May 22, 2015


The new Saudis : Chaos in the Middle East casts Saudi Arabia as the Arab world's leader. But it must reform faster (The Economist, May 23rd 2015)

[S]audi Arabia is grappling with three new factors. All around, Arab states have collapsed or faded away. Iraq, once the Arab bulwark against Iran, is devastated, as is Syria. Egypt, the most populous Arab country, is busy consolidating its counter-revolution. That leaves Saudi Arabia as the only state with the standing, size and wealth to salvage something from the wreckage.

A second factor is geopolitical realignment: the American protector wants to retreat from the chaos, and the Iranian arch-enemy is surging forward. By negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, America has deepened Arab monarchs' fear of abandonment. They think they must fend for themselves.

The third factor is the new economics of shale: America has displaced Saudi Arabia as the world's biggest oil producer. As the price falls, Saudi Arabia is fighting to retain its share of the market and put higher-cost producers out of business.

The trouble is that the plan is not working. The war in Yemen, though popular at home, is going badly. After weeks of bombing, the Houthis are still advancing. A naval blockade has led to a humanitarian crisis that is causing outrage.

The war, and the rush to buy Western weapons, are burning a hole in the public finances. Saudi Arabia is running a double-digit budget deficit at a time when the oil price shows little prospect of further recovery. Although the princes are changing the pecking order in their palaces, they are not giving the people any more of a voice. On the contrary, Bedouin-style consultation has yielded to top-down direction. They have done nothing to revise their unholy pact with Wahhabi clerics, whose puritanism helps underpin jihadist ideology--indeed, public beheadings are more frequent.

The old Saudi model, in which the people ask no questions of their munificent, American-protected rulers, is reaching a dead end. 

Posted by at May 22, 2015 3:58 PM

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