Too much happened in the Middle East during 2015. What was the most important and far-reaching event? At year’s end, there seemed to be several possible answers: the rise of the Islamic State group, the nuclear deal with Iran, or Russia’s entry in the Syrian civil war.
Just a few weeks into 2016, all those answers sound wrong. Now it seems clear that the most profound and possibly frightening change in the region last year was the death of the long-ruling king of Saudi Arabia and the emergence of an adventurist new regime in Riyadh.
King Salman came to the Saudi throne a year ago, upon the death of his predecessor. He named his 30-year-old son, Prince Mohammad bin Salman, as defense minister — the world’s youngest. The lightly experienced son is also deputy crown prince, chief of the royal court, and overseer of economic policy. He may succeed his father, who is 80.
The year since King Salman and his powerful son took over has been a wild one for Saudi Arabia. Past Saudi leaders prized stability above all. That conservatism has been thrown to the shamal, the wild wind that rips across Saudi deserts. In its place has come an aggressive activism that may radically reshape the kingdom and the region around it.
Fear drives Saudi Arabia’s new militancy. Part of its challenge is domestic. The extremist terror epitomized by the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS has its roots in Saudi Arabia. That terror, inevitably, has begun erupting inside the kingdom itself. Yet because the regime relies for its legitimacy on the blessing of militant clerics, any crackdown can be only half-hearted.
Even more alarming to the Saudis is what they see in their neighborhood. The state system that shaped the Middle East for generations is collapsing. Iran, which the Saudi regime sees as its main enemy, is emerging from decades of isolation. Previous Saudi leaders might have sought to calm these crises, but the impetuous new defense minister has reacted violently. At his direction, Saudi forces have become directly involved in the Syrian war. They have also launched a large-scale bombing campaign against factions in neighboring Yemen that they believe are in league with Iran. According to United Nations reports, this campaign includes “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilians and has plunged Yemen into “humanitarian catastrophe.”
To reassure the Saudis that we are still on their side, the United States recently approved a billion-dollar deal to provide them with 19,000 smart bombs to replace those dropped on Yemen. It was not enough. Saudi leaders appear convinced that the United States is no longer their friend and could soon abandon them to embrace Iran. That is highly exaggerated, but believing it adds to the fear that drives Saudi Arabia’s new aggressiveness.
Plunging recklessly into wars of choice, directly confronting Iran, and scorning the United States — King Salman refused to attend a summit President Obama called in May — are steps previous Saudi leaders would not have taken. The new regime’s approach to the Middle East is, as the German intelligence service recently concluded, “an impulsive policy of intervention.”
All of this comes against a backdrop of sharply falling prices for oil, the commodity that has kept Saudi Arabia rich since its founding 83 years ago. Military adventures like the one in Yemen not only stoke anti-Saudi anger but are also costly. So are cash payments that the government hands out to citizens — and that it cannot cut without risking unrest. During 2015, Saudi Arabia’s foreign reserves dropped from $728 billion to $640 billion. That pace is not sustainable.
Two bloody episodes in recent months intensified anti-Saudi sentiment. In October, a stampede at the hajj, when Muslims from around the world converge on Mecca to worship, took more than 2,000 lives. Then, last month, the government carried out one of its periodic mass beheadings, and among the victims was a fiery Shi’ite cleric. That set off explosions of protest in Shi’ite communities across the region.
Saudi Arabia is behaving like a cornered boxer, a frightened power lashing out at perceived enemies in ways it never did before. The prudent restraint that was long its trademark evaporated in 2015. In a year when much changed in the Middle East, this may prove to have been the biggest change of all.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.