As they do say, haters gonna hate, and few vitally strategic regimes out there are as widely hated as Saudi Arabia’s House of Saud. The doomsday of the regime has been foretold many a time (caveat: that’s the World Net Daily, generally unreliable, but illustrative of the point that analysts do like to place bets on the death of Saudi Arabia). Time and time again, however, the Sauds have managed to survive the changing times and carry well on past the expirations of other absolute monarchies.
Now geopolitics has conspired to present the House of Saud with its greatest challenge yet: a world where America makes it fight its own wars. That will not be the death knell of the regime in and of itself, but it kicks open a door that used to be securely shut. For now Riyadh must not only fight wars, it may also lose them. That is a mistake a brittle monarchy can ill-afford.
First, the cliff notes.
- All absolute monarchies need to look stronger than they actually are, largely because if they look flawed their subjects conclude there’s no option to improve them except through revolution.
- Saudi Arabia’s wealth has allowed it to look much, much stronger and better off than it actually is, and the protection of America kept it from ever being exposed to geopolitical risks that might expose its weaknesses.
- But America has learned hard lessons in the Middle East over the past 25 years and is now only willing to manage the threats there rather than solve them, which is intolerable for a regime that has pretended everything is fine for its entire existence.
- That’s forced Saudi Arabia to begin a war in Yemen, but alas the internal geographic and demographic situation in Yemen creates problems beyond Saudi Arabia’s ability to solve. Which means that Saudi Arabia will inevitably lose any war there.
- That will expose Saudi Arabia to unprecedented criticism and blowback, rattling a regime that needs strict stability to survive.
So, back to understanding why monarchies are so hard to keep together, especially in this day and age.
A government in general only works if its people buy into its social contract. Typically, that’s a bargain struck whereby people give up some of their freedom in exchange for security. The line is different from place to place, with some places preferring stale police states while others take the risk of letting people run a bit more rampant.
That term “security” doesn’t just mean having good cops to arrest criminals and good soldiers to keep out foreign devils. It also means economic and societal security: more than anything else, people give up on a government that can’t get them enough money or let society seem too out of control.
Since the first Big Man started calling the shots in the world’s first organized tribe, the deal has been the same: you can be in charge, but only so long as that benefits us. Over time, the job of leadership has, like all of our society, gotten more and more complicated.
That’s because of two factors: technology and population, both directly related.
Population is a straightforward thing to understand: the more people there are, and the closer they live together, the more problems there will be. You know this concept very well in terms of a house party. A mansion vs. a college dorm create two very different results depending on how many people you shove into them. A mansion with a handful of people enjoys a quiet, chilled out vibe, and is easier to manage. A mansion with a thousand partygoers is chaotic and harder to control; getting the cops called is supremely likely.
Meanwhile, a dorm party has a much lower threshold for population; perhaps only ten or so before capacity is reached.
The two places require very different methods to control them. To manage a mansion party requires a more elaborate system of control, or you risk the partygoers destroying your home. Merely owing to the sheer size of both your home and your party, you can’t be everywhere at once. You need helping hands, and the bigger the party, the more professional you’d like those hands to be. Thus you hire event professionals, goons to guard the entrance, DJs to select and run the music, etc.
Meanwhile, in your dorm, you can pretty much run the show yourself; if a fight breaks out, or drinks run low, you’re immediately aware of the problem. You can fix it, people can see you fixing it, and the whole process is far more transparent.
And monarchies are a relic of a time when mankind mostly went to dorm parties.
Humanity used to be a low-density, low population species: we were essentially going to dorm parties every weekend. But this now leads to our second point: the coming of fancy technology.
Technological advances have allowed our populations and our demographics to explode in size. We have, in a few hundred years, gone from going to dorms every Friday to visiting mansions with thousands of strangers.
Saudi Arabia was one of the last places on Earth to be reached by modernity. It was, for most of its history, a dorm party, and the people in charge of it could be literal men of the people, able to see and be seen by most of the very low population they ruled. From the very beginning of the first Saudi state in the 18th century to the formation of the modern kingdom in 1932, Saudi Arabia’s extremely low population (outside of a handful of minor cities in the west, the Hejaz, like Mecca and Medina) made it a simple place to rule.
A king could and did manage the kingdom quite well. As the population exploded after the discovery of oil and the mass importation of technology in the 1950s to the 1990s, Saudi Arabia transformed from a dorm to a stuffed mansion.
