In January, the world entered in alert with the death of the Saudi king Abdullah and the ascent to the throne of his 79-year-old half-brother Salman ibn Abdulaziz al Saud, who is considered a prudent reformer with wide political experience. At stake is the role of a country that is key in the struggle against the jihadism of the increasingly stronger Islamic State.
Salman, who already worked as Minister of the Defense of Saudi Arabia, was nominated heir in 2012 and is has been the governor of the province of Riad for 50 years. His first decision – to maintain Ali al-Naimi as Minister of the Oil – has been seen by the whole world as a message that the country will not reduce the levels of production, as several members of the OPEC were defending, including Venezuela.
With so many problems and conflicts occupying the international agenda, the episodes that occurred in Saudi Arabia ended up going almost unnoticed. However, the country influences both the Arabic Peninsula and the rest of the world.
Some of the main European "Orientalists" imagine that Saudi Arabia may enter in a snowball of problems with popular riots in what is being called “revolution of sand”, because of the internal problems and of the increase of supporters of the Islamic extremism.
Saudi Arabia is known as the “kingdom of repression”, where death penalty is applied, and also extrajudicial detentions and torture of prisoners; where the non-existence of political parties, civil society, media, freedom of expression and of meeting are flagrant; where the violation of human rights, of the rights of foreign workers and religious minorities are contumacious.
It is increasingly higher the internal dissatisfaction with the Saudi political system that supports the monarchic regime. And in the international plan, the country will have ahead some extremely difficult challenges.
For example, one of the challenges is the Shia revolution combined with at least one separatist movement that is already latent in the oriental province where the oil wealth is concentrated. Furthermore, there is the Iranian-Saudi rivalry that in the last four years acquired a character of “cold war“. Also the current conflicts in Lebanon, Bahrein, Iraq and Syria already convulse the region and demand the adoption of measures and positions of the main local players.
Saudi Arabia sees in the Iranian influence in the Iraq and in Syria a concrete threat to its national interests. The recent events in Yemen also would have the Iranian footprint, according to Riad. Besides, if the influence of Al Qaeda keeps on increasing in Yemen, that also will threaten Saudi Arabia.
Another important challenge concerns the strengthening of the Islamic State in the Arabic Peninsula. The Islamic State is governed by an extremist and radical ideology of the Wahhabism. In the last years, the organization seized oil production facilities in the Gulf with the firm purpose of destabilizing the world market of the product and, with that, financing terrorist activities in the international plan.
And in Saudi Arabia it is easy to identify people who preach the radicalism and spread the ideology of the organization.
On the other hand, if NATO decides to attack the Yemeni terrorists, there will be a complete chaos spreading by all the north of Saudi Arabia.
The decline of the worldwide prices of the oil is another factor that challenges (in this case) not only that country, but the whole world. There are several theories on what has been pressing the prices of the oil down.
Not few people imagine that the Saudis themselves are behind this maneuver as a way of punishing Russia, for example, for the support that Moscow has been giving to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.
There are those who see there a way of destroying North American enterprises involved in the extraction of shale oil. Also the North American oil companies face very serious difficulties on account of the fall in the prices and charge the government Obama for the incipient responses to the policy of the “oil terrorists of Saudi Arabia”.
According to Baker Hughes, one of the largest oilfield services companies of the planet, the economies of the states of Texas, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Louisiana are undergoing significant increases in unemployment numbers. The mining and chemical industries also have been strongly affected by the crisis.
The fourth challenge concerns the substantial erosion that the Saudi-American relations are undergoing. So large differences between the two countries were not seen since 1945. Specially, Riad does not like at all the foreign policy of the United States for the Middle East. And the situation worsened even more when Obama bowed to Iran.
The White House knows that Saudi Arabia is important, but it considers the Iranian military might against the Islamic State fundamental, so much that Obama keeps on pursuing an agreement that involves Iran directly in a war against the extremists. This flirtation of Washington with Teheran was not well digested by Saudi Arabia.
However, the low prices of the oil also affect Saudi Arabia with direct impact in the domestic policy of the country, Because of this, the return of the international prices to a baseline between US$ 100 and US$ 110 is not discarded for the near future.
Marcelo Rech is a journalist, specialist in International Relations; Strategies and Policies of Defense; Terrorism and Counterinsurgency; Human Rights in the Armed Conflicts; and director of the Instituto InfoRel de Relações Internacionais e Defesa. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org