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Karsten Riise

Master of Science (Econ) from Copenhagen Business School, University degree in Spanish Culture and Languages from University of Copenhagen

Column: Middle East Policy

The list of Saudi Arabia’s strong points to become a global Great Power is long.

A fantastic combination of money — oil — seat of 2 holy places — center of a world religion — long-term stability when you study the record — a very functionable state. Also, a sizeable and fast growing population for the labor market and the armed forces. Control over international Arab media empires, and a huge group of wealthy, successful and internationally active business people. Very high education level, both men and women. Very comprehensive and well-functioning infrastructure. A strategic location to the Suez and Hormuz — an enormous military force with more combat aircrafts than any of its neighbors, Israel included. More modern combat aircraft than the two world powers France and the UK together. A strategic connection to the nuclear weapon-program of Pakistan, which might enable the country to extremely quickly acquire its own nuclear strike-force. A possible transfer of nukes from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia within hours, has been mentioned by some experts, which, if true, will mean that Saudi Arabia may nearly be a de-facto nuclear military power.

Saudi Arabia is leader of a very strong Arab response force and is the economic patron to Egypt, another country with a large military, strategic location at the Suez, even close to Europe, and symbolic power via cultural assets. Saudi Arabia enjoys special strong relations with the USA, the biggest military power in the world, and is a close friend of nuclear armed Israel, the other great power in the region. A lot of zealous fighters are willing to die in foreign places. A proxy-war by these religious, international groups of fighters for influence into Syria, did (before Russia’s intervention) at some moment promise a big increase northwards in Saudi Arabia’s zone of power and influence. The main rival, Iran, only has a small and old-fashioned air force, and is constantly targeted by the USA and Israel. Control of uncountable well-funded organizations for charity, religion and culture span a truly international and powerful network of Saudi Arabian influence all around the globe. Students go all over the world to study, creating good networks in all rich countries they go to.

Seldom has a country had so many assets to build a globally forceful role of power, even though this was seldom discussed publicly.

That was why, some time ago, I started taking a close interest in Saudi Arabia. And many futures now indeed seem possible — except the scenarios of an ascending global great power, which I started out to study in the first place. Today, you just have to open the newspapers, to see how fast and immensely the country’s problems have been growing in less than two years.


The list of Saudi Arabia’s strong points to become a global Great Power is long.

A fantastic combination of money — oil — seat of 2 holy places — center of a world religion — long-term stability when you study the record — a very functionable state. Also, a sizeable and fast growing population for the labor market and the armed forces. Control over international Arab media empires, and a huge group of wealthy, successful and internationally active business people. Very high education level, both men and women. Very comprehensive and well-functioning infrastructure. A strategic location to the Suez and Hormuz — an enormous military force with more combat aircrafts than any of its neighbors, Israel included. More modern combat aircraft than the two world powers France and the UK together. A strategic connection to the nuclear weapon-program of Pakistan, which might enable the country to extremely quickly acquire its own nuclear strike-force. A possible transfer of nukes from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia within hours, has been mentioned by some experts, which, if true, will mean that Saudi Arabia may nearly be a de-facto nuclear military power.

Ernesto Gallo, Giovanni Biava:
What Future for the Middle East?

Saudi Arabia is leader of a very strong Arab response force and is the economic patron to Egypt, another country with a large military, strategic location at the Suez, even close to Europe, and symbolic power via cultural assets. Saudi Arabia enjoys special strong relations with the USA, the biggest military power in the world, and is a close friend of nuclear armed Israel, the other great power in the region. A lot of zealous fighters are willing to die in foreign places. A proxy-war by these religious, international groups of fighters for influence into Syria, did (before Russia’s intervention) at some moment promise a big increase northwards in Saudi Arabia’s zone of power and influence. The main rival, Iran, only has a small and old-fashioned air force, and is constantly targeted by the USA and Israel. Control of uncountable well-funded organizations for charity, religion and culture span a truly international and powerful network of Saudi Arabian influence all around the globe. Students go all over the world to study, creating good networks in all rich countries they go to.

