By Bob Rigg
While Iran has been systematically demonized by western governments and western media since the 1979 revolution, with a venom relying heavily on Islamophobic stereotypes, Saudi Arabia has been permitted to lead a charmed life, with western leaders falling over each other to benefit from either Saudi oil or Saudi largesse, irrespective of brutal Saudi oppression of their own Shia minority and the ruthless crushing of anything remotely resembling domestic dissent.
Saudi Arabia is the de facto military government of neighboring Bahrain, where a tiny Sunni elite rules with an iron fist over an overwhelming Shia majority. When Bahrainis take to the streets in protest Saudi military convoys have been known to drive across the causeway linking Saudi Arabia to Bahrain. But because Bahrain is the major US naval and air base in the region the US has been strangely silent about this. Saudi Arabia has also allowed the US to establish military bases on its territory, although this stirred up domestic dissent.
The US, the UK and France in particular have continued to benefit from lucrative arms contracts with the Saudis for their war in Yemen in spite of growing international and United Nations concern about extensive human rights abuses being committed by Saudi armed forces, as well as about a blockade preventing humanitarian supplies from reaching the starving and increasingly helpless civilian population of Yemen.
Saudi influence is weakening
But while Saudi Arabia continues to be perceived as immensely powerful, its political and economic power is already unraveling as its regional and international influence declines.
The war in Syria has been a principal factor in this decline, which is now well underway. It is an open secret that the Saudis have covertly intervened on a very large scale in Syria’s uncivil war, in support of extremist groups and factions embracing the fundamental values of Wahhabism. One must note that the Saudis have not been alone in this.
The west has begun to see that the spread of Wahhabist values in Syria and far beyond is a principal factor in the rise of ISIS and other extremist groupings. The sharia law that is being imposed in territories occupied by ISIS has been copied out of the Wahhabist prayer book.
More significantly, the west is beginning to admit to something that it has known for decades now, but has opted to ignore: Saudi Arabia has been investing enormous amounts of money in mosques and madrassas whose undeclared aim has been to spread the glad tidings of Wahhabism worldwide. In Pakistan alone the Saudis have for many years now been investing $100 million annually in madrassas which produce never-ending streams of graduates committed to the struggle for Wahhabist jihad. When the government of Pakistan, which is massively indebted to the government of Saudi Arabia, quietly complains about the domestic political disruption which this is stimulating, the Saudis cynically advise that the funds in question come, not from the Saudi government, but from private charitable organisations over which it has no jurisdiction.
The same game is being played out in Afghanistan and China’s Xinjiang province, as well as in other Muslim and some non Muslim countries. In a collective aha experience the west has begun to recall that a majority of 9/11 terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, were Saudi citizens. Why did the US not bomb Saudi Arabia instead of Afghanistan?
Former western allies begin to ask tough questions
Recent highly publicised terrorist attacks in Europe and the US have encouraged a reassessment of the desirability of Saudi Arabia as a political ally. For example, Germany’s Bundesnachrichtendienst (federal intelligence service) recently made waves by publishing a report stating that Saudi Arabia is at risk of becoming a “major destabilising influence in the Arab world”. The report zeroed in on Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 30-year-old son of King Salman who was recently appointed deputy crown prince and defence minister. The report went on to say that he and the new king want Saudi Arabia to become “the leader of the Arab world” and are trying to extend its foreign policy “with a strong military component and new regional alliances.” The report pointed to infighting in the Saudi royal family over the succession, especially involving Prince Salman, and cautioned that “The current cautious diplomatic stance of senior members of the Saudi royal family will be replaced by an impulsive intervention policy.”
The Iran nuclear deal has been a game-changer, not just for Israel, but also for the Saudis. Relentless US and western propaganda had made of Iran an international leper across the 37 years since 1979. While Iran copped endless flak, the Saudis could bask in endless international accolades and genuflections, gradually infecting themselves with the ancient Greek disease of hubris. They lost sight of the fact that great power politics are shaped by perceived interests, and that perceptions of great power self-interest can change dramatically from one day to the next.
