As recently as a few years ago, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia seemed to be holding all the cards in the Middle East. While the Arab spring saw regimes from Tunisia to Syria reduced to ruins, the House of Saud remained standing and seemingly untouched by the gathering storm of chaos and revolution. Its main rivals, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Iran, were either completely deposed and in disarray or under the heavy burden of western sanctions and international isolation. It seemed as though nothing could go wrong for the proud desert Kingdom; that is, until it did.
Between the crash in the price of oil and the Kingdom’s flailing war with the neighboring Houthis, the Saudi’s fortunes have taken a precipitous turn for the worse. Both crises have been handled with the impressive ineptitude, long trademarked by the House of Saud. Their scheme to bankrupt their geopolitical and economic rivals, Russia and the U.S. fracking industry respectively, via flooding the oil market with cheap crude, has backfired gloriously.
The war in Yemen has likewise become an unmitigated disaster, an enormous economic drain on the country’s finances at a time it can ill afford it. Besides the economic damage, the war has also managed to highlight once again the amusing mixture of cowardice and incompetence that has been an indispensible part of the Saudi military tradition for decades. Despite having some of the most advanced and expensive equipment available (as well as the assistance of U.S. military trainers), the Saudis have found themselves hard pressed and frequently bamboozled by the Houthis, an ethnic militia armed with little more than small arms and the occasional homemade Scud.
The Saudi’s aren’t just losing battles in Yemen, but even on their own southern frontier, where Saudi patrols are frequently ambushed, and Saudi cities bombarded in cross-border raids by the Houthis. Observing the unfolding of Saudi military operations in Yemen is a lot like watching a show poodle get torn apart by an undersized, feral pit bull.
These problems, formidable as they are, still remain little more than distractions compared to the Kingdom’s ticking demographic time bomb. Saudi Arabia’s population is officially 31 million. However, its actual citizenry numbers little more than 20 million. The rest are migrant laborers, who hail from 3rd world countries like Indonesia and do the dirty jobs most Saudi’s won’t touch.
Of the remaining natives, more than 70 percent are under 30 years old and have been raised on a steady diet of Wahhabist fundamentalism, which has been the inbred Kingdom’s top export (next to Brent Crude) and brought the global community such notable success stories as the Islamic State and al-Nusra. Furthermore, a huge number of these aspiring young Wahhabists are unemployed. The cushy government jobs, long assumed to be the birth-right of all Saudi males, who have served as the lubricant of the unspoken Social Contract in Saudi Arabia, have begun to evaporate. Today, a young, unemployed Saudi may have idle, empty hands but he has a mind that is filled to the brim with Jihadi ideology–a combustible mix that will ensure the Kingdom’s near future is significantly more interesting than its recent past.
These problems are (surprisingly) not entirely lost on the Kingdom’s elites who have come up with an impressive sounding solution for its ailments: Saudi Vision 2030. In a nutshell, the plan, cooked up by eager-to-please western consultants working on a large retainer, consists in “diversifying” the country’s economy, while simultaneously cutting government largesse. The details of the plan, still not yet fully understood, are rumored to consist mostly of significant investments in magical thinking and the strategic use of smoke and mirrors.
While the still wet behind the ears King Salman dreams lofty visions of neoliberal prosperity and battlefield glory, more cunning and ruthless minds dream darker and ultimately more realistic visions for the year 2030.
Since the inception of the Islamic State, Saudi Arabia has loomed large in its, seemingly fantastic, plans for a Pan-Arab Caliphate. The reason for this is obvious, besides being the Mecca (literally) for the Wahhabist strain of Islam from which ISIS was spawned from. The Kingdom is easily the biggest prize imaginable for an aspiring Caliph, a golden goose with a thousand eggs in its belly. Not only would an ISIS coup against the Saudis net it an almost inconceivable amount of cash and weaponry, but more importantly control (and the all-important legitimacy which would come with said control) of Mecca and Medina.
Let’s entertain this notion a bit, say it’s the year 2019, and none of Saudi Arabia’s underlying structural issues have magically been solved. The Islamic state has finally been driven out of Syria proper but maintains a significant presence in numerous “Mini-Caliphates” which are scattered across the world from Libya to the Philippines, while remaining the most potent and intractable purveyor of Jihadist terrorism in the world, continuing to execute medium-scale attacks across Europe on a regular basis.
But then, suddenly, the world is shocked out of its normalcy by footage of smoke pouring out of downtown Riyadh. Glass is broken, cars are ablaze, and gunfire can be heard echoing between the otherwise silent skyscrapers. No one is sure of what is actually happening.
A broadcast then suddenly begins streaming on Saudi TV, a man in military fatigues sits in front of a black flag and, with a smirk, delivers the news: King Salman is dead, beheaded for apostasy. A cabal of military officers and Wahhabist clerics now claims to be heading the country, an image of a black flag flying over the Grand Mosque is shown while a Jihadi anthem plays. The claim is soon verified by the bloodied occupants of the crammed private jets now touching down in Cairo and Amman. Anyone with means is desperately trying to flee the country, the deluge of overloaded small and large planes and helicopters creates chaos, some crash trying to land on the busy highways.
Years of economic malaise, military humiliation, and westernizing social policies have created the perfect storm of resentment which forced the leaders of the new Revolution to move against their king. The last straw had been Salman’s recent decree which mandated increased female participation in the workforce and the immediate eligibility of all women to now receive driver’s licenses.
Across the beltway, the chattering class erupts in choruses of horror mixed with disbelief. Events are canceled, emergency meetings are scheduled, think pieces and columns are postponed. The Daily Mail is now running with unconfirmed reports of celebratory gunfire being heard in the suburbs of Paris and Brussels. The public squares of Cairo, Amman, and Ankara begin filling with mobs of jubilant Wahhabis singing the praises of the “Heroes of the Saudi Revolution.” The Ayatollah of Iran calls an emergency meeting of his military Advisors; U.S. spy satellites notice the hurried movements of massive formations of Iranian troops. They are preparing for a full mobilization.
Then, just at the moment when things seem the darkest, the videos begin to appear. Footage of bodies plummeting off of skyscrapers and severed heads with pale, western faces gracing the tops of fence posts ricochet across social media. The Revolution has begun to cleanse the country of the loathed “Western Infidels”. Tens of thousands of westerners are still unaccounted for. The panicked sentiment is unanimous: the President must do something.
Sound far-fetched? Alarmist? There exists a particular kind of neoliberal acolyte for whom all such warnings are easily dismissed and rationalized away. The so-called Islamic State is losing, after all, its territory shrinking rapidly after consistent battlefield defeats. Saudi Arabia’s problems are real but in the end, the Kingdom will muddle through them; it must muddle through them. Just like the European Union’s dream of a united Europe will muddle through. Just like the American Empire’s “Unipolar Moment” will ultimately muddle through. The neoliberal imagination is unable to articulate any other possible future than one which entails a “muddling through”.
Of course, it’s easy to play Nostradamus and sling about vague premonitions of doom. But just ask yourself this simple question: when you look at the House of Saud’s current situation which vision of the future seems more realistic? The magically Enlightened and Modernized Islamic-Utopia put forward by the architects of Saudi Vision 2030? Or the alternative vision, which we can already see across so much of the Arab world today, namely one with black flags, severed heads, and columns of Toyota Land Cruisers full of heavily armed men?
The correct choice should be obvious. After all, the arch of history does bend toward justice, doesn’t it?