The bubble of Saudi vanity is about to burst. Dipping oil prices have sucked the vitality out of Saudi Arabia’s economy. The Kingdom’s budget has moved into huge deficit. The US Legislature is pushing a law to arraign the Kingdom before a court, as an accused in the 9/11 terrorist attack case. The name of the Custodian of the two Holy Harams has appeared in the Panama list of monarchs, politicians and heads of state who stashed their illicit billions abroad. The United States is no longer interested in keeping the Kingdom in its favoured circle of friends. Having discovered its own deposits of shale oil, the US need not look beyond its borders for energy security. For the last two years, nothing has gone in favour of the repressive regime that seeks legitimacy in the name of religion in the Islamic world, which it owes due to its administration of the Holy Cities of Islam.
Iran has emerged stronger in the Middle East after the nuclear deal with the West. Thirty years of sanctions have made it only resilient and capable of absorbing worst kinds of economic and diplomatic shocks. The US is convinced of the tenacity of the Iranian regime which refused to buckle under the pressure. Now it is courting it in order to stabilise Iraq, yet another Shia (though Arabic speaking) nation. It is also conscious of the leeway Iran has in Syria where a Shia sect has been the ruling family during the last 60 years. Iran is the major regional power of the Middle East what with eight-crore educated, technically skilled population and a thriving democracy (though the West has only a grudging acceptance of it). It also wields immense influence in the Central Asian republics which broke away from the Soviet Union after the end of the Cold War in 1991.
The Saudi regime is run by a clique of nearly 10,000 princes and princelings (all networked with royal lineage and patronage). Brooking no dissent, it has shown extreme repugnance to all kinds of new, modern, humane and democratic norms. Yet to have even a Constitution of itself, it flaunts its control of the two Holy Harams as the ultimate proof of its legitimacy. Having failed in its bid to co-opt Pakistan into its military mission against Yemen, the Saudi regime is now desperately trying to drum up support in the Sunni world by sending figures attached to the Holy Harams.
It is time the Saudis recognize their limitations in the world polity. Money and control of the holy cities cannot buy everything for them. The churning volcano of internal dissent and turmoil may burst any time. Dependence on huge expat workforce, failure to develop basic institutions of governance (a civil service cadre, independent judiciary and a civil society) have made them vulnerable to anarchy. The ruling Saudi clique is itself responsible for its plight. They will find themselves lonely, with no quarter for support.