Exclusive: Under growing economic and political pressure, the new Saudi leadership is showing a dangerous impulse toward military interventions, raising prospects for a direct and destructive confrontation with its regional rival Iran, writes Daniel Lazare.
By Daniel Lazare
Now that Saudi Arabia has severed diplomatic ties with Iran and reportedly bombed Iran’s embassy in Yemen, the big question is whether the Saudis are desperate and unhinged enough to launch an attack across the Persian Gulf. While Saudi leaders insist they have no such intent, there are mounting pressures pushing them in that direction.
The ruling family is under unprecedented strain. Its economy is shrinking; it’s bogged down in a seemingly endless war in Yemen; and its human-rights policies are an international scandal. If countries could have nervous breakdowns, Saudi Arabia would be well on its way. And when breakdowns occur, nations do crazy things.
Of course, there is always the possibility that sanity will suddenly descend upon the Saudis. But reason seems to be in increasingly short supply. Here’s a quick rundown of the reasons why Saudi Arabia is in such dire straits that war with Iran might appear to Saudi leaders as the best remaining option.
Reason #1: Economic collapse.
The 70-percent crash in oil prices since mid-2014 is not unprecedented. Crude plunged some 70 percent during and after the 2008 financial crisis, though it quickly bounced back once central bankers began cutting interest rates. But this time around the realization is growing that the prices will not be coming back anytime soon.
The reason is simple: a classic crisis of over-production straight out of Das Kapital as shale drillers grow more adept, sidelined producers such as Iran go on-stream, and demand continues to slide due to the collapse of the Chinese economy and ongoing listlessness in Japan and the West. Too many goods are chasing too few customers, a problem affecting not just energy but raw materials in general.
As The New York Times recently warned: “The commodities hangover, the dark side of a decade-long boom, could last for a while.”
This doesn’t bode well for Saudi Arabia. When a country’s fortunes are bound up with a single commodity the way the Saudis’ are with oil, the result is not just a business reversal, but an existential crisis. Leaders wind up discredited, while government as a whole enters into a crisis of legitimacy.
Saudi Arabia would be in better straits if it had used its income to diversify. But faced with a gusher of oil wealth seemingly without end, the Saudis preferred to spend rather than invest. By 2013, they were more dependent on oil revenue than 40 years earlier.
Thus, the kingdom’s choices are severely limited. The military card is one of the few left in the deck.
Reason #2: The United States.
U.S.-Saudi relations nearly collapsed after the attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001, but thanks to a compliant Congress and a supine press, President George W. Bush was able to cover up evidence of high-level Saudi complicity and put the alliance back on track. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Secret Saudi Ties to Terrorism.”]
But things were never the same. Bush’s invasion of Iraq upset the delicate balance in the Persian Gulf by tossing out Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, and replacing him with a series of pro-Shi‘ite governments increasingly beholden to Iran.
Obama worked hard at repairing the damage. But his decision to withdraw support from Egyptian dictator Husni Mubarak in the middle of the Arab Spring left the Al Saud wondering whether he would toss them overboard when the going got rough. Obama’s demand that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite (a variant of Shia Islam) and a Saudi bÃªte noire, “must go” pleased the Saudis, who joined with the Qataris and other “friends of Syria” to contribute $100 million to anti-Assad rebels.
But the Saudis were taken aback when the White House began complaining that the money was going to ferocious Sunni Islamists whose atrocities against Shi‘ites, Christians and other religious minorities wound up driving the population into the arms of Assad’s secular Baathist government.
A similar pattern followed the Saudi decision to send troops across the 16-mile King Fahd Causeway to crush democratic protests in Shi‘ite-majority Bahrain. When Obama ventured a few words of mild criticism, the Saudis made no effort to hide their annoyance.
Then, when the U.S. entered into nuclear talks with Iran, the Saudis expressed alarm that the Americans might be switching sides. Feeling alone and abandoned, they concluded that they had no choice but to act on their own when Shi‘ite Houthi rebels seemed to be at the point of gaining control of Yemen. Fed up with White House dilly-dallying, the Saudis launched an air war against the Houthis after giving the U.S. only an hour’s notice.
The more the White House resisted being drawn into the Saudis’ paranoid worldview, the more mistrustful the Saudis became and the more aggressive their behavior grew, a pattern that would repeat itself in the months ahead.
Reason #3: The logic of sectarianism.
