OPEC member’s decision last week to cut oil output won’t help Saudi Arabia in the long term. The kingdom problems run far deeper and even at $50 a barrel, it will face a large deficit requiring more borrowing and subsidies cuts that will bring more pain on a population accustomed to easy life.
Saudi Arabia has managed to escape the “Arab Spring” using its oil profit reserves and a strong and experienced leadership. Today the kingdom is in a different situation as it faces growing pressures that might eventually lead to political instability. Economic uncertainty grows as cuts to subsidies and salaries impact Saudis that are accustomed to the prosperity brought by oil while the government has been running massive deficits over the last two years. Salaries are going down and costs are going up. So is the frustration of ordinary people. Construction workers torched buses during demonstrations in the holy city of Mecca because they had not been paid in months.
Added to that is the political uncertainty caused by the rivalry for the throne between Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman who’s inexperience, some would even add recklessness, has led U.S. officials to worry about possible regime collapse. Senior Saudi princes have allegedly called for regime change expressing distrust of the 31-year-old prince. Saudi royals, once prudent and cautious, are now determined to lead a senseless and costly war in neighboring Yemen. Internal security is another problem as ISIS repeatedly has shown that it has a strong presence inside the kingdom.
Political shocks may have many triggers and many outcomes: Would it be a quiet palace coup by a competing branch in the al-Saud clan, the seizure of the government by Islamist groups hostile to the West, or civilian unrest aimed at a range of targets? Also, would it mean a complete, sudden “shut down” implying loss of governability and total chaos, or, alternately, a lasting crisis simmering on the back burner? Naturally, each scenario and its every level of intensity may lead to different outcomes. Because of the impact that Saudi instability presents, it is never too early to begin to assess its implications.
A quiet palace coup orchestrated by a competing, disempowered-feeling branch of the family is a possibility, but the kingdom might be able to maintain stability and continuity through the process. Therefore, this scenario, which is somewhat more probable than the following ones, also poses fewer risks to Saudi Arabia’s political stability and to Western interests in the kingdom.
Unemployed Saudi youth, after decades of fundamentalist Islamic indoctrination, would probably not embrace liberal democratic values if put in dire straits. The few liberals might quickly be overwhelmed by Islamic fundamentalists. So, a takeover by Islamic elements hostile to the West is arguably the most dangerous because they might use the kingdom’s vast resources and put them to use against western interests.
Another possible scenario involves unrest aimed at different targets, sparked by more liberal forces, which could lead to chaos and the breakdown into provinces, the major ones being Najad, Hejaz, and the eastern province where most of the oil and most of the kingdom’s Shiite population resides.
It is overly optimistic to assume that the kingdom has the resources, the urgency, and the talent needed to swiftly push into a post-oil era. Sure, a reform, such as Vision 2030, is urgently needed. However, it’s not clear how Saudis will accept the need to work for a living. The U.S. should better scrutinize Saudi stability and make contingency plans in case it would be at risk. It should also ask: How sophisticated weapons systems be secured? How can Iran be kept in check? Who will intervene to secure Islam’s holy sites? Or what does Saudi instability mean for its neighboring monarchies, some confronting similar challenges?
Yoel Guzansky, formerly head of strategic issues at Israel’s National Security Council, is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University. He has served under four national security advisers and three prime ministers.