Seldom has a country had so many assets to build a globally forceful role of power, even though this was seldom discussed publicly.

That was why, some time ago, I started taking a close interest in Saudi Arabia. And many futures now indeed seem possible — except the scenarios of an ascending global great power, which I started out to study in the first place. Today, you just have to open the newspapers, to see how fast and immensely the country’s problems have been growing in less than two years.

Historic knowledge applied

A sense of power’s legitimacy among a ‘critical mass’ of societal power-bearers is important. Either among a ruling class, or from an elevated much larger class of less powerful. This always was the case. For kingdoms, dictatorships, one-party states and democracies.

Looking at historic parallels, I should make the hypothesis, that the ruling dynastic family up till today has played a comparable steering role like the “party” has historically done and still does in single-party systems.

A ruler or top-leader who alienates himself/herself from nearly all of a ruling dynastic family, inherently maneuvers himself/herself to a potentially much more insecure situation. Unlike a one-party state, where the leader over a few years can (perhaps even ruthlessly) create a new loyal cadre of young party-members at the bottom and promote these up, in a ruling family, the ruler basically has a hard time to change the members, even by some degree of redefinition, because a ruling dynasty is defined by birth. In a big ruling family, a clever ruler can play divide and rule, if he/she cleverly promotes one or two family factions at the expense of the others. But the ruler can experience a very difficult situation, if he/she creates deep hostility or even hate from nearly all family factions by demoting them all at the same time.

Remembering the renaissance theories, the ruler should generally avoid creating widespread hate against his/her person — especially not if such hate emanates from powerful circles or from wide layers of society which the ruler cannot securely neutralize (or buy off). Existence of hate may induce somebody to take large risks (and strain) to get rid of the ruler, this is what happened for King Faisal. Continuing the renaissance theories, if the ruler stirs up hate against his/her own person, one fundamental rule hence becomes even more imperative, namely that the ruler instills even more fear into all.

This brings up the old dilemma: Whom can the ruler trust with means of coercion, to on his/her behalf instill enough fear in the others? Normally, this is where a family or party would be important for the ruler as a powerbase. Previously, rule in the country happened with consensual support from the big family, and family support now seems to have become very-very narrow. A skillful ruler alienated from the traditional power-base may succeed from scratch to create a totally new circle of allegiance consisting of fresh people taken in from outside the big family, who will owe their success to him/her alone. This will of course create even more resentment among all the many who have been discarded, who lose their privileges, and who though personally discarded may still retain potentially undermining personal relations into influence/power. Such a road will therefore require thought and successful political craftsmanship. Charismatic rulers have the option of appealing to the people and get the masses behind them, like for example Abdel Nasser could. But the option of ruling by charisma, however, is only possible, if the ruler personally possesses this extraordinary skill.

It could be hypothesized that any strategy will probably require that the ruler can somehow create some believable and general visions of positive perspectives to legitimize his process in the wider society, to make up for those who personally experience a decline. Which brings us on to the next point.

Economy and sense of cultural-religious progress

Perspectives of economic or social (even religious) improvement are important. Especially, of course, if the rest of the world progresses. Such perspectives do not have to be immediately successful, so long as broad segments of society can keep a basic belief in the positive prospects, even in spite of the need to overcome substantial obstacles. But if broad segments of society early or late on feel a collapse in their confidence in the general prospects, then the ruler really has a problem. A deep sense of religious or ideological purpose may go a long way to replace lack of social improvement. But seldom for very-very long; otherwise, a feeling may have to be created that the country is besieged (wars sometimes are created to serve that purpose).

In the society in question, there is a need for a rather fundamental reconfiguration of the economy. The rent from oil gained to state, élite and society is under long-term market-perspectives simply not enough to sustain the economy. Private or state-led business must therefore blossom to sufficiently supplement the rent from natural resources. In China we have seen private business foreign and indigenous make the day. In Russia we see that indigenous state-led big business units like Rosatom and Rostec can also be successful drivers in this role.