From a Western perspective, the Sunni-Shi‘ite conflict makes no sense. In the final analysis, a war of succession among Muhammad’s followers that has raged on and off since the Seventh Century, it is as if the heirs of the Merovingians and Carolingians were still blasting away at one another in the rubble of Brussels. But where few Westerners can even remember who the Merovingians and Carolingians were or which one came first, Muslims behave as if their civil war occurred just yesterday.
The explanation is actually rather simple. As the self-appointed “custodian of the two holy mosques,” i.e. Mecca and Medina, the Saudi royal family bases its claim on Muslim law, the notion that its rule is legally valid according to shari‘a and that it is therefore incumbent upon all Muslims to accede to its legitimacy.
But Shi‘ites view the Saudis as merely another pack of illegal Sunni usurpers with zero legitimacy. For the Saudis, this is no laughing matter. The more insecure the regime grows, the more it sees such slights as fighting words.
When you’re a theocracy, in other words, fine points like these are all-important. This is why the 1979 Iranian revolution filled the Saudis with such dread; it was the first time Shi‘ites had taken state power in centuries. It is why the Arab Spring protests that nearly toppled the Sunni ruling family in neighboring Bahrain were equally as frightful.
If Bahrain’s 70-percent Shi‘ite majority had succeeded, it would have brought Shi‘ite state power to within a few miles of Saudi shores. From there, it would have been a hop, skip and jump to Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province where the local Shi‘ite majority is equally unhappy with Sunni rule.
All too aware that Shi‘ites outnumber Sunnis nearly two to one in the nations bordering on the Persian Gulf, the Saudis feel increasingly isolated on their own home turf. Their only option, they believe, is to gather Sunni forces from afar and use them to counter the Shi‘ite threat at home.
As Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan once told Sir Richard Dearlove, head of the British intelligence service MI6, “The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally ‘God help the Shia.’ More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.”
The war against Shi‘ite Alawites in Syria, Shi‘ite protesters in Bahrain, Shi‘ite Houthis in Yemen, and Shi‘ite dissidents like Sheik Nimr al-Nimr in the Saudis’ own Eastern Province could be just a prelude to the real war against the center of Shi‘ite power in Iran.
Reason #4: Implementation Day.
Like Israel, Saudi Arabia was overjoyed when the United Nations Security Council imposed trade sanctions on Iran in 2006 for refusing to suspend its uranium enrichment program. Not only did the measures isolate Iran politically and economically, but it had the added benefit of cutting off a fellow oil exporter from the markets, thereby helping to insure that prices would remain high for years to come.
But with sanctions about to expire in the wake of last year’s nuclear accord “implementation day” could be just days away all those emotions are now running in reverse.
Ironically, sanctions were not entirely negative for Iran. While the Saudis succumbed to the lure of easy money, Iran facing a shutdown of exports didn’t fall into the trap of total dependency on oil production. Instead, Iran had no choice but to build up other sectors.
As Foreign Affairs points out, Iran’s economy is highly diversified as a consequence, with oil and gas accounting for less than a fifth of GDP. At roughly $17,000, per-capita GDP is ahead of China and Brazil. With some 4.4 million young people enrolled in universities, 60 percent of them women and 44 percent majoring in the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math, Iran is clearly an emerging powerhouse.
So Iran is far less vulnerable to the ups and downs of the energy markets, which means its relative weight within the region will likely grow. The Saudis can practically feel the ground moving beneath their feet as the economic center of gravity shifts to the other side of the gulf.
The Saudis do have one advantage. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, their military expenditures exceed Iran’s by as much as seven to one. Although Iran would almost certainly prevail in a drawn-out war of attrition since it has nine times as much active and reserve military personnel, the Saudis might believe that could deal a harsh blow to their rivals by deploying high-tech air power and that Iran’s ability to retaliate would be limited. After all, as sectors of the ruling family are probably asking themselves, why spend billions on a high-tech offensive capability if you don’t use it?”
Reason #5: Islamic State.
Saudi attitudes toward the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh) are ambivalent. While vowing undying enmity toward these extremists, the Saudis are aware that the group enjoys significant popular support among the region’s Sunnis.
When Karen Elliott House, former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, visited Saudi Arabia in November 2014, she encountered a “Saudi imam [who] told me that his son is begging to go to Syria to join ISIS. While the imam says he is discouraging the teenager, he acknowledged that he finds the ISIS call for a caliphate ‘exciting.’ Like all too many Saudis, he sees the Al Saud as too worldly.”
