Dynamics Triggering Saudi Vulnerability

Transforming the Saudi state from an absolute system to an inclusive, open and accountable modern polity requires reforms which the autocratic monarchy is unwilling of carrying out.

stock-footage-saudi-arabia-flag-with-real-structure-of-a-fabricWhen it rains, it pours in a land where it rarely rains. This metaphorical phrase describes the Saudi state’s current affairs best. Never in its history has the vast Saudi desert kingdom and its autocratic and theocratic ruling dynasties, Al-Saud and Al-Alshaikh, been more vulnerable, isolated externally and destabilized internally than now.

The Saudi monarchs’ enduring domestic stability and external influence can be attributed to their draconian domestic rule and their possession of large quantities of oil reserves which they have used effectively as a weapon to buy loyalty and achieve their objectives domestically, regionally and globally for the last fifty years.

The Saudi monarchs have been in a position to blackmail oil producers and consumers for decades; consequently, they have been viewed as invincible and irreplaceable deal makers and as the primary protector of Western interests in Arab and Muslim countries and beyond. As clever as they are, the Saudi rulers made good use of their exorbitant and fortuitous oil revenues to spread their ideological influence (the globally loathed Wahhabi doctrine), extract favoritism and purchase protection for themselves and for their vast kingdom from Arabs, Muslims and from powerful Western democratic nations for decades.

However, due to domestic, regional and global developments which the autocratic Saudi rulers cannot control or even influence in some cases, their best days seem to be ebbing and there is no one to thank for that other than those who created the illusion that the Saudi ruling family is matchless and invincible. For decades, industrial democratic countries of the West, specifically the US, have committed themselves to defend the Saudi state from external aggression and domestic unrest in exchange for the secure flow of oil at manageable prices.

The Saudi rulers are now surrounded by raging regional political and social upheavals known as the “Arab Spring” or more to the point, violent revolutions against absolute regimes some of whom were less tyrannical than the Saudi monarchs. Immediate threats to the Saudi regime (state) will most likely be a spillover from their Southern and Northern neighboring countries, Iraq and Yemen, both currently mired in political, religious and ethnic wars.

In Yemen, a civil war is being fought between pro-Saudi Sunni Yemeni tribes and anti-Saudi Zaydis (Houthis, an off shoot of Shia Islam and former rulers of Yemen), who are reported to be supported by the Saudi’s regional main competitor, Iran. A similar war has been raging in Iraq between the majority Shia population and a pro-Saudi Sunni minority, which the Saudis are reportedly financing for fear of the establishment of a Shia-dominated democratic and stable Iraq which could potentially produce more oil than Saudi Arabia.

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Within Saudi Arabia, demands for drastic reforms, including political participation, codified rule of law, equality for women and religious minorities and for transparency and accountability are persistent and continue to gain support, thanks to the social media of which the Saudis are the most active users in the world. However, the Saudi rulers and their power base, the extremist religious establishment, are adamantly opposed to any reforms that might hint at undermining their absolute rule.

Furthermore, the Saudi regime has been weakened and more isolated due to major policy disagreements with its most trusted and longtime protector, the US, as exemplified by their differences over Syria and the US overture toward Iran. The Saudi regime has been further weakened by decreasing global demands for oil and a significant drop in oil prices recently. This due to other countries producing more oil, consumers are conserving and exploring other sources of energy.

Given these facts and irreversible developments, it’s safe to conclude that Saudi Arabia has lost its mantle of invincibility as the most dominant supplier of oil and as irreplaceable protector of Western interests. The time when the Saudi regime was in a position to dictate its terms to oil producers and consumers seems to be fading. Losing control over its most sustaining asset-domination over international oil production, marketing and pricing-reduces the Saudi monarchy’s role as a major player in regional and global affairs.

While the fortified walls that have shielded the Saudi monarchy from collapse are not falling yet, the cracks are burgeoning, getting wider and are likely irreparable without major redesign of the foundation of the Saudi political, social, religious and economic structures. However, transforming the Saudi state from an absolute system to an inclusive, open and accountable modern polity requires reforms which the autocratic monarchy is unwilling and incapable of carrying out for fear of expediting its demise.

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Ali Alyami, PhD, is the founder and executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, in Washington, DC. CDHR focuses on promoting peaceful and incremental democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia, including empowerment of women, religious freedom, free flow of information, free movement, free press, privatization of government industries, free elections, non-sectarian constitution, and codified rule of law, transparency and accountabilityRead other articles by Ali.