But reviving business other than in the oil sector is more than difficult, if the national business élite has been thoroughly alienated, shaken and discouraged, and rather large numbers of these maybe just want to get away, trying to take with them most of their wealth. And if nearly all private foreign business partners are shocked and horrified, and rich partner-states alienated, nobody will go there and invest in glittering projects like the Neom new city, planned close to Israel and Egypt. And if the state in question itself has not a surplus of competence to run private industry or services, and if even important expats should get anxious to leave, and cannot be replaced in sufficient numbers with equally competent locals, the economy may easily and quickly run into a deep and persistent depression — or collapse, if too many key-groups start running for the exit.

There can suddenly be little chance even in medium-term, to create any optimistic segments in society to counter-balance all those who lost confidence, wealth and privileges.

The Predatory Régime possibility

This can lead to a point, where the ruler can only run the country by creating a new class on top of everyone in society, which installs an unprecedented level of fear and control to get richer themselves while the sum-total of people gets poorer. This has worked “well” for immensely long time in some geographic areas, for instance in Central America. But the transition to such a predatory “system” is very risky, especially when so very many in the population have experienced something so much more delightful with generous state-handouts.

The survival of the system and the ruler rests dependent upon an external superpower, which may be thoroughly alienated by extreme actions to stay in power. Thus, a predatory road of unprecedented violence and control will easily lead to self-defeat.

Also, in the society there are immensely strong and religiously supported views about the leader’s right role. Within these limits, the ruler can do very-very much — but not anything. And in supporting a newly created smaller ruling class, only held together by extraction and coercion in an environment of increasing fear and declining general life-quality, the red lines of these views may be crossed thoroughly.

Possible Outcomes of Internal and external Pressures

So internal and external pressures may arise and combine in ways which the ruler suddenly has not the room for maneuver and means to manage. The exact variations how this may play out can contain a number of elements, from palace coup, assassination, military take-over, clashes between different branches of the military, to an “Iran-style” religious revolution with military-religious keypersons, just to name a few.

Though clashes between competing parts of the military might arise during a crisis of power, a long civil war like in Syria seems unlikely, because the military is so strong. A peaceful intellectual revolution, like we saw in Cairo on the Tahrir Square, also seems out of the question, because the business-élite is rather effectively side-lined, and Saudi Arabia does not have a wider influential liberal-intellectual layer, like Egypt has.

In all relevant scenarios the ruler may end up by being replaced by a new system which in its nature basically can go in one or the other of two general directions: (1) Either accommodate to external (superpower) pressures, like Egypt ended up with after the Tahrir Square demonstrations — or (2) to internal (religious-popular-even élite) pressures. Religion is a forceful factor in all cases. In the first case, religious circles may be strongly be against perceptions of external control by the USA. In the second case, religious authority will be pivotal to create and uphold a whole new political system.

Either way, the military — whoever runs its apparatus - will be extremely pivotal.

Replacing most of the top-ranks of the military may in the present circumstances not even be a safeguard for the ruler — it may even be a risk.

What will the USA do now?

The USA cannot just sit waiting to lose such an old and important ally. A strategic country, which cooperated with US oil companies already before World War II, and which has been under US protection since President Roosevelt met King Ibn Saud, the country’s founder, in 1945.

The standard option for the USA will be to strengthen the existing regime. Something, which the USA already has done, and the unsuccessful consequences of this are what we see now. The other option for the USA is now becoming more likely; that the USA intervenes internally before other circles in the country take a power-initiative. First, the USA can press for a change in the line of succession. If this does not suffice, the USA can “engineer” deeper changes in the ruling structure, using assets which the USA already has in the security apparatus.

The question is open, whether the USA will act adequately, or too late and too little.


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