Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

The Costly Blunders of Saudi Arabia's Anxiety-Ridden Monarchy

Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

The Costly Blunders of Saudi Arabia's Anxiety-Ridden Monarchy

Article excerpt

"Fragile" is the word that journalist Karen Elliott House used to describe Saudi Arabia in her 2012 book about the country. "Observing Saudi Arabia is like watching a gymnast dismount the balance beam in slow motion," she wrote. The world holds its breath wondering if the Saudis "will nail the landing or crash to the mat."

Earlier this month, the House of Saud seemed to have lost its footing. The kingdom's fear of a rising Iran led it to execute a dissident Shiite cleric, triggering riots in Iran, a break in diplomatic relations and a sharp escalation in the sectarian feud that is ravaging the Middle East.

What led Saudi Arabia to take these risky actions, and what U.S. policies might reduce the danger that the Middle East mess will get even worse? You can't answer these questions without examining the Saudis' insecurity, which has led them to make bad choices.

Saudi Arabia is a frightened monarchy. It's beset by Sunni extremists from the Islamic State and Shiite extremists backed by Iran. It's bogged down in a costly and unsuccessful war in Yemen. And it mistrusts its superpower patron and protector, the United States, in part because of America's role in brokering the nuclear deal that ended Iran's isolation.

Compounding Saudi Arabia's problem is its internal ferment. King Salman's ambitious son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 30, has devised a plan for modernization and economic growth, with input from McKinsey & Co. and other global consultants. The plan makes all the right recommendations: boost private enterprise; diversify the economy away from dependence on oil exports; reduce the stultifying role of the Saudi state. But these reforms would challenge powerful senior princes and disrupt a society that is resistant to change.

A defensive, anxious Saudi leadership tried to show its resolve with the execution of 47 extremists. …

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