If Saudi Arabia didn’t already have enough worries in a fast-changing Middle East, yet another crisis hit home for the desert kingdom: alleged hospitalization of King Salman, thought to have Alzheimer’s disease or some form of dementia. He only assumed the throne in January.
While the 79-year-old monarch’s hospital stay surprised many in the West, the question global affairs and security analysts ask is: What might the future look like for Saudi Arabia now that the controversial king is sidelined? Will the rest of the royal family accept and allow Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef to lead? Or will the kingdom’s royal family see division within the ranks?
These events could coalesce into a major political storm, significantly increasing the risk of instability not only within the kingdom but across the greater, strife-torn Middle East (if that’s even possible).
This turn of events comes on the heels of shocking news. London’s Guardian credits claims by an anonymous Saudi prince who states that two letters have circulated among senior members of the royal family encouraging them to stage a coup against King Salman. The rationale is the king and his powerful 30-year-old son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have pursued dangerous policies that are leading the kingdom to political, economic and military ruin. Disclosure of these memos raises serious concerns. I find myself recalling the assassination of King Faisal in 1975.
Should royal infighting reveal itself to the outside world, it’ll mark the start of the end for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as we know it. Far-reaching consequences will resound not only economically and politically but religiously and geopolitically. How?
War in Yemen: The kingdom finds itself entangled in a conflict with a next-door neighbor with no end in sight. King Salman and his son miscalculated. The longer Saudi forces continue to engage the Houthis, the more likely internal dissension within the kingdom itself grows. Images broadcast on al-Jazeera show Saudi Arabia, an outrageously rich country, pummeling Yemen, one of the poorest in the Arab world. All this generates criticism of the Saudis and sympathy for Houthi rebels.
The driving force behind the kingdom’s engagement in Yemen is the king’s son, serving as defense minister, who wants to show the world that, despite his youth, he can make tough calls. However, his actions in Yemen thus far demonstrate his reckless approach to international affairs, lack of experience and the absence of an exit strategy, leading to mounting costs for the kingdom in blood and treasure and growing international criticism.
Economic chaos: The drop in oil prices by more than 50 percent the past year is sending the kingdom’s economy into a tailspin. Thinking among Saudi elites was to (a) maintain the kingdom’s level of global oil production; (b) fight for its global market share; and (c) allow oil prices to collapse. Theoretically, this would eventually drive the competition — especially the United States — out of the energy business, paving the way for a subsequent return to higher oil prices. But the strategy proved to be ill-conceived. The result is the kingdom’s deficit approaching 20 percent — more than $100 billion. This outcome compels the kingdom to deplete its huge foreign exchange reserves at a record rate (about $12 billion per month).
Tension with Iran: While Saudi Arabia is home to Islam’s two holiest sites (Mecca and Medina), the latest tragedy — a stampede at the Hajj in Mecca that resulted in the deaths of at least 239 Iranian pilgrims (among many others) — has only fueled tensions between Iran and the kingdom. The two were already crossways over the nuclear issue and Iran’s destabilizing activities throughout the region. In addition, both countries are fighting through their proxies in Syria and Yemen.
I’ll argue Russia’s military intervention in Syria has escalated the political tensions to higher level. Of interest is the Iranian-Russian military coalition to keep the Assad regime in power and battle rebels that the kingdom and the United States support. Recently, Saudi Arabia shipped 500 TOW antitank missiles to the Free Syrian Army (FSA). These missiles, unlike other projectiles such as RPGs can be used from significant distance. This support, however, would not change the outcome.
Where from here? Russia’s airstrikes in Syria underscore a broader threat to the kingdom: Put all the problems together and Saudi Arabia, more than ever, looks politically vulnerable. Its dependence on the United States for its survival the last 70 years seems to be near an end. The United States is no longer in position to play its traditional role as the only guarantor of Middle East stability. One can only imagine the scenario in which the house of Al-Saud is forced to relinquish power to another entity from within that does not share Washington’s aspirations and/or agenda. That means our next president will face one more serious geopolitical headache: an unstable Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of oil, site of Islam’s holiest sites and a country equally bountiful in advanced American weapons and very angry Wahabi Sunni Muslims.