However, I’ve seen an assessment that looks right to me. It holds that Saudi Arabia is facing existential threats on at least two fronts: (1) economically, because of the global oil situation (not least American fracking) and a large youth cohort (more than 50 percent under age 25) that demands change; and (2) physically, because of the expanding dominance of a nuclearizing Iran that is surrounding the Arabian Peninsula with proxies, after having bisected the Middle East with a land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea.
The actions of the new crown prince, 32-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, should be viewed in this context. Certainly, they seem like a response to that large youth cohort that demands change.
David Gardner, writing in the Financial Times, sees it this way. He notes that the round-up of leading figures in the kingdom’s political and business elite — including 11 princes and more than three dozen current and former ministers — came only hours after King Salman set up an anti-corruption commission with wide powers headed by the 32-year-old crown prince. According to Gardner, the crown prince “seeks to embody the pent-up aspirations of a people two-thirds of whom are under 30.”
The threat to the Saudis posed by changes in the global oil situation is suggested by this report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration that OPEC lost $76 billion in 2016 due to low oil prices caused by rising U.S. oil production. That was 15 percent lower than the $509 billion the cartel earned in 2015, and the lowest earnings posted by OPEC since 2004.
Mark Lagon of the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University views the Crown Prince’s reforms as an attempt to “prepare Saudi Arabia for a post-petroleum order, in theory by unlocking competitiveness and creativity.” A tall order, I should think.
For a discussion of Iran’s drive to complete the “land bridge” from Tehran to the Mediterranean, and how it’s affecting the Saudis and others in the region, see this article by retired naval intelligence officer J.E. Dyer.