Once Saudi kings were able to be personally seen by many of their subjects; now the teeming millions of Saudi citizens can only glimpse them on TV. The king used to be able to solve problems by meeting whoever was complaining about who. That style of leadership wins you massive points: it’s why we still ridiculously insist on our politicians taking photos shaking hands with “normal” people, even though we know that shaking hands with a presidential candidate will not get them to suddenly hold banks accountable for the 2008 Financial Crisis. We merely feel better knowing our leaders are being out and about and not fortified in some palace.
The Saudi regime has tried to fill that leadership gap by having lots and lots of princes to act like mini-kings in their own provinces and cities. Each of them is expected to act like the olden times kings, shaking hands, making promises, solving disputes.
Except even that system is well left behind in a world of compartmentalized knowledge, conflicting ideologies, and faster-than-light whining.
Back before advanced technology, most social problems were relatively simple, and could be solved through relatively simple rule books like religion and custom. A Saudi prince could just think, “What would my dad do?” and probably be not too far off the mark when arbitrating between disputes.
But advanced technology has left that question in the dust. Today’s 21st Saudi Arabia has problems that have no precedent. For Saudi Arabia to remain competitive against other nearby powerful nation-states, it must utilize the full talents of its population; that means breaking a lot of taboos and rewriting the social rulebook, especially in regards to women’s role in the economy.
Moreover, Saudi princes can’t be relied on to know everything about everything; governments rely more than ever on specialists who come and go as the situation dictates. What Saudi prince is an expert on social media? How about jihadi ideology? Fiber optic construction? Modern hospitals and medicinal research centers?
The Saudi royals simply don’t have enough princes to fill all the roles that have emerged in the past 20 years. Most often, that means giving an unqualified leader a job he doesn’t know how to do simply to fill the spot with a royal. Other times, it means leaving someone in a position for a lot, lot longer than they should be. (Witness their long-serving foreign minister, Turki bin Faisal al Saud, whose messy relationship with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda marred his effectiveness managing the all-important relationship with the United States).
Some of that can be innocuous; the longer wait times at some ministry may well be because a minister has gotten too old to run the place well, or is just a thick royal cousin too dumb to know any better.
In democracies, people put up with incompetent ministers and leaders because they know that, someday, they’ll get a chance to vote them out. A key reason nobody violently revolted against Bush II – despised as he was by the American Left – is the same reason nobody today is revolting against Obama – equally reviled by the American Right. Both sides know that in a very definite time, they have a chance to vote in their own.
Saudi Arabia has no such option. When the royals make enemies, whether through incompetence, by being too overwhelmed to make good or fair decisions, or through good old fashion repression, there is no solace for their foes but to dream of rebellion and revolution.
So with all these key foundations already at a weak state, it’s been more important than ever for Saudi Arabia to appear strong.
Appearances are everything, especially in politics. The Saudi regime must appear to be strong at all times; their vast oil wealth has allowed them to finance that. Its troops and security forces are equipped with the most modern kit they can buy; its intelligence services enjoy modern spy gear from the West. It can arrest and deploy force with all the rapidity of the 21st century. When someone grumbles at a minister on Twitter, the regime can make a fast show of his arrest.
That doesn’t solve the problem of the bad minister, who may be bad because he’s dumb, because he’s badly trained, or because his job is impossible. Invariably, he will make more enemies who will grumble on Twitter. So long as the security forces can keep up their pace of arrests and Saudi citizens remain in fear of the regime’s hard power, the Saudi royals remain in charge.
But compounding this is how many more big mistakes the regime is now likely to make. For decades, Saudi Arabia never had to take big geopolitical risks. Its isolation from Israel meant it could never lose a big war against the IDF; its alliance with the U.S. put it on the right side of a superpower increasingly interested in trying to fix the Middle East. So long as the U.S. wanted to reorder the region, Saudi Arabia was supremely safe; its enemies in Saddam’s Iraq, Shi’a Iran, and Assad’s Syria were also America’s.
Except something dangerous happened somewhere in the fires of the Iraq occupation: American elites concluded they would never get an ideal Middle East, and therefore shouldn’t try.
Rather than bring peace, they’d aim for less war. As the Arab Spring roiled, the conclusion was reinforced. America’s strategic interests were laid bare, while its moralizing was left in the dust. To hell with democracy, human rights, even the integrity of nation-states, so long as the oil kept flowing and Sunni jihadism was kept on the back foot.
