Current and past events are shaping the future of the Middle East and North Africa, but how deep these changes might remodel the region? At the very beginning of 2016, the plan of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East was working, with some difficulties. The Syrian rebel groups fighting Assad and its allies were holding the intervention of Russia in the Syrian war arena and the situation seemed favorable to them, even in Aleppo. At the same time, Yemeni forces were on the brink of recapturing Sana’a from Houthi rebels; the kingdom prevented the election of a Lebanese president with a close affinity to Hezbollah, the proxy militia of Iran; the first Saudi ambassador was established in Baghdad after 25 years, and OPEC partners left the Saudis to overflow the market with oil to reduce Iran’s income. But, after all these efforts, the kingdom is experiencing a rough ride with its plans at the end of this year.
Misfortune has forced the country to retreat from some fronts. Prima facie, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the most oil-rich countries in the world and region, but the expensive plans it had for the area made de rigueur a barrel price as high as $80 to break the even –according to the IMF; even its counterpart, Iran, needs $55 per barrel to keep it economically sustainable. Although oil prices are rising again, near $75 per barrel, they are nowhere close to the $145 per barrel back in 2014. Oil it is not just about price, but also about demand. For the first time since the 1970s there have been a four consecutive years oil demand increasing, Bloomberg expert Julian Lee wrote. Riyadh’s Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources Khalid Al-Falih suggested that the world could tolerate higher crude prices, “I haven’t seen any impact on demand with current prices, there is the capacity for higher prices”. Shortly after President Donald Trump tweeted about not tolerating such “artificially” made high prices. In fact, demand is high because prices are low (or tolerably low), and as OPEC’s Secretary General Abdallah Salem el-Badri suggested ten years ago, high prices are not a cash cow for the organization because they had (and have) the capacity to “destroy everything” like basically curbing down the oil demand.
Additionally, it is facing a contagious criticism from its neighbor countries –and allies- for some time now. A fruit of the kingdom’s aims to advance for the transformation the Gulf Cooperation Council into a Gulf Union, with tight defense cooperation. Proposal of Saudi Arabia leads to dead-end negotiations over the further unification within the organization as most of the countries fear a Saudi hegemony in the peninsula. Tensions between Qatar and Riyadh are still present on the Gulf area in form of trade blockade led by Saudi Arabia and implemented by Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. This blockade is forcing Qatar to import basic goods from more expensive places like Iran or Oman.
Saudi Arabia is down and out on some of its most geopolitical ambitious plans; the foreign wars that the KSA is fighting in Yemen and Syria are all but going in favor of the country’s expectations. In Syria, the rebels lost the city of Aleppo and Damascus and are inactive in all fronts, including Daraa, Homs, Idlib, and Damascus province is on the brink of being fully liberated by Assad’s army. The rapid fall of Damascus came after a controversial chemical attack to Douma suburb. Assad’s victory in Eastern Ghouta is, besides a military victory, a symbolic victory against one of the first areas of Syria uprising against the government back in 2012.
In Yemen, Houti forces are holding Sana’a and are attacking Saudi border checkpoints and inland military bases by launching cross-border rides and middle range missiles into Saudi territory. All these attacks happen with different international arms and trade embargoes, as well as a maritime blockade on the Houti government. According to the Economist, “Yemen is the Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam” because, in this conflict, the kingdom has lost military and diplomatic prestige –among other controversial incidents involving human rights, or use of international prohibited munitions. Moreover, some of the closest allies of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, considered in June 2016 that war was over for Emirati troops and that a peaceful solution was now required to end the bloody conflict. In fact, in early 2018 Emirati-backed separatists seized control of Aden. These UAE-backed separatists (from southern Yemen) formed the Southern Transitional Council (STC) back in May 2017. Their objective to bring back to life South Yemen, an independent country until it united with the north in the 1990s.
On soft politics, Saudi Arabia is also losing ground. It ambassador in Baghdad had to go back to Saudi Arabia after most Shia politics went on with more cooperation with Iran; in Egypt, Al-Sisi, and despite all the financial aid received from the Gulf States, is also shifting towards more cooperation with Al Assad, Russia and Iran; in Lebanon, after 2 years without head of state, the recently elected president Michel Aoun is an Iran-backed politician and former general, which per se means a setback for Saudi regional influence. It is important to remember that back when the Syrian and Yemeni conflict erupted oil prices were as high as $120 a barrel.
Internally, the Kingdom is trying to open itself towards more liberal policies, like leasing laws against women and by opening (legalizing) theaters all over the country. But it has a though side, for example, the late 2017 “purge” of business and government leaders under the name of “anti-corruption” operation. This purge claims to have recouped $100bn from 56 royal family members and businessmen. The operation, ordered by King Salaman and launched by his son, Mohammad bin Salaman, came as a surprise. The motives behind this move by KSA heir are not clear, but probably was a combination asserting its power and position, purging possible future opponents, and showing strength and muscle. Additionally, Prince Mohammad told investors that “We are returning to what we were before, a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.” in October 2017 adding “we will end extremism very soon”. In fact, the US intelligence services pointed at wealthy Saudis as main financial supporters of extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State organization, and also as main backers of Syrian and Libyan so-called moderate rebels. The country’s religious liberalization has spiked some internal fights between the local clerics with a more radical ideology.
At the very beginning of yesterday’s incident rumors appeared over a coup taking place against the Saudi king, a group of Houthi rebels that infiltrated the Kingdom, or even a terrorist attack. But it ended up being an incident involving a hobby drone and security forces. Nonetheless, the incident forced the evacuation of King Salaman and the upload of videos on the social networks showing heavy fighting with occasional explosions -or at least this is the official version. Details remain, and possibly will remain, very superficial. The crown has gained some enemies within the country. Notably after the multiple arrests, goods, and funds confiscation, as well as recent religious liberalization. Thus, the crown now is a potential target for religious radicals, wealthy and influential Saudis, and Houthi rebels, amongst other groups. It should be considered that, in case of real coup d’état, no internet and images would be uploaded since the net would be down -as well as a large military deployment all over the country.
All things considered, tensions do not lessen and future is uncertain as time goes by; tensions with Iran are still shaping Saudi Arabia’s foreign and national policy –one example are the recently published news that 15 more Shias have been sentenced to death on charges of spying for Iran or the Qatar blockade; or the effects of the fall of Damascus, or the failure of defeating Houthi forces in Yemen will have in Riyadh politics. If tensions within the GCC or the OPEC do not scale down, or oil prices do not rise as much as Saudi Arabia needs, it’s possible that more problems will appear, not regional problems, but local problems. Bankruptcy is not a short-term perspective likely to happen, but more diversified economies like in Turkey, Egypt or Iran could end up by replacing Saudi Arabia as a regional power if its economic situation does not improve -and they are actually asserting their power. Additionally, too fast liberalization can lead to local unrest from more radical/extremist people believing that such liberal reforms are not what KSA needs and may lead to internal conflicts. Fears expressed last night brought up some of the possible real fears that Saudi society and rulers may have nowadays.
Sources: Local people through social media and arab news outlets