Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
Asked who to favour when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was fighting revolutionary Iran, Henry Kissinger famously remarked: “a pity they can’t both lose.” In the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is Saudi that is in trouble, largely of its own making.
One imagines the following exchange at a Saudi prison. “We’ve got 47 people, what should we do with them, sir?”
“Don’t know. Ask the Brits?”
“They’re not here any more.”
“They got upset when we planned to flog one of them.”
“Oh. Well just execute them all then.”
“Even Nimr al-Nimr?”
“But won’t we create another martyr?”
“They already have loads. What difference will another make?”
“It didn’t work very well with James Connolly.”
“Like al-Nimr, but Irish.”
“There are Shia in Ireland? Those heretics get everywhere.”
“Up to a point, sir”
Sheikh Al-Nimr of course, knew what he had coming to him. Saudi Arabia does not take dissidence, particularly Shia dissidence, kindly (the kingdom’s chairmanship of the UN Human Rights Council shouldn’t be mistaken for any actual commitment to human rights).
Tehran responded by storming the Saudi embassy, that specific measure in the Islamic Republic’s protocol, perhaps a notch above officially summoning the offending state’s ambassador. One wonders if they will get around to renaming the street on which it stands after the executed al-Nimr, just as the British embassy suddenly found itself on Bobby Sands Avenue. There is even a fast-food take away down the road, named after the hunger striker, but the Iran Tourist Board have not thought to market it in Belfast’s Shankhill Road as a purveyor of chicken suppers.
Rather more serious are the proxy wars in Yemen and Syria, into which the very young new deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has energetically been throwing his country’s diminishing resources. Lavishly equipped but indifferent Saudi troops have been making cruel and hard work of suppressing equally brutal Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Close to 3,000 civilians have been killed by both sides since the intervention began last year without obvious military return. Syria’s war drags on, draining both Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s money. Meanwhile, Riyadh props up Egypt to the tune of $8 billion a year.
Saudi is not, however, as flush as it used to be. Its decision to keep oil production high, and therefore prices down, in order to try and kill of the US fracking industry coincided with the slump in energy demand in emerging markets. It has begun to cut spending, issue bonds, and there are plans to introduce new taxes. The deputy Crown Prince is in a hurry. He intends (or has at least told The Economist he intends) to impose swift and radical economic reform. Subsidies are being slashed; the public sector, which like in all oil states functions rather more as a way to distribute patronage and funds and less as a provider of public services, is to be slimmed down dramatically. It even seems that a stake in Aramco, the nationalised oil company, will be put up for sale. Why anyone would want to buy shares in this completely untransparent firm, which owns – among other things unrelated to oil – a set of football stadiums, and is attached to a state in which the size of the royal budget is an official secret, when oil prices are at rock bottom is a good question. It suggests the state is rather more desperate for cash than it is willing to let on.
An octogenarian king, an ambitious young prince given unprecedented powers by his father, determined to simultaneously pursue an aggressive and expensive foreign policy, implement swingeing spending cuts in a country where people are used to receive its largesse (electricity is so cheap that outdoor air conditioners are allegedly common), instantly turn the formerly feather-bedded employees into productive citizens in the non-oil sector, and impose taxation without even a hint at representation. All while a revolutionary movement that preaches and practices the values that the Saudi elite inculcates in the common people but is known to flout remains strong just across the border in Syria and Iraq. Wise and rich rulers might just about manage to negotiate the mess; but the effective ruler is green and the money’s running out. What could possibly go wrong?