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Saudi Arabia will weather the storm, again

A spate of recent articles in the western press have warned about the imminent collapse of Saudi Arabia. These dire predictions are not new. Some have been anticipating the demise of the Saudi state since a wave of military coups swept the Arab world and toppled monarchical regimes in the 1950s. 

The recent forecasts are predicated on several factors: a sharp drop in oil prices; region-wide rivalry with Iran that has turned into a proxy war in Syria and Yemen; a string of terrorist attacks conducted by militants affiliated with the so called Islamic State and rumors that a supposed internal power struggle between senior royals has burst into the open. 

{mosads}However, these prognosticators are overlooking the fact that the Saudis have coped with more severe oil slumps in the past, while underestimating the political acumen of Saudi royals as well as the improved capability of Saudi Arabia’s internal security services and military forces.   

Oil is the lifeblood of the Saudi economy. It accounts for ninety percent of exports and forty percent of Gross Domestic Product.  Saudi Arabia will likely incur its largest budget deficit on record this year. Nevertheless, the Saudi government has dealt with oil slumps in the past. The Saudis have come to understand the cyclical nature of energy markets and now realize that they have to tighten their belts periodically. Some economists have also argued that the $650 billion in foreign reserves the Saudis enjoy will allow them to withstand the current downturn. 

The Saudis and Iranians find themselves on opposite sides in many of the region’s hotspots. While the sharp differences between the two counties are hampering the international community’s effort to put an end to the carnage in Syria, Saudi Arabia sent Iran a strong message when it led a ten-nation military coalition to restore President Abd Rabo Mansoor Hadi’s government to power after it was ousted from Sanaa by the Iranian supported Houthi rebels last year. While the war in Yemen is ongoing and many have raised questions about the toll it has taken on Yemen’s civilian population, the Saudi military’s ability to sustain the campaign since March answered some questions about Saudi Arabia’s military preparedness, making an external military attack by one of its regional foes less likely. 

The Saudis consider themselves pioneers in counterterrorism. Their multidimensional effort – part security operation, part public awareness campaign – has its roots in 2004 after Al Qaeda carried out a number of attacks targeting expatriates, diplomatic compounds and security installations. While the current spate of ISIL-connected attacks is more worrisome than those inspired by Al Qaeda a decade ago, as they seem intent on fomenting sectarian discord by targeting the minority Shia in the Eastern Province and since they don’t adhere to any moral “red lines” where even mosques have been targeted, the Saudis’ internal security forces have arrested hundreds of militant sympathizers and have foiled dozens of attacks over the years. More importantly, according to recent polls, ISIS’ savagery has repulsed the overwhelming majority of Saudis. Like Al Qaeda before it, ISIS will fail to upend the political order in Saudi Arabia. 

Many who have advanced the “imminent collapse” argument have cited supposed infighting between the Crown Prince, Mohamed Bin Nayef, and his deputy, Mohamed Bin Salman, as the spark that could spell the end for Al Saud. This royal intrigue has supposedly worried other senior royals to such an extent that one of them penned a letter asking other royals to intervene.

Some observers do not realize that the country that was founded in 1932 by King Abdulziz bin Saud was the third Saudi realm. The first was ended by an Ottoman military intervention and the second collapsed due to internal infighting. Saudi leaders know this history well. That is why they have cultivated strong security relations with many countries, both global and regional. 

Internally, with one notable exception in the 1960s, Saudi royals have apportioned political power between them to keep the majority satisfied and have largely contained dissension. 

Few Saudis understand how decisions regarding leadership positions are made. The chosen few who do are not likely to speak about it. A number of social media based sites have sprung up over the past few months, all of which claim to possess “inside information” about royal intrigue. What they peddle are mostly unsubstantiated rumors.  While some have advanced the notion that the “two Mohamads” – as they are known in Saudi vernacular – are competing over power, credible Saudis maintain that the two enjoy a good working relationship where the purview of each of them is clearly defined.

Saudi Arabia is not immune to the turmoil, violence and sectarianism gripping the Middle East. However, its institutions and leadership have proven flexible enough to adjust to the changing needs of the population and to the changing realities in a very dangerous neighborhood.

Nazer is a senior political analyst at JTG Inc and a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.  


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