Excerpt of article originally published under the title "Saudi Arabia Stews in Policy Hell."
Last week's mass executions in Saudi Arabia suggest panic at the highest level of the monarchy. The action is without precedent, even by the grim standards of Saudi repression. In 1980 Riyadh killed 63 jihadists who had attacked the Grand Mosque of Mecca, but that was fresh after the event. Most of the 47 prisoners shot and beheaded on Jan. 2 had sat in Saudi jails for a decade. The decision to kill the prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, the most prominent spokesman for restive Saudi Shia Muslims in Eastern Province, betrays fear of subversion with Iranian sponsorship.
Why kill them all now? It is very hard to evaluate the scale of internal threats to the Saudi monarchy, but the broader context for its concern is clear: Saudi Arabia finds itself isolated, abandoned by its longstanding American ally, at odds with China, and pressured by Russia's sudden preeminence in the region. The Saudi-backed Army of Conquest in Syria seems to be crumbling under Russian attack. The Saudi intervention in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels has gone poorly. And its Turkish ally-of-convenience is consumed by a low-level civil war. Nothing has gone right for Riyadh.
The royal family's capacity to buy popular support is eroding just as its regional security policy has fallen apart.
Worst of all, the collapse of Saudi oil revenues threatens to exhaust the kingdom's $700 billion in financial reserves within five years, according to an October estimate by the International Monetary Fund (as I discussed here). The House of Saud relies on subsidies to buy the loyalty of the vast majority of its subjects, and its reduced spending power is the biggest threat to its rule. Last week Riyadh cut subsidies for water, electricity and gasoline. The timing of the executions may be more than coincidence: the royal family's capacity to buy popular support is eroding just as its regional security policy has fallen apart.
For decades, Riyadh has presented itself as an ally of the West and a force for stability in the region, while providing financial support for Wahhabi fundamentalism around the world.
Saudi Arabia's proxies in Syria are in trouble. Early in 2015, the Army of Conquest (Jaish al-Fateh), a coalition of al-Qaida and other Sunni Islamists backed by the Saudis, Turks and Qataris, had driven the Syrian army out of several key positions in Northwest Syria, threatening the Assad regime's core Alawite heartland. The coalition began breaking up in November, however, and the Syrian Army recently retook several villages it had lost to the Army of Conquest. One of the Army of Conquest's constituent militias, Failaq al-Sham, announced Jan. 3 that it was leaving the coalition to defend Aleppo against regime forces reinforced by Russia.
The West may not be able to keep the House of Saud in power whether it wants to or not.
Everything seems to have gone wrong at once for Riyadh. The only consolation the monarchy has under the circumstances is that its nemesis Iran also is suffering from the collapse of oil revenues and the attrition of war. Iran began withdrawing its Revolutionary Guard forces from Syria in December, largely due to high casualties. The high cost of maintaining the war effort as Iran's finances implode also may have been a factor. Iran's Lebanese Shia proxy, Hezbollah, has suffered extremely high casualties, virtually neutralizing its whole first echelon of combat troops. And Russia has shown no interest in interfering with Israeli air strikes against Hezbollah.
The oil price collapse turns the competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran into a race to the bottom. But the monarchy's panicked response to its many setbacks of the past several months raises a difficult question.
In the past, the West did what it could to prop up the Saudi royal family as a pillar of stability in the region, despite the Saudis' support for jihadi terrorism. Soon the West may not be able to keep the House of Saud in power whether it wants to or not.
David P. Goldman is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research and the Wax Family Fellow at the Middle East Forum.