Pressure mounts on Saudi Arabia
The name of the game in Saudi Arabia is survival. There are no credible alternatives to the Al Sauds and the bitter legacy of revolts in the Middle East and North Africa since 2011 is unlikely to lead the Saudis to rise up. They may, however, insist their rulers be more accountable rather than authoritarian.
The Saudi government has been forced to rewrite the bargain that involves a cradle-to-grave welfare system in exchange for the surrender of political rights and adherence to Wahhabi social mores. Reduced spending on social services and education and streamlining a bureaucracy that employs two-thirds of all Saudis are daunting challenges, coming as they do when domestic demands for social change and international awareness of association of Wahhabism with Islamic militancy are growing.
The Saudis have spent an estimated $70 billion-$100 billion on proselytising since the seizure of the mosque in Mecca by fanatical Islamists in 1979. Western voices are growing stronger in their condemnation of Saudi funding of hard-line jihadist militants.
At one point during his campaign, US President-elect Donald Trump blamed Saudi Arabia for the 9/11 attacks. He also suggested he could stop oil imports from the kingdom in his bid to make the United States energy-independent. He has hinted at changes in US foreign policy that would make the kingdom deeply uncomfortable. His pledge to relocate the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem could move Arab states to break off diplomatic relations with the United States.
Trump has also hinted that he may scrap the internationally sanctioned nuclear agreement with Iran. Were that to happen — against the wishes of the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia — Riyadh would be forced into a nuclear arms race with Iran for which it simply does not have the necessary engineers and scientists.
In Syria, Saudi-backed rebel groups have been sidelined by the prospective peace whose midwives are Russia, Turkey and Iran. The fall of Aleppo last month has turned the resistance to Syrian President Bashar Assad into an essentially rural insurgency.
Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen has fared no better, sparking widespread anti-Saudi feeling among many Yemenis. A 2-year military campaign has shown the Saudi Air Force targeting by design or error civilian facilities, what some observers have called “war crimes”.
The United States last year halted the sale of air-dropped and precision-guided munitions until it had better trained Saudi forces in the use of such weapons. What is the point of being the second largest importer of military equipment in the world if one’s army is incapable of using them?
The Iranian-backed Houthis and forces of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh still occupy much of Yemen, including the capital Sana’a. Adding insult to injury, Saudi rulers have asked Algeria, a country they have deeply despised, to help mediate an agreement between the two sides.
Looking west, relations with Egypt have sharply deteriorated since Saudi money and muscle helped put general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in power in 2013. A $23 billion agreement to supply Egypt with 700,000 tonnes of petroleum products every month was suspended last October to punish Egypt for having supported the Russian resolution on Syria at the United Nations.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt have irreconcilable differences regarding Syria and Iran. Saudi muscle has failed to make Sisi — the general-turned-president — look on Saudi concerns in a friendlier fashion.
Further north, in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia refused to endorse Michel Aoun being appointed president of Lebanon after a stalemate of two years. The new head of state has the strong support of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia whose support for Assad has been constant and whose close links with Iran are well-known.
Saudi Arabia can now contemplate something its leaders never dreamed of in their worst nightmares: A Shia axis with runs from Beirut to Tehran. True, Saad Hariri, the son of former prime minister and Lebanese-Saudi businessman Rafik Hariri who was assassinated in 2005 allegedly by Hezbollah militants, has become prime minister of Lebanon. He is totally beholden to the Saudi government, which will have to bail out his companies in the kingdom.
The position of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz is on the line. Well-informed observers say this powerful son of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is being groomed as his successor despite objections from powerful voices in the Al Saud family.
Prince Mohammed is also in charge of modernising and streamlining the kingdom’s economy. So far, however, he has little to show on the domestic or foreign front for his endeavours. If he does not meet with more success in 2017, some might wonder whether his credibility will be on the line.
More than at any time in modern history, Saudi Arabia is buffeted by ill winds.