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Why a More Isolated Saudi Arabia Is Looking Weaker

3 minute read

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has been on the throne only since January, but the monarch is already 79 and has been ill for years. The day is coming when Saudi leadership will finally pass to a younger generation of royals–and when that happens, the next King will face a daunting set of challenges.

First is the price of oil, which has fallen below $50 per barrel. In a country where the energy sector still accounts for 80% of state budget revenue and 90% of exports, the likelihood that crude prices will remain weak is a growing concern. Given that a major demand surge from a faltering China remains unlikely, even as Iraq produces more oil and the end of sanctions means Iran will add another 1 million barrels by the end of next year, prices will stay low. With that new supply from competitors, a Saudi production cut would more likely reduce the country’s market share than the global oil price.

The new King will also have to figure out how to create jobs for the 30% of Saudis who are under the age of 15. Failure to help them will create an exodus of human talent, more social unrest–or both.

At the same time, the Middle East is becoming a more hostile place. The end of sanctions will allow Iran to spend more money on support for Saudi enemies like Syrian President Bashar Assad and Houthi rebels in Yemen. Russia’s entry into the Syria conflict makes it only more likely that Saudis will eventually have to accept Assad–whether they like it or not.

The Saudis have added physical barriers along parts of their 1,000-mile border with Yemen to minimize the risk that sectarian conflict will spill over. To guard against threats from ISIS in Iraq, they’ve constructed a combination wall and ditch that spans 600 miles. Yet Riyadh is feeling more vulnerable, not less. A number of Saudi allies, like Egypt and even some of the Gulf states, are refusing to join a Saudi-led Sunni bloc to counter Iran and its associates. All this at a time when the U.S. has become a less predictable partner.

Finally, there is the risk that King Salman’s eventual death will create a battle for succession. For now, the designated heir is 56-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. He has key tribal support and the backing of most senior princes. The ambitious deputy crown prince, 30-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, is Salman’s son, and there’s a real risk that he will contest the succession.

He would almost certainly lose the fight. But it’s also possible that if the current King lives long enough, he will eventually sideline his deputy in favor of his son. That would make a battle within the family even more likely–and more dangerous.

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