easy. U.S. decision-makers should bear that danger in mind as they keep pressing for regional solutions to regional problems.

A third scenario is insurrection—either a non-violent uprising or a jihadi insurgency—a result all too predictable given episodes throughout the region in recent years