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Every armchair expert on economics or the Middle East can be counted on to shout “it’s the oil!” when discussing why Saudi Arabia is what it is and does what it does. And when one looks at the headline figures, it is hard to argue otherwise: the Kingdom is the world’s largest oil exporter, has the second-largest reserves and is the de facto head of OPEC, a cartel of oil exporting countries. It is also the quintessential rags-to-riches oil state, defined by irresponsible spending, peculiar national priorities (what is the point of building a 1 km high tower?) and a bloated bureaucracy. Oil has long been the indicator Saudi Arabia’s foreign and domestic policy, but times might be changing.
America, Hell Yeah!
Saudi Arabia’s most important and long-lasting ally is none other than Uncle Sam. In 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud met and stated they would “deal with the world’s problems”. Be it by supplying hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of weapons to the Mujahideen to fight the Soviets, by invading Iraq, or by bombing the living daylights out of a vast number of civilians in Yemen, the two countries have always found a way to ‘solve’ the issue at hand.
For decades this rather ham-fisted approach to problem-solving was, if not accepted, at least recognized. However, the end of the Cold War and the rise of a multi-polar world has meant that the idea that the end justifies the means no longer holds water. America can no longer browbeat its allies into toeing the line, nor stop other great powers from speaking out. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s position has been further weakened by two major PR blunders the last 20-odd years.
The Middle East was barely a blip on the radar in the 1990s. With the exception of the Oslo Accords, the region was side-lined by the democratization of Eastern Europe, the Rwandan genocide and IRA terrorist activities in the UK. Then, on the 11th of September 2001, the Middle East, and especially Saudi Arabia, entered the global consciousness. With 15 of the 19 attackers coming from the Desert Kingdom, the al Saud family had some explaining to do. It was a historical low point in US-Saudi relations, and people everywhere started asking questions: Who funded the terrorists? Why is such virulent anti-Western preaching allowed in the country’s mosques? What can be done about it? None of these questions got satisfactory answers, and the bilateral relationship has never really recovered. Both countries lost international legitimacy – one because of its less-than-appealing reputation as a terrorist Petri dish, and the other for starting two rather ill-considered wars.
The Fresh Prince
In 2017, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) became Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince. He wanted to stop the country’s reliance on oil, modernize its financial sector and temper the puritanical form of Islam with which his Kingdom has become synonymous. His plan, Vision 2030, was hugely ambitious: reduce debt, make the world’s largest oil company partially public, and eliminate corruption (so far all of them have seen little success). In the West, though, the most prominent reform involved civil society, such as allowing women to drive and reopening cinemas. MbS was hailed as a reformer, a breath of fresh air, a counterweight to the gerontocratic leadership of the Saudi state. And, for all intents and purposes, he was. Saudi Arabia is unquestionably on the path of reform and is barrelling along frighteningly fast.
With such far-reaching reforms, instability is inevitable. So is criticism. People are bound to disagree, either because the reforms go too far or because they don’t go far enough. Jamal Khashoggi fell in the second group. He objected to the Prince’s authoritarian tendencies and went into self-imposed exile to the US in order to ensure he did not fall victim to these exact tendencies. Unfortunately, he did. It was the biggest test of US-Saudi relations since 9/11, and wiped out all of the goodwill bin Salman had built up with his aforementioned reforms. It is not newsworthy that a Middle Eastern country kills journalists. What is newsworthy is when a journalist with American residency is allegedly cut into pieces and dissolved in acid. That’s behaviour you expect from drug cartels, not from a country trying to change its international reputation.
Beyond Oil, without America
Whether Khashoggi’s comments were justified or not is largely irrelevant. Saudi Arabia has to change its economy and would be wise to cultivate new relationships. Predictions differ, but thanks to electric vehicles, renewable energy and ever-increasing efficiency, oil consumption will plateau between 2030 and 2040, with oil prices likely dropping much earlier. Economic diversification isn’t preferable for Saudi Arabia, it’s necessary. With the world, and thereby America, becoming less reliant on oil, Saudi Arabia’s decades old and hugely powerful bargaining tool will slowly become less effective. Already now, America only imports a small fraction of oil from the Kingdom, but is keen to retain influence due to it’s geographically important location and its power over oil markets. This meant that Saudi Arabian political priorities could be predicted with relative certainty: maximize the value and stability of oil, and keep Washington happy.
The last few years have been different. In 2015, MbS became minister of defence and promptly started a war in Yemen at the request of the ousted Yemeni government. Three years, tens of thousands of deaths and a major humanitarian disaster later, end is not in sight. The Yemeni war is a pointless exercise in jingoism with little political or economic benefit compared to the horrific costs incurred. In 2017, Saudi Arabia and a number of other countries severed diplomatic relations with Qatar, ostensibly because the small country supported terrorist groups and its relatively good relationship with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s sworn enemy. Finally, there is the already-discussed vanishing act performed on Mr Khashoggi. None of these activities make sense when one looks at the historical reasons for Saudi Arabia to take action outside its own borders. For almost a century, Saudi politics was defined by a clever balancing act involving the appeasement of the country’s religious establishment and courting Western support, while using oil and its revenues to build and maintain influence wherever necessary.
More recently, though, Saudi policy has been dominated by bombs, bone saws and bellicose rhetoric, guided by impulsive reactions to personal insults instead of a considered approach based on politics and national well-being. As a consequence, traditional alliances have been strained and the desperately needed reforms struggle to gain steam. If that was not enough, MbS is eroding the al Saud family’s historical strength – its unity. Imprisoning relatives and changing the line of succession aren’t chapters one and two of How to Win Friends and Influence People. He has let ego cloud his judgement, putting the whole reform agenda at risk. That would be a disaster for millions of Saudis and for none more than bin Salman himself, whose political future hinges on the success of the reforms.