What to do when the Saudi monarchy falls?

Secretary of State John Keller with King Salman bin Abdulazziz

Secretary of State John Kerry with King Salman bin Abdulazziz

Photo Credit: The Atlantic.

The United States, back to the times of Henry Kissinger and maybe Franklin Roosevelt, has based its Middle East policy on support for the Saudi Arabian monarchy.

Washington has treated the Saudi monarchy’s enemies (except for Israel, and maybe Israel is not that much of an enemy) as its own enemies—Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the ayatollahs in Iran, the Assad regime in Syria and even the Shiite community in Yemen.

In return, the Saudi monarchs have kept oil prices under control, charged for oil in dollars and deposited those dollars in U.S. banks, and bought billions of dollars with of weapons from American aerospace and defense contractors.

But Sarah Chayes and Alex de Waal, writing in The Atlantic, warn that the Saudi Arabian monarchy, like the rule of the Shah in Iran, cannot go on forever.   And like the Shah, the Saudi royal family is ripe to be overthrown  by militant, anti-American religious zealots.

The Saudi government has appeased these zealots by encouraging them to go wage jihads in foreign lands.  The best result, from the Saudi perspective, is that they die fighting and never come home.  The next best result is that their identities are known and they can be tracked.

Chayes and de Waal wrote that discontent in Saudi Arabia comes not only from Sunni  zealots who hate the Saudi royal family’s luxury and corruption.  It also comes from the Shia minority who live mainly in the oil-producing Persian Gulf region, from migrant workers without rights and from educated Saudi Arabs who want to live in the modern world.

The two writers say there are several ways in which the Saudi monarchy could fail.  One is conflicts within the royal family itself.  Another is defeat in war.  The proxy conflicts with Iran in Syria and Yemen could escalate into direct conflict with Iran, and if the US steps in on the side of the Saudis, the Russians might step in on the side of the Iranians.

Or the Saudi monarchy could be overthrown, either by a peaceful Arab Spring-type protest or a violent jihadist uprising.  As with Iran in 1979, the U.S. government would have to choose between standing aside or helping the Saudi government wage war on its own people.

I don’t see any obvious way out.  Ideally Washington should lower its commitments in the Middle East and adopt a more impartial attitude toward warring factions.  This would result in setbacks that would be worthwhile in the long run, but hard to accept.

I don’t like the phrase, “on the wrong side of history,” but the United States is on the wrong side of history in Saudi Arabia.


Washington Should Prepare for Saudi Arabia’s Collapse by Sarah Chayes and Alex de Waal for The Atlantic.

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