The United States has long counted on the ruling family having bottomless coffers of cash with which to rent loyalty. Even accounting for today’s low oil prices, and even as Saudi officials step up arms purchases and military adventures in Yemen and elsewhere, Riyadh is hardly running out of funds.
Still, expanded oil production in the face of such low prices—until the February 16 announcement of a Saudi-Russian output freeze at very high January levels—may reflect an urgent need for revenue as well as other strategic imperatives. Talk of a Saudi Aramco IPO similarly suggests a need for hard currency.
A political market, moreover, functions according to demand as well as supply. What if the price of loyalty rises?
It appears that is just what’s happening. King Salman had to spend lavishly to secure the allegiance of the notables who were pledged to the late King Abdullah. Here’s what played out in two other countries when this kind of inflation hit. In South Sudan, an insatiable elite not only diverted the newly minted country’s oil money to private pockets but also kept up their outsized demands when the money ran out, sparking a descent into chaos. The Somali government enjoys generous donor support, but is priced out of a very competitive political market by a host of other buyers—with ideological, security, or criminal agendas of their own.
Such comparisons may be offensive to Saudi leaders, but they are telling. If the loyalty price index keeps rising, the monarchy could face political insolvency.
Looked at another way, the Saudi ruling elite is operating something like a sophisticated criminal enterprise, when populations everywhere are making insistent demands for government accountability. With its political and business elites interwoven in a monopolistic network, quantities of unaccountable cash leaving the country for private investments and lavish purchases abroad, and state functions bent to serve these objectives, Saudi Arabia might be compared to such kleptocracies as Viktor Yanukovich’s Ukraine.
Increasingly, Saudi citizens are seeing themselves as just that: citizens, not subjects. In countries as diverse as Nigeria, Ukraine, Brazil, Moldova, and Malaysia, people are contesting criminalized government and impunity for public officials—sometimes violently. In more than half a dozen countries in 2015, populations took to the streets to protest corruption. In three of them, heads of state are either threatened or have had to resign. Elsewhere, the same grievances have contributed to the expansion of jihadist movements or criminal organizations posing as Robin Hoods. Russia and China’s external adventurism can at least partially be explained as an effort to re-channel their publics’ dissatisfaction with the quality of governance.
For the moment, it is largely Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority that is voicing political demands. But the highly educated Sunni majority, with unprecedented exposure to the outside world, is unlikely to stay satisfied forever with a few favors doled out by geriatric rulers impervious to their input. And then there are the “guest workers.” Saudi officials, like those in other Gulf states, seem to think they can exploit an infinite supply of indigents grateful to work, whatever the conditions. But citizens are now heavily outnumbered in their own countries by laborers who may soon begin claiming rights.