That last bit – the integrity of nation-states – is what’s stirred Saudi Arabia to action. America’s ambivalence to the Middle East has resulted in Libyan, Syrian, Yemeni, and Iraqi civil wars. America has refused to commit enough power to settle accounts in any of those places, and Saudi Arabia’s enemies have flourished in all of them. It looks super likely that Kurdistan will emerge as its own state, shattering the Middle Eastern consensus that since 1947 has meant minorities are stuck in big states that don’t like them.
In the good old days, Saudi Arabia could have let an all-powerful United States smite the Houthis on their behalf, preserving the appearance of Saudi strength while not actually testing it. But the Houthis don’t threaten oil supplies, and they aren’t Sunni jihadis. They therefore don’t warrant much American attention.
Which has forced Saudi Arabia’s hand, and stirred to action a regime that is spooked like never before.
The Houthis do, however, represent a threat to Saudi Arabia itself. They are a potential base for Iranian influence right on the Saudi border, a situation that’s never before threatened the kingdom. That influence could be used to run an anti-Saud insurgency to much efficiency should Iran wish it. After all, the regime hardly lacks for enemies; all they need is someone to organize and arm them.
If the Houthis remain in control of Yemen’s capital and its airport, and if they capture its major port at Aden, it could be supplied by Iran in much the same way Hezbollah is in Lebanon. The mere potential of that is terrifying to a regime that must appear to be the biggest kid on the block in Arabia. Since the House of Saud cannot, by the very nature of its monarchy, do a good job running the state, it must keep its citizens in a state of fear and dependence. It can’t rely solely on one or the other; too much fear will cause a backlash, too much dependence and the state will go broke bribing everyone. And the Houthi takeover of Yemen threatens the fear pillar by exposing how weak Saudi Arabia really is.
So the House of Saud has gone to war and has opened the door to something truly disastrous.
For Saudi Arabia does not have the power to wipe out the Houthis and reorder Yemen.
Yemen is a country of 24.5 million people with a rapidly drying aquifer and a dismal economy. To wipe out the Houthis militarily would require the same amount of geopolitical power used by the Allies in World War II to destroy Nazism and Japanese militarism. Saudi Arabia does not have that; its own population is only near 29 million, with only 18.7 million actual Saudis and the rest foreigners come to suckle on the oil teat. The Allies had not only overwhelmingly bigger economies but overwhelmingly bigger populations as they subjected and destroyed the Axis powers. Saudi Arabia cannot hope to remake Yemen into a reliable client.
Instead, Saudi might focus on the the half of Yemen that provides the backbone of Houthi power: the Zaidiyyah Shi’a, who acount for around somewhere near 35-40% of the population. That’s still not a great formula, though. While there’s plenty of debate over how many troops one should use to crush an insurgency, one popular number is 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 citizens in an area of operations. If we intentionally underestimate how many Houthi supporters there are of the probable Zaidiyyah Shi’a in Yemen, and just peg it at 8 million, that’s still 160,000 Saudi troops deployed to successfully wipe out the military movement. Saudi Arabia has only 150,000 ground troops, half of which are reserve.
Saudi military planners may not agree with that (very rough) number, but they aren’t acting like men in a position of strength. Saudi Arabia called off the war recently, only to quietly start it back up again.
Thus Saudi Arabia is now sucked into a quagmire that risks exposing its flaws. It cannot win in Yemen; it hasn’t the power. Nor, however, can it ignore Yemen, and be shown as a Gulf paper tiger. So it must walk the impossible line of appearing to be victorious without ever actually winning.
This is unlikely to be the end of the House of Saud, but it will be one of the many straws that breaks this camel’s back.
In 1778, France’s decisive intervention in the American Revolution was widely seen as a wise geopolitical gambit that helped the French turn the tables on a rising Britain. Ten years later, the debt incurred from that war, combined with an inept governing system, destroyed the French monarchy. What was a smart move one year turned into a disaster another.
Yemen isn’t even a smart move; it’s a losing war no matter how you slice it. Saudi Arabia has gone in anyway. What blowback will it suffer? Time will tell, but this will not be the last big risk Saudi Arabia takes as it flounders to save its regime. One of them will bring about the end of the House of Saud.
It is still possible for the Saudi royals to reform their country into a constitutional monarchy and thereby save themselves. But there’s little evidence the House of Saud is dominated by that kind of sense. Into Yemen they go; that abyss will swallow up much of Saudi power. How much power they’ll have left in the aftermath remains to be seen.