This article points out the cataclysmic power shift that would take place in the event of Saudi Arabia’s descent into political turmoil, and briefly covers some of the catalysts that could bring about such an event. Overall, the oppressive policies towards the Shia minority carried out by the Sunni-dominated Saudi monarchy are detrimental to the country’s national security. The religious disparities in the country have given the monarchy’s enemies—primarily Iran and Russia—a weakness to exploit. This article does not give evidence of any clandestine operations taking place within the Kingdom; however, it gives evidence that Iran and Russia have much to gain and virtually nothing to lose if the country was to spiral into violence like so many others in the region.
CURRENT SITUATION: SAUDI ARABIA
The Saudi monarchy openly practices forms of religious intolerance towards both Shias and non-Muslims. In the Kingdom, all Saudi citizens are required to be Muslim, while non-citizens are permitted to practice any religion of their choosing but must do so privately.1 In 2009, the Saudi Government banned the construction of any new Shia mosques, and does not allow Shia citizens the right to assembly in the form of protests.2 While illegal, the number of Shia-driven protests has increased dramatically in the country’s Eastern Province.3 Despite their illegality, these Shia-led protests have grown in size, demonstrating the growing resentment of the Shia population towards the government’s oppressive policies.4 These protests began during the Arab Spring in which countries such as Libya, Egypt, and Syria—countries controlled by brutal dictatorships—began to experience increased protests which ultimately led to violent uprisings. Many of the practices used to control the populations of these countries, such as torture, public executions, and the suppression of basic human rights, are practiced, in secret if not openly, by the Kingdom itself.
Only 10-15 percent of the Saudi population is Shia. While it is arguable that such a drastic disparity in size would make it nearly impossible for the Shia population to overthrow the Saudi government, the use of torture and public executions has been applied to all Saudi citizens who have proven themselves to be enemies of the Monarchy. The suppression of political liberties—affecting both Sunnis and Shias—has been allowed to continue for so long thanks in part to the nation’s vast wealth. However, a hostile Shia uprising would most likely lead to an uprising on the part of the Sunni citizens who have suffered under the regime’s authoritarian policies as well, despite the nation’s oil wealth.
The recent oil sell-off on the global market has brought much of the world’s attention to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and more specifically to Saudi Arabia, who for the most part claims responsibility for the surplus of oil. In 2014, Saudi Arabia’s decision to expand drilling operations and flood the market with oil was enacted in order to drive both Russian and, more specifically, U.S. energy companies out of business. So far the strategy has been effective not only in forcing U.S. energy corporations into laying off thousands of workers, but has successfully struck a blow to the Russian economy, half of whose budget is funded through oil exports.5
While American consumers have benefitted largely from lower prices at the pumps, the effect on the Russian economy has been entirely detrimental, prompting the fall of the ruble to all-time lows when compared to the U.S. dollar and the euro.6 This comes at a time when the Russian Federation has been backing Ukrainian separatists through weapons, funding, and possibly the deployment of non-uniformed military personnel. On top of that, the Federation has been engaged in an air war against Syrian rebels, and Syria has seen an increase in Russian ground capabilities in the Latakia region. While both conflicts, as well as the occupation of the Crimean Peninsula (viewed as a liberating action by Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian people), have boosted Putin’s support at home, it has only exacerbated the effects of the ultra-low oil prices, as Western sanctions against Russia for its involvement in Ukraine have prevented the Federation from borrowing funds.
Iran has been militarily active within the Middle East since 1979. In recent history the Iranian government has allegedly directly backed Houthi rebels in Yemen while also backing both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Shia militias in Iraq. The former expedition almost ended in the entire country of Yemen being taken over by the rebels, until Saudi Arabia militarily intervened and pushed Houthis back into their mountain fortresses where the fighting has almost come to a draw.
Recent events between the two regional powers escalated after the Kingdom executed Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, which brought the ire and resentment of the Shia-dominated nation of Iran. Following the execution, Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Saudi Arabia, in response, allegedly bombed the vicinity of the Iranian embassy in Yemen, and recalled its ambassador to Iran. This situation is further perplexed by the recent agreement between Saudi Arabia’s traditional ally, the United States, and Iran, which saw the lifting of sanctions on Saudi Arabia’s longtime rival.
COLLAPSE OF THE KINGDOM: IRAN’S REGIONAL HEGEMONY
In the event of Saudi Arabia’s destabilization, the power shift in the Middle East would send shock waves throughout the world and the global economy. While the immediate impact would be a spike in oil prices, the first noticeable geopolitical change would take place in the Middle East. Iran would be able to firmly establish the “Shia Belt;” in other words, it would form a religious band and military alliance of predominantly Shia countries. This “belt” would stretch across the Middle East, starting from the Iranian-Afghan border through Iraq and Syria. As mentioned previously, Iran has been militarily and diplomatically active in Iraq and Syria for decades, going so far as to support anti-coalition militias during the Iraq war. There is little doubt that in the event of a Saudi collapse, ties between the Shia in Iraq and Syria would form a tighter bond with Iran, further complicating U.S. diplomatic or military actions within the region.
