Preparing for the Collapse of the Saudi Kingdom

Chayes and De Waal in The Atlantic:

KingFor half a century, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been the linchpin of U.S. Mideast policy. A guaranteed supply of oil has bought a guaranteed supply of security. Ignoring autocratic practices and the export of Wahhabi extremism, Washington stubbornly dubs its ally “moderate.” So tight is the trust that U.S. special operators dip into Saudi petrodollars as a counterterrorism slush fundwithout a second thought. In a sea of chaos, goes the refrain, the kingdom is one state that’s stable. But is it? In fact, Saudi Arabia is no state at all. There are two ways to describe it: as a political enterprise with a clever but ultimately unsustainable business model, or as an entity so corrupt as to resemble a vertically and horizontally integrated criminal organization. Either way, it can’t last. It’s past time U.S. decision-makers began planning for the collapse of the Saudi kingdom.

In recent conversations with military and other government personnel, we were startled at how startled they seemed at this prospect. Here’s the analysis they should be working through. Understood one way, the Saudi king is the CEO of a family business that converts oil into payouts that buy political loyalty. They take two forms: cash handouts or commercial concessions for the increasingly numerous scions of the royal clan, and a modicum of public goods and employment opportunities for commoners. The coercive “stick” is supplied by brutal internal-security services lavishly outfitted with American equipment. The United States has long counted on the ruling family having bottomless coffers of cash with which to rent loyalty. Even accounting for today’s low oil prices, and even as Saudi officials step up arms purchases and military adventures in Yemen and elsewhere, Riyadh is hardly running out of funds. Still, expanded oil production in the face of such low prices—until the February 16 announcement of a Saudi-Russian output freeze at very high January levels—may reflect an urgent need for revenue as well as other strategic imperatives.Talk of a Saudi Aramco IPO similarly suggests a need for hard currency. A political market, moreover, functions according to demand as well as supply. What if the price of loyalty rises?

It appears that is just what’s happening.

More here.