02 January 2016

The House of Saud Is In Deep Trouble

Saudi Arabia has just executed an important Shia cleric by the name of Nimr al-Nimr.

He was officially guilty of inviting "foreign meddling." Which means that the House of Saud decided that he was a troublemaker that needed to be eliminated.

And it is safe to say that his execution would invite far greater foreign meddling.

Iran has already stated that Saudi Arabia would pay a "high price" for the execution. An Iraqi MP belonging to the governing coalition sharply criticized the decision, as did the Lebanon's Shia Council.

More importantly, I suspect Bahrain's suppressed Shia majority will protest violently and Saudi Arabia's Shia minority in the oil-rich Eastern Province will rise up as well.

This couldn't have come at a worse moment for Saudi Arabia and its ruling family.

You see, the Kingdom is bleeding serious money.

The war in Yemen is costing them $200 million a day or $6 billion a month.

Then there are the friendly governments to prop up. To keep al-Sissi in power, Saudis recently pledged $8 billion of investment in Egypt. This is on top of the $4 billion they promised last March.

The House of Saud also gives substantial sums to Pakistan, Bahrain and Jordan.

And of course, one should not forget the Sword of Sunni Islam, Turkey. During President Erdogan's recent visit at the end of December, the King announced that Saudi Arabia will rely on Turkish companies to reduce its dependency on oil revenues and diversify its economy.

The estimated cost? $613 billion.

While this is unlikely to come to pass, Turkey's investment targets are $25 billion and a trade volume of $20 billion by 2023.

Now, you may think that this is business as usual. Indeed, the House of Saud's outsized regional influence has always been built on this kind of largess. The problem is that they no longer have money to throw around. As the Guardian put it:
All this was affordable while oil prices were well above $100 a barrel. The sums don’t add up when a barrel of Brent crude is changing hands for less than $50, and this explains why the International Monetary Fund estimates that Saudi Arabia is on course to run a budget deficit of 20% of national income this year. To put that figure into perspective, at its worst following the deep recession of 2008-09, Britain was running a budget deficit of 11% of GDP.
In fact, this was written 6 months ago. Their new budget has a deficit of $87 billion with $137 billion projected revenues and $224 billion in committed spending. And the Brent is down to $36.

IMF warned the Kingdom six months ago that they could not sustain such large deficits.
"With the large decline in oil prices, the fiscal deficit has increased sharply and is likely to remain high over the medium term," the IMF said in a report released after talks with Saudi officials. "These deficits will rapidly erode the fiscal buffers that have been built over the past decade," it said. 
Saudi Arabia has a Sovereign Wealth Fund of about $700 billion. While this may look like a huge sum, when you consider that they withdrew $65 billion last year and will need another $87 billion this year, you realize that, at that pace, they will run out of money in less than a decade.

The Fund was also used to pacify the population by subsidizing every aspect of their lives. However, faced with a serious financial crunch, the government has just announced that it will reduce most of the subsidies in order to cut spending by 14 percent.

It may not exactly lead to riots tomorrow but within a couple of years, such measures will almost certainly add to the general malaise and could make the royal family vulnerable.

The general public feels that there is too much corruption in high places and is highly critical of the general direction of the country. King Salman bin Abdulaziz is rumored to suffer from dementia and the power is shared between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and the King's favorite son and the Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman.
Ask any Saudi where power is concentrated today, however, and they will point to the younger royal.
That is His Royal Smirkyness on the right. His areas of responsibilities are numerous.
Mohammed bin Salman leads the team working on restructuring the economy. As defence minister, he is the point man on the war in Yemen. Increasingly, he is also his father’s representative on foreign policy, meeting Russia’s Vladimir Putin twice this year and Barack Obama, US president, once. He oversees the operations of the royal court, the most powerful body in the absolute monarchy. Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, as well as the Public Investment Fund, with $5.3bn in assets, are also under his purview.
In other words, the young bin Salman is responsible for the ailing economy, oil policy, the deeply unpopular war in Yemen and increasingly disastrous foreign policy.

The war in Yemen is a sore point for many Saudis.
Many Saudis are sickened by the sight of the Arab world’s richest country pummelling its poorest, and as the cost in lives and treasure grows, criticism is mounting that Prince Mohammed bin Salman– whose unofficial nickname is “Reckless” – rushed in without a proper military strategy or an exit plan.
So it is not surprising that lately, serious cracks appeared within the ruling clan. After Walid bin Talal's stinging letter to the Saudi government about serious financial mismanagement another Prince wrote two letters calling for nothing less than the removal of the King.
The letters in Arabic calling for the overthrow of the king have been read more than 2m times. The letters call on the 13 surviving sons of Ibn Saud – specifically the princes Talal, Turki and Ahmed bin Abdulaziz – to unite and remove the leadership in a palace coup, before choosing a new government from within the royal family.
The letters clearly take aim at Salman's son.
 “Allow the oldest and most capable to take over the affairs of the state, let the new king and crown prince take allegiance from all, and cancel the strange, new rank of second deputy premier,” states the first letter.
“We are calling for the sons of Ibn Saud from the oldest Bandar, to the youngest, Muqrin, to make an urgent meeting with the senior family members to investigate the situation and find out what can be done to save the country, to make changes in the important ranks, to bring in expertise from the ruling family whatever generation they are from.”
With Iran ascending, The House of Saud is facing its biggest challenge to date. Its revenues are down, its economic future uncertain, its most important military ally in the region (Turkey) is completely isolated and lately placed in check by Russia, its traditional benefactor (the US) is increasingly distancing itself from the Kingdom, as more Americans are waking up to the fact that ISIS and other radical Islamists are a direct product of Saudi Arabia's pernicious Wahhabi ideology.

And the guy at the helm is barely 30 and his nickname is "Reckless."

No wonder Saudi executions are on a steep rise.

But I doubt that they will be enough to ensure the Kingdom's stability. As I wrote in 2012,
From where I stand, it looks like the Saudi system is facing a series of very critical crises and the regime is simply not equipped to deal with these issues. In the next few years, one way or another it will go through some major changes.
The future is indeed bleak for the House of Saud.


And now this.
A Saudi-led coalition battling rebels in Yemen has said it will no longer observe a ceasefire announced last month.

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