For those repelled by Saudi royal greed and corruption and what member of the Saudi rank-and-file is not? ISIS is thus the logical alternative. Frederic Wehrey, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, makes a similar point.
“Sunni clerics,” he notes, “have always said, ‘Well, ISIS is kind of bad, but at least ISIS is standing up to the Shias in Iran.’”
This puts the Saudis in the hotspot since not only are they fighting against ISIS, but they are also allied with the U.S., which, from a Sunni perspective, now appears to be tilting toward Iran. That makes the Saudis doubly uncomfortable.
The only way the ruling family can redeem itself in the eyes of the Wahhabist ulema (as the mullahs are collectively known) is by escalating its own war against Shia Islam. This is why the Saudis have wound down participation in the U.S.-led effort against ISIS in Syria and Iraq in order to concentrate on the war in Yemen. The Saudi monarchy wishes to see ISIS beaten because it represents an eventual threat to the kingdom. But the mullahs are more comfortable fighting against Shi‘ism, and the royal family has no choice but to go along.
Reason #6: Internal Saudi dynamics.
The Al Saud are not only isolated internationally, but domestically. The late king Abdullah was a mild modernizer who encouraged young people to study abroad and built the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology, located in Thuwal on the Red Sea coast, as a center for co-education. His successor, the 80-year-old Salman bin Abdulaziz, is the opposite, a hardliner who doubled public executions after acceding to the throne last January, stepped up aid to Al Nusra, the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda, and then launched the air assault on Yemen.
Where Abdullah was a skilled consensus builder, Salman, a member of the so-called Sudairi Seven, a powerful faction within the royal family, apparently sees no need to work as hard at building support and is hence comparatively isolated.
For Saudi watchers, the results are evident from Salman’s appointments. He sidelined one crown prince after gaining the throne, put his nephew in his place, and then handed real power over to his favorite son, Muhammad bin Salman, who, at just 29 or 30, is now minister of defense, deputy crown prince, chief of the royal court, and chairman of the council for economic and development affairs.
The results have been disastrous. Brash, inexperienced, and ill-informed, Muhammad did not study abroad very unusual for scions of the Saudi elite but instead gained a bachelor’s degree from King Fahd University in Riyadh, a snake pit of racism, backbiting, and petty tyranny if confidential employee reviews are to be believed (“they cheat, steal your benefits, trap you, and have no respect for employees third circle of hell”).
A recent interview with The Economist was positively eerie. Over the course of five hours, the young prince insisted that everything in the kingdom was fine, that popular support for the royal family was firm, that the war in Yemen was going swimmingly, and so on.
When asked why, at 18 percent, the female labor participation rate is among the lowest in the world, he insisted that it has nothing to do with the fact that women can’t drive or can’t leave home without a male chaperone. Rather, it is the fault of the women themselves.
Muhammad said of the typical Saudi woman: “She’s not used to working. She needs more time to accustom herself to the idea of work. A large percentage of Saudi women are used to the fact of staying at home. They’re not used to being working women. It just takes time.”
Thanks to Muhammad’s efforts to strengthen his position in the line of success, the German spy agency BND complained in a report last month that “the careful diplomatic stance of older members of the Saudi royal family has been replaced by an impulsive policy of intervention” in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere and that the Al Saud were “prepared to take unprecedented military, financial and political risks to avoid falling behind in regional politics” meaning that more dangerous interventions were likely to follow.
Instead of less war, in other words, the outlook is for more. For the moment, Muhammad is a popular figure. Poets and singers write songs about him, and friends depict him in various social media as a macho warrior surrounded by lions and fighter jets.
But that could change in a flash as gas taxes are raised and other revenue-raising measures kick in. In 2011, the regime was only able to save itself during the Arab Spring by spending $130 billion to pump up salaries, build housing, finance religious organizations, and otherwise buy social peace. But austerity means an unwinding of social benefits that could bring political discord back to the table. So the Al Saud have every reason to be nervous.
Bottom line: As the family business craters, the U.S. winds down its military commitments, sectarianism intensifies, and ISIS and Iran both grow more threatening, the House of Saud may see no choice but to mount a swift assault across the gulf.
As Muhammad bin Salman told The Economist, a Saudi-Iranian war would be “a major catastrophe.” But with its own catastrophic collapse looming, the kingdom may lash out at its prime enemy first.
Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).