Is the House of Saud teetering on the edge of collapse?
What do the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and that guy from the old E.F. Hutton commercial have in common? When they talk, people listen.
According to Iran’s government-run outlet Press TV, IRGC Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari said some pretty blunt things about Saudi Arabia early Monday:
A top Iranian commander has lashed out at the Saudi aggression against Yemen, saying Riyadh is on the verge of collapse.
“Today, Saudi Arabia is brazenly and obnoxiously bombarding and massacring a nation, which is seeking the denial of the hegemonic system,” said commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari on Monday.
“Today, Al Saud is teetering on the edge of collapse,” the top commander said.
The remarks by the IRGC chief come as Saudi Arabia keeps pounding neighboring Yemen (emphasis added).
Well, that’s quite a thing to say. And Jafari is not the only one saying it, according to the New York Times’ Tehran correspondent.
To be fair to Iranians, they’re hardly the only ones to make this claim this year — a lot of Western analysts are shorting the House of Saud.
If you read Nassim Taleb and Gregory Treverton in Foreign Affairs, Saudi Arabia seems like the poster boy for imminent revolution: single-crop economy, centralized authoritarian regime and a suppression of political volatility. Regional expert Juan Cole also wrote in January that the challenges to Saudi absolutism are severe. Both of these arguments are of a piece with Francis Fukuyama’s assertion from a few years ago that “authoritarianism in China is of a far higher quality than in the Middle East,” which implies that any remaining Arab authoritarians are doomed.
There’s an appealing logic to these claims. It’s not like the Middle East is a beacon of stability at the moment. The House of Saud is dealing with rising Iranian influence in the Shia Crescent, wars in Syria and Yemen, simmering discontent in Bahrain, and the prospect that its principal global ally is about to cut a deal with its enduring rival in the region. Oil prices are higher than they were a few months ago but still a good deal lower than the previous few years. Oh, and lest we forget, the Saudis just had to deal with a leadership transition.
These are all pretty good reasons to be pessimistic about the House of Saud’s resiliency. And yet it might be worth taking a second look. As the Economist noted, King Salman’s ascension to the Saudi throne was slightly different that previous leadership transitions:
Rarely has one of Saudi Arabia’s ageing rulers moved so nimbly. No sooner had King Salman taken the crown on January 23rd after the death of his half-brother, Abdullah, than he immediately settled one of the most pressing questions of his rule: who would be the next king and, crucially, who would be the king after that. “The king did 90% of his job in just one day!” jokes one Saudi…
Some compare the Al Sauds to an increasingly professional company board. In 2006 the late King Abdullah set up an “allegiance council” with 35 members, representing all branches of the dynasty, to smooth the transfer of power. The word is that they voted on [second in line for succession] Prince Muhammad [bin Nayef]’s appointment — if true it would be a rare show of democracy, if only within the ruling family. Those who were passed over, for instance Miteb bin Abdullah, the late king’s son and head of the National Guard, appear to accept that collective survival is more important than individual ambition.
It’s also worth remembering that Saudi Arabia is the reason that oil prices collapsed late last year, and that the House of Saud believes that, because of economic mismanagement, Tehran that is far more vulnerable than Riyadh to low oil prices.
As for regional instability, Ray Takeyh writes that the combination of Iranian power plays and U.S. reluctance to intervene with ground troops has led to a natural balancing coalition:
In the absence of the U.S. sentry, the Sunni Arab states are coming together to wage the new Middle Eastern cold war. Saudi Arabia is the focal point of the new alliance as its wealth is seeking to team up with Egypt’s size to contest Iran’s growing power. Cairo has pledged support for the Saudi war effort in Yemen, and while it remains to be seen whether there is much military muscle in this arrangement, the Sunni states are beginning to come together to resurrect their influence.
And indeed, as The Washington Post’s Liz Sly’s reports, the tightening of the Sunni alliance is reaping dividends in Syria:
A surge of rebel gains in Syria is overturning long-held assumptions about the durability of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which now appears in greater peril than at any time in the past three years.
The capture Saturday of the town of Jisr al-Shughour in northern Idlib province was just the latest in a string of battlefield victories by rebel forces, which have made significant advances in both the north and the south of the country….
The revival of rebel fortunes is attributed to a large degree to the recent rapprochement between a newly assertive Saudi Arabia and its erstwhile rivals for influence over the rebels — Turkey and Qatar.
Since inheriting the throne in January, Saudi King Salman has moved forcefully to challenge the expanding regional influence of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s biggest foe, most publicly by embarking on an air war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. He has also acted to shore up the flagging and deeply divided rebels in Syria, in coordination with Qatar and Turkey, Khashoggi said.
The result has been an unexpectedly cohesive rebel coalition called the Army of Conquest that is made up of al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, an assortment of mostly Islamist brigades and a small number of more moderate battalions. The coalition, which launched last month, has proved more effective than expected.
So it would seem that the claims of the House of Saud’s demise have been somewhat exaggerated. Riyadh is an active player in a lot of the sources of instability in the region that are ostensibly supposed to topple the Saudi regime. And maybe, just maybe, the Iranian rhetoric might be a case of trying to offset reversals of fortune in the region.
Of course, whether the robustness of Saudi absolutism is really a long-term good for the United States is a deeper, more troubling question that is best to a later post.