With King Abdallah in the hospital and very aged, a round of speculation has begun about when Crown Prince Salman, 79, will take over. At the same time, the kingdom faces a severe budget shortfall because of the plummeting price of petroleum. All this instability takes place against a backdrop of substantial regional turmoil. Ailing King Abdallah looks out over the region and sees civil war in Syria, popular unrest in Bahrain and Yemen, democratic elections in Tunisia, the rise of Daesh (the Arabic acronym for ISIL or ISIS) in Iraq and eastern Syria. He worries about the prospect of a warming of ties between the United States and Riyadh’s arch-enemy, Shiite Iran. The borders of the kingdom are insecure as seldom before in recent decades.
The typical Saudi way of dealing with such threats is to throw money at them, which is why it is significant that petroleum prices have hit five-year lows this month. When the Arab youth revolutions began in 2011, the Saudi Arabian regime reacted quickly to ensure that they did not spread to the kingdom. Its tool of counter-revolution? Domestic welfare spending in the tens of billions. That tool has been blunted by the prospect of an enormous budget deficit. Saudi Arabia pumps 9.7 million barrels a day of the some 93 mn. b/d produced in the world, and would rather run some deficits than lose market share. But the domestic implications of this export policy are a question mark.
In some ways, the very efforts of the Saudi regime to make the region safe for absolute monarchy and hard-line Wahhabi fundamentalism have boomeranged on the House of Saud. It probably is not the case that Riyadh ever directly supported Daesh, but it has supported rebels in Syria, and likely Iraq, that differ little from the latter in religious ideology. The Saudi princes are used to a domestic situation where ultraconservative religion is a pillar of support for the status quo and the monarchy. They seem not to realize that similar religious puritanism, when rebranded as “Salafism” in Sunni republics, has a tendency to turn radical and revolutionary, even to turn to terrorism. Martin Luther, after all, had not intended to provoke peasant revolts, and he ultimately denounced the Protestant revolutionaries.
In Syria, the Saudis are backing militias that hived off from the Free Syrian Army and declared themselves “the Islamic Front.” They are hard for outsiders to distinguish from the radicals, such as the Support Front (Jabhat al-Nusra, which has affiliated with Al Qaeda) and Daesh. The Islamic Front now rejects democracy in favor of a state ruled by their medieval interpretation of Islamic law (sharia). While the Islamic Front has had some successes, it has suffered reversals at the hands of the other fundamentalists and could not be said to be the leading rebel force. In the past year, the regime that the Saudis are trying to overthrow, that of President Bashar al-Assad, has regained some momentum in the civil war, taking the central city of Homs decisively.