By Jonathan Power
October 14, 2015
Is Saudi Arabia a house built on sand? If so, are the sands shifting? Even Hillary Clinton, the candidate for US president, until recently a staunch ally of the House of Saud, has publicly criticised the appalling human rights record of Saudi Arabia. Mrs Clinton also made the point that over the years it was not just rich Saudi individuals who had sent donations to Islamist militant fighting groups, it was also the government itself.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s current military intervention in Yemen appears to have led to thousands of unnecessary civilian deaths, and done with a motivation that seems questionable: that its rival, Iran, is supporting the Houthi rebels. There was outrage in the UK when The Guardian reported recently how leaked documents reveal that the UK conducted secret vote-trading deals with Saudi Arabia to ensure both states were elected to the UN Human Rights Council. In the time of the last Labour government, Prime Minister (PM) Tony Blair used his office to halt a Serious Fraud Squad investigation into bribes paid to high-ranking Saudis to smooth the sale of British fighter jets. The reason given was that a prosecution would harm the UK’s security interests. Saudi Arabia is the UK’s largest arms market by far.
In the US, it has not been forgotten that in the hours after 9/11, when all US aircraft were grounded, there was a significant exception: a group of top Saudis were given permission to use their own plane to fly home, even though there was already evidence emerging that the majority of the 9/11 culprits were Saudi. The Bush family, in particular its two presidents, has long had more than friendly relations — one might call them intimate — with the Saudi royal family.
How long do we have to wait for regime change in Saudi Arabia? After the debacle in Mecca, when last month more than 769 pilgrims died in a stampede whilst encircling the Kaaba shrine, even its friends are beginning to admit that something is going seriously wrong. Two weeks ago, The Guardian published two letters that an anonymous Saudi prince had circulated among senior members of the royal family, calling on them to stage a coup against King Salman. The letters allege that Salman, who became king in January, and his powerful 30-year-old son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have pursued dangerous policies that are leading the country to political, economic and military ruin. There is a growing popular revulsion against the war in Yemen. The Guardian reported that “many Saudis are sickened by the sight of the Arab world’s richest country pummeling its poorest”.
Economically, the country is sick. Oil prices have fallen by half the past year. Foreign Policy says: “Saudi strategy has been to maintain high production, fight for market share, allow prices to collapse and wait for higher cost producers, particularly in the US, to be driven out of business.” This ultra-selfish strategy does not go down well in oil-producing countries, not least in the US and UK. They are losing more in oil revenue than they are gaining in arms sales.
But the policy has not worked well for Saudi Arabia either. Its budget for 2015 was based on the assumption that oil would sell for around $ 90 a barrel. The result is a budget deficit of 20 percent, leading to a depletion of its huge foreign exchange reserves at a record rate of $ 12 billion a month. If the economic malaise continues — and few are predicting higher oil prices any time soon — there is a danger of capital flight and downwardly revised credit ratings.
Saudi Arabia is not as flush with oil as is often maintained. The fact is Saudi oil exports have been declining for years as internal energy consumption rises dramatically. Some analysts say that that this could mean that by the 2030s the Kingdom could become a net importer of oil. Even if that is overstated the regime remains vulnerable when oil sales make up 80 to 90 percent of the government’s revenues.
How will the government continue its present policies of subsidies for food, housing, water, a wide range of consumer goods and, not least, energy? For decades this has sweetened the political opinions of Saudis. Perhaps no longer. Moreover, 30 percent of Saudis under the age of 30 make up two-thirds of the population but an estimated 30 percent do not have jobs. The US is no longer going to be the ultimate guarantor of Saudi stability. The Middle East is becoming less important to core western interests. The oil shale revolution has put an end to its vice-like grip on western economies. Moreover, Islamic State (IS) would be challenged more effectively if the House of Saud were replaced by a less fundamentalist government.
No one knows whether Saudi Arabia has reached the tipping point but one can sense that a big change is now a real possibility.
The writer has been a foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune for 20 years and author of the much acclaimed new book, Conundrums of Humanity — the Big Foreign Policy Questions of Our Age. He may be contacted at email@example.com