Post-deal Iran is coming in from the cold
The nuclear deal is just now being implemented, with strong backing from a broad and powerful international coalition including the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and the European Union. Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US Republican Party are left out in the cold. The highly publicized negotiation process has meant that the entire world is familiar with the names of Iran’s president and foreign minister, and views them with considerable respect.
Iran is coming in from the cold. If one thinks back to the beginning of the twentieth century, Iran’s international standing has certainly never been as high as now. Regionally and internationally the prestige of Saudi Arabia has already begun to fade just as the star of Iran is in the ascendant.
Saudi hubris has led to its decline
The decline of Saudi Arabia can be attributed to the fact that, by ramping up shale oil production and becoming partly self-sufficient in oil, the US is no longer as dependent on Saudi Arabia for this vital resource, at least in the short term.
The second key factor is a series of poorly judged decisions by the brash new Saudi government; the Saudis plunged into a vicious unwinnable war in Yemen that has further polarised and largely devastated that country. The Saudis’ military tactics seem to specifically target civilian populations, in the false hope that this will turn civilians against the Houthi rebels. Hospitals have also been targeted. Perhaps the Saudis lost sight of the fact that, decades ago, Egypt’s Nasser became embroiled in a protracted guerrilla war in Yemen from which he had to withdraw with a bloodied nose. Yemen has been fast becoming Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam.
The ruthlessness of the Saudi war effort, and its sweeping disregard for fundamental humanitarian principles, has attracted persistent criticism from the United Nations. This has become discomforting for the US and the UK, whose formerly covert provision of intelligence and equipment in support of the Saudi war effort is now internationally known, with all its concomitant reputational damage at home and abroad.
The considerable and continuing cost of the Saudi war in Yemen is contributing to the decline of the Saudi economy. A clever Houthi strategy of destabilizing Saudi territories with cross-border military attacks and incursions has added to the pressure on the Saudis to abandon their failed strategy in Yemen, and to seek a negotiated political conclusion to their own self-inflicted military misadventure.
Another brash decision has also blown up in the face of the new Saudi government: the strategic decision to flood the international oil marketplace with oil, driving prices down to rock bottom, in an attempt to drive the US shale oil industry out of business, has backfired on Saudi Arabia, as well as on all other international oil producers.
More seriously, plunging oil prices now mean that the Saudis could burn through their financial assets within five years, according to the International Monetary Fund. And Moody’s ratings agency has just warned that Saudi Arabia’s “credit risks” are rising, and that Saudi Arabia has been downgraded from “stable” to “negative”.
Saudi Arabia had insulated itself against the Arab spring, keeping its citizens off the streets with massive multi-billion dollar wage increases, subsidies and so on. This remarkable exercise in electoral bribery has now become unaffordable. As unaccustomed austerity bites, high youth unemployment and the festering resentment of the disadvantaged Shia community will of themselves generate increasing demands for change which the autocratic government will be unable to crush into submission in the medium term. Much of Saudi Arabia’s oil is located in territory mainly populated by the restive Shia minority, which the Wahhabist government has been foolish enough to alienate through decades of harsh oppression and discrimination. As the Saudi economy declines the chickens will come home to roost for this injudicious exercise of governmental authority.
There are indications that the enormous royal family is already being affected by infighting for power and wealth. The inflexible Wahhabist ideology is simply not equipped to cope effectively with the rapid decline of the Saudi economy, accompanied by increasingly strident calls for social and political change. The government will resort to violence and oppression on a large scale, and will dig its own grave in the process.
ISIS has already been active in Saudi Arabia on a relatively small scale, and will undoubtedly seize upon this golden opportunity to step up its involvement there.
The writing is already on the wall. In the 12 months since the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Saudi Arabia’s power has already begun to diminish.
In the near future Saudi Arabia will have to confront a host of fundamental problems which its novice leaders are poorly equipped to address and resolve. It is possible that the corrupt and antediluvian monarchy will be swept away, together with the inflexible Wahhabist ideology which it will no longer be able to impose on the Saudi people.