The Saudi Arabia authoritarian resilience

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is not stable, and war and violence have played a huge part in determining inter-state relations. Ideological convictions, whether Islamism and its Jihadi variants, secular nationalism or populism, have also played their part in shaping relations between leaders, states and communities. The region is susceptible to sub-state and non-state actor interventions, such as the quintessential Jihadi groups, because the state system is both fierce and weak. 

The regional system’s rapid corrosion, fragmentation, polarization, and vulnerabilities is in part because of the role of external powers in securing the regional system. Despite the rapid breakdown of state order following the 2003 Iraq war and the post-2010 Arab uprisings, there remains authoritarian resilience in the MENA region, especially in Saudi Arabia. This assessment updates the situation of Saudi Arabia in its ongoing quest to maintain domestic authoritarian control and its changing foreign relations.

The first sign of this is Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who having overtaken Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as Crown Prince, is now all-powerful in the Kingdom’s small core. Also, holding the posts of first deputy prime minister, defence minister, and chairman of the council for economic and development affairs has enabled him to secure access to the most important levers of governance and has made it possible for him to exercise tremendous power and influence. Such authoritarian concentration of power in the Kingdom is unprecedented, and the fact that the Crown Prince has squeezed all competing princes out of the traditionally close governing circles of the al-Saud family is challenging the established rules of the game in the Kingdom. More unsettling was his decision in November 2017 to incarcerate dozens of his powerful cousins and their elite allies on charges of corruption and abuse of public funds. This act not only alienated many but has also undone the consensus-based Saudi approach to decision-making.

The internal changes and dramatic policy initiatives since 2015 speak of a strong Saudi desire to reduce its direct dependency on external powers, which had been the enduring feature of its foreign policy until 9/11. However, since 2017 the Kingdom has been quick to restore its close relations with the United States under the Trump administration and revitalize its close military and intelligence ties with the United States. In order to achieve its regional objectives against Iran and assert itself as the dominant Arab power, the Saudis have willingly, and inevitably, (re)attached their wagon to the United States. Whether the Kingdom had ever distanced itself from its most powerful and reliable backer remains a question. Arguably, it never really loosened its critical, life-supporting ties with Washington.

The Kingdom has, at the same time, set about building ever closer partnerships with China, the European Union, India, and Russia. With virtually all these states and parties, energy drives Saudi policy, which remains a hard power tool in the Kingdom’s toolkit. Because of its outreach strategy, Saudi Arabia has dared to go beyond the United States and build partnerships with other global actors, making the Kingdom one of the best networked countries in the world, with its voice heard and its presence felt in more parts of the world than at the beginning of this century. Much of this networking is of course in the interest of building up the country and securing Saudi Arabia itself.

On the all-important economic front, critical transformative change has been occurring under Mohammad bin Salman, who has also made it his mission to change the Kingdom’s political economy by reducing the economy’s dependence on external oil revenues. This is vitally important for going forward, as Saudi Arabia is watching with concern the formation of a perfect energy storm against it. On the one hand, the United States is growing as an exporter of oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG), rapidly reaching Saudi Arabia’s markets in Europe and Asia. In 2017, the United States was the world’s largest producer of petroleum and natural gas hydrocarbons, according to the International Energy Agency, with crude oil production reaching 9.7 million barrels per day (mb/d) and exports around 1.1 mb/d; in fact, the United States was exporting its oil to 37 different countries in 2017, and by 2022, moreover, it will be exporting 4.0 mb/d. In terms of gas production and exports, the US registered a 47% increase in gas production in the decade 2006-16, to 28.5 trillion cubic feet (TcF). In 2017, it exported 2.7 TcF per day, which is set to increase to 9.8 TcF per day by the end of 2019. The United States can now produce more oil than Saudi Arabia, and it can match the gas outputs of Iran, Qatar and Russia.

On the other hand, Iran and Qatar are raising their natural gas export capacities substantially, in response to the global climate change rules, which will require massive reductions in the use of crude oil—Saudi Arabia’s lifeline—as a source of energy. The Saudi warmth toward the United States and its measured hostility toward Iran and Qatar can also be explained through the lens of the rapidly changing global energy markets, in which the Kingdom will need the muscle of its American energy competitor to subdue the competition from its close neighbors. Closer proximity to China and India, also, are designed to secure the Kingdom’s medium- to long-term markets in Asia, certainly until such a time as it can afford to look at a horizon that extends beyond oil exports.

Now, whether the assertiveness we are currently witnessing in Saudi behavior is a good thing or a bad one is essentially a normative question, but what we are seeing are its costs: in Yemen, in relation to the treatment of the critics of Mohammed bin Salman, and in the approach to Iran and Turkey. The question to ask is how sustainable is Saudi assertiveness and the longevity of its authoritarian resilience? And this can only be answered by the fate of Iran.