The destabilization of Saudi Arabia would lead to volatile and ultimately increased oil prices across Europe, the United States, and many Asian countries, the latter of which make up more than 50 percent of Saudi Arabia’s oil exports. While the United States is the largest producer of oil in the world, the demand created by U.S. citizens far outweighs the nation’s current production capacity. Saudi Arabia surprisingly only makes up a total of 8 percent of oil exporters to both the United States and the European Union.7 Meanwhile, Russian oil makes up the bulk of European supplies as more than 30 percent of oil imported by European nations comes from the former Soviet Union.8
Contrary to the popular belief that the Middle East supplies the bulk of U.S. oil imports, most of it is actually purchased from South America and Canada. The initial shock to U.S. oil prices created by the collapse of Saudi Arabia would most likely be weathered by purchasing more oil from its neighbors to its north and south. Eventually, if domestic policies allow, the United States would be able to create a long term solution to this problem by enabling more domestic oil production.
Unlike the United States, Europe would have very little choice but to purchase both oil and gas from Russia. This crucial detail would give Russia the leverage required to have sanctions lifted and ease its short term fiscal constraints through borrowing funds. By being able to leverage the European Union into lifting the economic sanctions, Putin would be able to aid his ailing economy while extending military operations in Syria and Ukraine. In the long term, the increase in oil prices would most likely bring a steady recovery to the Russian economy.
Vladimir Putin’s icon throughout his career in the KGB and as a Russian lawyer and politician was the czar Peter the Great. The latter had two ambitions that he was most famous for: one was to establish an overseas colony for the Russian people in the new world. He accomplished this by annexing Alaska. The second was to establish a warm-water port in the Middle East. If able to lift the economic sanctions, Putin, who hung a portrait of Peter the Great over his desks throughout his career, would be able to expand military operations to include ground operations in Syria.9 Putin would most likely use a Russian victory in Syria to establish a larger, more permanent base in the country from which he will be able to project Russian power throughout the region. This will have drastic long-term effects for Turkey, whose ties with Russia were strained when a Russian fighter jet was shot down over Turkish airspace in November 2015.
If victorious in Syria, Putin will be undoubtedly be bolstered by popular support at home. This support will embolden him to further push his limits with the European Union and to exert more influence over the Baltic States and Ukraine in particular.
The consolidation of the Shia Belt and the destabilization of Saudi Arabia will have one of two outcomes for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In the first, it will be inevitably destroyed by the Syrian army, who will be bolstered by an increase in Russian and Iranian forces in the theater. With U.S. and Western attention being drawn towards a destabilized Saudi Arabia, the Russian Federation as well as Iran will be able to increase military operations within Syria, increasing the likelihood that Assad will remain in power and both ISIS and the Free Syrian Army will be crushed.
The second scenario would be the rise of radical Salafism in a destabilized Saudi Arabia. With Wahhabism being one of the most popular forms of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia, it would seem only logical as this would be the immediate threat in the Kingdom. ISIS would undoubtedly take advantage of the destabilization of Saudi Arabia in the same manner as in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. As radical Salafism is the widely practiced form of Sunni Islam in both al-Qaeda and ISIS, it would only be a matter of time before the two powers took a more active role in the country.
The fall of Saudi Arabia would bring about a colossal shift of power in the Middle East and Europe. It would mean the establishment of the “Shia Belt” stretching from Syria to Iran, and the possibility of an Iranian-backed government in Oman. Bashar al-Assad would remain in power in Syria and Russia would be able to establish a larger, more permanent military presence within the region. Demands in Europe for oil would enable Putin to hold more leverage over the European Union, and in particular the Eastern European states, who already depend on Russian oil. Being an opportunist whose overarching goal is to reestablish the Soviet Empire, Putin would undoubtedly take advantage of the seeming weakness in the European Union and would exert his influence, economically or militarily, over Eastern Europe.
1 “Saudi Arabia,” Freedom House, accessed January 29, 2016, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2015/saudi-arabia.
5 Christopher Helman, “Itemizing the Oil Bust: 75,000 Layoffs and Counting,” Forbes.com, March 18, 2015.
6 Anna Smolchenko, “Ruble hits all time lows,” Yahoo News, January 20, 2016.
7 Corey Flintoff, “Where Does America Get its Oil? You May be Surprised,” NPR, April 12, 2012.
8 “EU Crude Oil Imports and Costs,” European Commission, accessed January 12, 2016, http://ec.europa.eu/energy/en/statistics/eu-crude-oil-imports.
9 Vladimir Putin, et al., First Person (New York: Public Affairs, 2000), 90.