For the past eight decades Saudi Arabia has been careful.
Using its vast oil wealth, it’s quietly spread its ultra-conservative brand of Islam throughout the Muslim world, secretly undermined secular regimes in its region, and prudently kept to the shadows while others did the fighting and dying. It was Saudi money that fueled the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, underwrote Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran, and bankrolled Islamic movements and terrorist groups from the Caucasus to the Hindu Kush.
It wasn’t a modest foreign policy, but it was a discreet one.
Today that circumspect diplomacy is in ruins, and the House of Saud looks more vulnerable than it has since the country was founded in 1926. Unraveling the reasons for the current train wreck is a study in how easily hubris, delusion, and old-fashioned ineptness can trump even bottomless wealth.
The kingdom’s first stumble was a strategic decision last fall to undermine competitors by scaling up its oil production and thus lowering the global price.
They figured that if the price of a barrel of oil dropped from over $100 to around $80, it would strangle competitors that relied on more expensive sources and new technologies, including the US fracking industry, companies exploring the Arctic, and emergent producers like Brazil. That, in turn, would allow Riyadh to reclaim its shrinking share of the energy market. There was also the added benefit that lower oil prices would damage oil-reliant countries that the Saudis didn’t like—including Russia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Iran.
In one sense it worked. The American fracking industry is scaling back, the exploitation of Canada’s tar sands has slowed, and many Arctic drillers have closed up shop. And indeed, countries like Venezuela, Ecuador, and Russia have taken serious economic hits.