The United States has always believed Saudi Arabia is a stable security partner in the Middle East, but this belief may need to be reevaluated. Saudi Arabia is regarded as a vital partner for the United States in counterterrorism efforts, but the increasing number of domestic problems the monarchy is facing can no longer be ignored. The United States must reevaluate its current relationship with the monarchy and push for political reform within the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia currently faces several domestic problems, worsened by the ongoing low price of oil. Oil exports finance the Saudi economy, government, and social structure, but tension with Iran, other expanding oil producers, and the push for clean energy have led the Saudis to stall any agreement to cut production and raise oil prices. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has announced a new plan to diversify revenues away from oil, but there are significant challenges in diversifying the economy in a time of lower oil prices along with rising food, energy, education, and infrastructure costs as well as growing public discontent with the royal family. These issues could threaten the long-term stability of the Kingdom and possibly provide a vacuum for extremist groups, who view the monarchy as an enemy occupier. This uncertain future for Saudi Arabia may not bode well for its alliance with the United States.
With the fall in oil prices, the social contract that is the foundation of Saudi Arabia is less secure. This social contract has provided political stability, but as revenues fall, the monarchy is less able to maintain the current order. The regime has been forced to cut government employee bonuses and salaries. Since the majority of Saudis are employed in the public sector, any change to their salaries could shake confidence in the regime. Saudi Arabia also has high unemployment due to a large youth bulge, and underemployment, exacerbated by a growing, over-educated workforce. Most Saudis receive a free education from the monarchy and many refuse to work in low paying jobs or in industries traditionally looked down upon such as tourism.
The government has also cut subsidies on basic goods like electricity, water, and oil. These cuts are occurring at a time when the Saudi population is growing rapidly. According to World Bank estimates, the Saudi population grew by over 25% from 2005 to 2015 and the youth bulge, along with immigration, will only increase population growth over the next 15 years. A growing population will require greater investment from the Kingdom’s coffers, and if the Saudi ruling family is unable to meet these costs, the population could begin to demand change. It is in the interests of the United States and the Saudi monarchy to begin discussing political change now to provide a constructive avenue for the people to work with the monarchy instead of forging a violent path against the monarchy.
Short-term financial reforms could stabilize the Saudi regime, but there will also need to be long-term social changes. Aside from the monarchy, the most powerful group in Saudi Arabia is the religious establishment. If the United States does not help open political space in the Kingdom, the Saudi royal family could go the other way and give more authority to the clerics to maintain stability. Saudi clerics have funded the spread of Wahhabi beliefs across the Middle East and Asia, and even pressured the government to contribute to its spread for decades.
If the Saudi social contract becomes unstable, the United States could witness a political vacuum or an increase in conservative forces within the Kingdom that could be hostile to the United States. Saudi Arabia is also a key security and geopolitical ally for the United States and instability could threaten the two countries’ mutual security, geopolitical, and economic efforts. The United States does not have to push the monarchy for full democratic reform, but it must work with Saudi Arabia to provide some meaningful political change. Without reforms, extremist clerics, the most established institution in the Kingdom, could increasingly define political spaces outside of the monarchy.
The United States needs to refocus its goals regarding Saudi Arabia from ‘monarchy first’ to ‘stability first.’ There is no guarantee that the monarchy will be able to maintain stability in the future if the social contract deteriorates further. Greater political reforms can grant more influence and power to moderate voices, challenge the political power of conservative clerics, and fortify the monarchy in the future. The United States should use its influence in Saudi Arabia and continue to spread its ideals of democracy and peace to both countries’ benefit.
Jacob Kennedy is pursuing his M.A. in Middle East Studies at George Washington University. He holds two Bachelor of Arts degrees in International Affairs and Economics from Marquette University in Wisconsin. He currently works in the Department of Justice and has previously interned in the Policy Planning Office of the Department of State.