WASHINGTON – The very last page of the latest TIME magazine double issue about what we can expect in the New Year is dedicated to quick predictions. One segment is focused on what might happen in world politics.
Some of these short forecasts are not long shots. For instance, as indicated in item “d”, it is possible that stagnant economies in Europe and a growing crisis caused by Middle Eastern refugees will create more support for xenophobic, racist parties in the Old Continent.
End of the Saudi Monarchy?
But item “b” is far more intriguing. It says: “The House of Saud loses control of Saudi Arabia”. [Emphasis added]
What, a coup-d’etat in Saudi Arabia? A political revolution? Now, this would be a really big deal, given Saudi Arabia’s dominant role in shaping global energy prices, and therefore energy and economic policies across the globe.
The last absolute monarchy
The problem with the Royal Family is that the House of Saud is the last absolute monarchy. This is not Norway or Great Britain. Its enormous, unchecked powers rest on its total control of the country’s vast oil wealth, and on its alliance with the conservative Wahabi, the self-appointed guardians of true Islamic orthodoxy.
So, all of a sudden, in 2016 something truly catastrophic will come about, and the Royal Family “loses control”? How could this happen? The short TIME magazine prediction provides no details.
While there are no obvious signs of dangerous political unrest in Saudi Arabia, there are dynamics under way that may lead to trouble.
The new oil prices policies is costing too much
First of all there is the Saudi-driven policy of “all out oil production” that caused the collapse of global oil prices, (now below $ 40 per barrel). This policy, whose objectives are unclear, can be reversed, of course.
But the economic damage already brought about by it, beyond the financial bleeding caused by huge deficits, may have created dissent within the Royal Family. It stands to reason that many senior members may question the wisdom of a new course of action decreed or at least endorsed by King Salman that causes the government to drain its precious reserves to finance a huge fiscal imbalance caused by the oil revenue collapse. Add to these strains the cost of the Saudi military intervention in Yemen.
Still, probably these tensions can be handled.
The real long-term uncertainty is about the regime’s questionable legitimacy. By that I mean that it is not obvious that the Monarchy has and will have in the future the ability to keep Saudi society quiet, while retaining its anachronistic total power and all the priviliges that come with it.
The Arab Spring proved that even established regimes are vulnerable. In the cases of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria there were economic grievances mixed with demands for freedom and accountability.
Saudi Arabia is a different case, in as much as the Royal Family for now at least can afford to distribute cash payments to millions of people in order to keep them happy.
Still, the Saudi regime is an anomaly. The idea that it will be there, essentially for ever, is a fantasy. May be nothing will happen in 2016; but something is bound to happen.
TIME magazine is probably right. May be not on the timing, but on the eventual outcome.