As Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman arrests his nearest relatives on treason charges, Saudi Arabia is bracing itself for a new reign of terror. But rest assured, it’s only temporary. At the end of the line lies something even worse: full-scale collapse.
Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it all before from Chicken Littles who have long predicted a fiery Saudi denouement. But just because it hasn’t happened doesn’t mean they’re wrong. All it means, rather, is that while they’re on the right track, they’re taking longer than expected to reach their final destination. But they’ll get there soon enough.
Any one of the problems Saudi Arabia faces would be crippling in itself, but in combination they’re nothing short of devastating. One is a grim and oppressive religious establishment that is down for the moment but far from out. Another is over-reliance on a commodity whose price was trending downward even before the coronavirus sent it crashing through the floor. The third is a political structure that gives new meaning to the term "dysfunctional."
Muhammad bin Salman’s remedy for the first has been simple: repression. Any mullah who dares speak up against royal liberalization in the form of Hollywood movies or US-style sporting events is fully aware that MBS, as he’s widely known, will swat him down quicker than he can say "Mullah Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab," the name of the eighteenth-century founder of the ultra-intolerant form of Sunni Islam that is the official Saudi faith.
So the mullahs have remained silent, at least for now. As for the second, MBS’s solution has also been simple: economic diversification. This is something that Saudis have been discussing nonstop since the 1970s, but have done next to nothing to implement. A few observers were so struck by the handsome crown prince – see, for example, Karen Elliott House’s adoring 2018 profile in the Wall Street Journal – that they thought that this time it would be different. But his proposals for a beach resort extending a hundred miles along the Red Sea coast, an amusement park four times the size of Disney World, or a hi-tech city with a $500-billion price tag were so over the top that economists and others were left shaking their heads – and not in a good way.
Unlikely when oil was at $50 a barrel, such projects are unthinkable now that prices have crashed below $30. With the IMF estimating that the kingdom needs prices in the $80-85 range just to break even, the Saudis are adrift in a sea of red ink that can only grow.
As for the problem of a sprawling and parasitical royal family, MBS’s approach has been one of drastic consolidation. Instead of a horizontal power structure spread out among some 7,000 princes, he’s concentrated power in a vertical unit based solely on his father, King Salman, and himself. Indeed, based on indications that he may have placed the old man under some form of limited detention – old cronies wishing to play cards have reportedly been turned away at the palace gate without explanation – it’s now down to just one. MBS alone is in total control of everything from politics and economics to religion and entertainment.
It’s a super dictatorship without equal anywhere outside of North Korea. But it can’t last. Now that MBS is threatening his uncle, Prince Ahmed; his cousin, former minister of the interior Muhammad bin Nayef, and bin Nayef’s half-brother Nawaf with the death penalty, other top princes know that they’re next in line. The more paranoid the crown prince grows, the greater their chances of winding up on the chopping block if they so much as arch an eyebrow.
They’re ever more terrified as a consequence while the crown prince’s response has been to retreat ever further into self-isolation. Indeed, ex-CIA analyst Bruce Riedel reported in 2018 that the MBS was so worried about assassination that he had taken to spending nights on his $500 million yacht in the Red Sea port of Jeddah. But it won’t work since the more he withdraws, the more bereft of allies he’ll become. Alone, friendless, and consumed with suspicion, he knows that all it will take is one person – a servant, perhaps, or a trusted confidant – to slip a knife in between his ribs. Indeed, the fact that MBS’s top bodyguard, a general named Abdulaziz al-Faghem, died last summer in what may have been an attempted coup suggests that the danger is drawing nigh.
Not that knocking off MBS will cause the other problems go away. Rather, it will just make matters worse, which is what happened in Libya when the US and its NATO allies decided to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi on a lark in 2011. Contrary to expectations, insurgent factions did not snuggle up with one another like peaceful little lambs. Instead, the vacuum at the top caused them to struggle ever more desperately for control.
There’s also the Wahhabiyya to consider. After suffering repeated humiliation at MBS’s hands, the Wahhabist establishment is undoubtedly thirsting for revenge and will likely throw its weight behind any princely faction that helps it attain it. The upshot could not only be Libyan-style civil war, but civil war with a religious twist, which is possibly the worst kind of civil war there is.
Finally, there’s ISIS and Al Qaeda. Both are closely allied with the Wahhabists – much more, in fact, than the Saudis would like us to believe. The more the internal conflict heats up, the greater the likelihood that they’ll throw themselves into the fray. One or both will return to the homeland from which they sprang, which means that Sunni terrorism could be poised for a resurgence.
Exaggerated? Hardly. We’ve seen what happens when Middle Eastern states fail, so why should things be any different now that the Saudis are teetering on the brink? All the ingredients are there – economic decline, political rot, religious fanaticism, etc. – so the chemistry will likely to be the same. Our old friends chaos, civil war, and Al Qaeda may therefore be poised for a return. It was the US that created them in the first place by building the Saudi oil industry up from scratch, granting the royal family a hundred-percent security guarantee, and encouraging Riyadh to sponsor jihad in faraway places like Afghanistan, a policy that led directly to the birth of Al Qaeda. So why not welcome them back?
Hello darkness my old friend….
Daniel Lazare is the author of The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace, 1996) and other books about American politics. He writes a weekly column for Antiwar.com. He has written for a wide variety of publications from The Nation to Le Monde Diplomatique and blogs about the Constitution and related matters at Daniellazare.com.