The Saudi system of consensus and family cohesion is broken, and the United States has leverage with its military support.
By Bruce Riedel*
A perfect storm is gathering around the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Economic weakness, foreign policy setbacks and political infighting in the royal family threaten to destabilize America’s oldest ally in the Middle East. Volatility in the kingdom will have a ripple effect throughout the region.
The special US relationship with Saudi Arabia turns 75 next year. In 1943 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt invited King Abd al Aziz al Saud to send representatives to Washington in the midst of the Second World War. Ibn Saud sent his sons Prince Feisal and Prince Khaled, two future kings. They stayed in Blair House, the official guesthouse of the US president, and met with FDR in the Oval Office. A state dinner and meetings with Congress were followed by a cross-country tour from Texas to California and back to the East Coast. The president wanted to impress the Saudis with America’s power and might. Two years later FDR and the king meet face to face on the USS Quincy, a cruiser, in the Great Bitter Lake in Egypt.
The relationship has since become stormy with great highs alternating with deep lows. The defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and Iraq in Kuwait were highs, and the 1973 oil embargo and 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington in 2001 were lows. Today the relationship is superficially better than ever. Donald Trump made Riyadh his first foreign port of call, and he has strongly endorsed King Salman and his son Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman including their recent purge of the royal family. The president and king share a strong opposition to Iran.
But trouble brews beneath the surface. The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism law, passed 98-0 to override former President Barack Obama’s veto last year, has led to court cases alleging Saudi culpability for the 9/11 plot. Opposition to arms sales to the kingdom because of the war in Yemen is growing in Congress. The last US arms sale to Saudi passed the Senate by a narrow margin.
The kingdom is at a crossroad. Low oil prices have damaged the economy which flat-lined in 2016 and went into recession this year. A third of the country’s foreign reserves have been spent since Salman ascended the throne just three years ago. The Saudi cradle-to-grave welfare state is unsustainable.
The good news is that the king and crown prince recognize the need for profound changes and have proposed a new economic strategy called Saudi Vision 2030 including innovative ideas for opening society and reducing dependence on oil. Giving Saudi women driver’s licenses, for example, reduces the need for a half million foreign chauffeurs who send their wages home. Opening ARAMCO, the Saudi national oil company, to outside investors would encourage more foreign investment.
But implementing Vision 2030 has been weak. Necessary cuts in public-sector salaries and subsidies were quickly reversed. The purge of family members, allegedly an anti-corruption campaign, has frightened investors and is leading to capital flight.
Foreign policy failures add to the economic burden. The 30-month-old war in Yemen is an expensive quagmire. What was billed as Decisive Storm by Crown Prince and Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman, known as MBS, has become a stalemate. With modest help from Iran and Hezbollah the rebels are building missiles that have already targeted Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates could be next. Almost 80 missiles have struck the kingdom. The Saudis are spending a fortune in Yemen while Houthi-supporter Tehran fights to the last Yemeni. The biggest loser is the Yemeni people who are now living in the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. The Saudis claim 85 percent of Yemen is in their hands, but in fact a sizable majority of the population is in the rebel-controlled north where the famine is most acute. The Saudi strategy is starvation and disease, which rightfully draws global opprobrium.
The blockade of Qatar is another failed adventure by the crown prince. Qataris have rallied behind the emir, and Saudi efforts to promote dissidents have been mocked.
Iran has been a beneficiary of the crisis. More broadly Iran is outpacing the Saudis across the region. Iranian influence is preeminent in Syria and Iraq, and likely to get stronger. Lebanon is Hezbollah’s pawn, and the Saudi maneuvers with Saad Hariri whose unexplained resignation as prime minister while on a trip to Riyadh, later withdrawn, have only illustrated their weaknesses.
Saudi foreign policy, typically cautious and risk averse, has become aggressive and dangerous, sometimes reckless. As the main architect of its failures, Muhammad bin Salman must bear the consequences, and the question is will he learn from his mistakes?
Low oil prices have damaged the economy which flat-lined in 2016 and went into recession this year. A third of the country’s foreign reserves have been spent since Salman ascended the throne just three years ago. The Saudi cradle-to-grave welfare state is unsustainable.
He achieved his top goal of securing the heir to the throne, but that was not difficult since his father cleared the path and provided his favorite son protection. In the process sizable portions of the royal family have been alienated. Former Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef is apparently under house arrest, and the former head of the Saudi Arabia National Guard Prince Mutaib is imprisoned in a hotel. The country’s large security services are now run by amateurs.
Most importantly, the arrest of senior princes and other establishment figures and reports that they are being shaken down for their money, as much as $100 billion, have sent a chilling effect through the country. The rules of the Saudi system, based on consensus and family cohesion, have been broken. Decorum has been abandoned for a naked power grab.
For now the crown prince is unchallenged, but many suspect that once his father passes MBS may be vulnerable. One Arab ambassador confided that he anticipates the young man will be assassinated.
Saudi Arabia’s future is certain to be much less predictable and stable than during the last half century of Saudi politics. The placid pace of the kingdom has been replaced by volatility. The spillover is already shaking the region and creating consternation.
Rather than handing over a blank check to Riyadh, Washington should be urging a more conservative approach. Privately the message must be stern because America’s interests are at stake and damaged by misadventures like the Qatari dispute. Washington should be urgently trying to find an early end to the Yemeni catastrophe, both to save lives and prevent escalation. Washington should be clear that war with Iran – either deliberate or inadvertent – is not an American interest, and the United States should also steer clear of injecting itself into royal family politics.
The United States has enormous leverage given Saudi dependence on American military support and spare parts. It’s time to use it.
*Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, part of the Brookings Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence. In addition, Riedel serves as a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy. He retired in 2006 after 30 years of service at the Central Intelligence Agency, including postings overseas. He was a senior advisor on South Asia and the Middle East to the last four presidents of the United States in the staff of the National Security Council at the White House. He is the author of Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and the United States Since FDR, published in 2017. Read an excerpt.