Arabian Knights.

For a long time, Saudi Arabia has been a gerontocracy. Ibn Saud chased out the Hashemites in the 1920s[1], and set up the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. His many sons then took turns inheriting the throne. In early 2015, a new king took the throne in Saudi Arabia. King Salman, is 80 years old. He appointed his own son. Mohammed bin Salman al Saud as defense minister and deputy crown prince. The king also gave the prince authority over economic and oil policy. Basically, Prince Mohammed is the heir-designate. He’s 30 years old; a homey rather than a “Westerner”; and a hard-case.

It’s easy to see why the Saudis rulers might be sweating through the old burnoose. Like many other developing countries, they have a huge youth population. Just over half of the population is 25 years old or younger. Unlike other developing countries, Saudi Arabia has little chance of providing them with work. Saudi Arabia earns most of its income from oil. It has used that revenue to buy off domestic dissent and to sponsor the world-wide evangelism of Wahhabist Islam. Basically, 18 million Saudis do no work, while 9 million immigrants do all the real work. Most Saudis who “work” are in a laughable public sector.[2] Saudis get free health care and education.[3] Recently, the price of oil has gone through the floor (from $115/barrel to $35/barrel) and will drop some more when Iran comes back on-line. That has been driving down Saudi income—and the buying-off of dissent and the evangelism of Wahhabism. Its great cross-Gulf rival,[4] Iran, has escaped from economic sanctions by cutting an Emmental deal with the West on nuclear weapons. Its chief ally, the United States, isn’t in much of a mood to fight anyone for the moment, especially in the Middle East. WTF to do?

Well, one answer would be to go into a defensive crouch.[5] Saudi Arabia certainly has done that.[6] On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is also punching back hard against the “Iranian threat.” Money for weapons and other supplies has poured in to support anti-Assad forces in Syria. The Saudis have deployed (American supplied) air power against Houthis in Yemen. Thus, it is possible to see the prince as favoring a forward policy in the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war now underway. The opposition to Assad certainly falls in that category, but Yemen offers an example of Saudi Arabia deploying its own forces, rather than merely providing support.[7]

Another answer would be to reform the system. Crown Prince Mohammed has promised “market-based” reforms. The crown prince has promised an insurance-based health-care system (“MohammedCare”) and a partial privatization of education. In short, the Saudis will have to start working. That rule may be applied to the living-large royal family as well. None of that is likely to go over well with people who are used to not working for a living. Saudi Arabia is the next ticking time-bomb in American foreign policy.

[1] The Hashemites ended up with Iraq and Jordan as consolation prizes. Then the king of Iraq got overthrown and murdered by revolutionaries who included Saddam Hussein. So, the king of Jordan hated the ruler of Iraq and the ruler of Saudi Arabia. However, the ruler of Iraq also hated the king of Saudi Arabia. So, that’s concerning.

[2] Even so, about one-fifth of people are “poor.” By Saudi Arabian standards. Like most of the 9/11 suicide bombers.

[3] Bernie Sanders take note. The goose doesn’t always lay golden eggs.

[4] The rivalry is more intense than Ohio State-Michigan. Still, there might be something to be said for making Urban Meyer or Jim Harbaugh a Field Marshall. Although Lou Saban would be the safe bet.

[5] Corporate public relations people generally advise against this. Saudi Arabia has a Tylenol problem, but isn’t acting as Tylenol did. Probably a funny movie in this idea.

[6][6] A blogger urged liberalization and tolerance. He got flogged. His lawyers didn’t get flogged, but they did get jail for defending him. His wife tweeted about his arrest and she got jailed, although she didn’t get flogged.

[7] Alison Smale, “Germany Rebukes Its Own Agency for Criticizing Saudi Policy,” NYT, 4 December 2015.

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