Saudi actions and interests have always made sense, if you see them as a narcissistic, authoritarian kleptocratic regime that will do anything to stay in power. But US actions have never made sense. We support them despite the terrorism they support, we stick with them even though they lost control over oil prices and production a long time ago. Even if we account for US bribery and corruption, it’s a lose-lose proposition for us.
At the broadest level, when the Saudis in Riyadh look at the Middle East around them, they see a region spiraling out of control. Since 2011, they have witnessed a massive increase in general instability across the region, with “the people” increasingly willing to protest or even overthrow their rulers. The complacency and popular “inertness” that categorized the Arab populations for decades is gone. That clearly worries the Sauds, the kingdom’s ruling royal family, who have always preferred a docile populace.
Civil wars are raging in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, spilling refugees, terrorists, armed militants, and powerful, radical ideas over onto their neighbors. Already, spillover from these civil wars has created nascent civil wars in Egypt and Turkey. It is eroding the stability of Lebanon, Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia, and even Kuwait. It has also created vast new opportunities for Iran to destabilize and rearrange the region to suit its own interests.
Indeed, both the civil wars and the spillover they generate have also produced a general mobilization of the Middle East’s Shiites, instigated and led by Iran. And that includes the Shiites in the Saudi kingdom. Officials in private and press reports occasionally note that hundreds of Saudi security service personnel have been killed and wounded in operations in the Eastern Province, the home to the vast majority of the kingdom’s Shiites. Americans tend not to pay attention to these operations because we see them as proof that the Saudis have things well in hand; but another way to look at it is that the Saudis are fighting pitched battles with someone in the cities of the Eastern Province. In other words, there seems to be a much higher degree of mobilization and violent confrontation among the Saudi Shiites than most realize.
Then there are Saudi fears about the oil market. Everyone seems to believe that the Saudis are purposely not cutting back production to kill off North American shale producers. But that is absolutely not what the Saudis are saying, either in private or public. Instead, they are saying that they can no longer control the oil market because there are too many other sources and all of the OPEC countries cheat like crazy whenever Riyadh tries to orchestrate a production cut. This has happened to them repeatedly over the past 20 to 30 years. They try to cut production to prevent oil prices from dropping, and the rest of OPEC takes advantage of it to pump as much as they can, contrary to what they promised and agreed to. The result is that there is no overall supply curtailment and the Saudis lose market share. This time around, they have stated that they cannot realistically control the OPEC oil supply, so they are not going to try to do so. Instead, they are going to fight for market share. But doing so means having to win a race to the bottom, with the result that their oil revenues are plummeting.