The country the West can’t lose

Violent protests in Saudi Arabia could transform the storm sweeping through the Arab world into a global crisis.

March 15, 2011 23:07
3 minute read.
Protest in Saudi Arabia

Protest in Saudi Arabia 311 (R). (photo credit: Reuters)


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Are the falling Arab dominoes about to harm the West’s biggest strategic asset? Leaders and economists worldwide will hold their breath in the coming few weeks, as the Saudi government tries to contain demonstrations by the Shia minority in eastern Saudi Arabia.

The buds of an uprising in the kingdom were first seen toward the end of February, but have yet to really gain momentum. On the other hand, the violent protests refuse to die down, and in recent weeks Saudi King Abdullah has followed the Shi’ite demonstrations in Bahrain with concern as they threaten the Sunni regime in that country. This concern is shared by other leaders of the Gulf States. The announcement on Monday by the Gulf Cooperation Council that its members were sending troops to Bahrain, and the arrival of the Saudi military on Bahrain soil that same day demonstrates this concern.

If similar events take place in Saudi Arabia – the world’s largest oil exporter – the repercussions could exceed anything we have seen in recent months. The Shi’ite minority in Saudi Arabia will find it very difficult to topple the Saudi regime of King Abdullah, but it can create instability and cause the kingdom to focus more on its own interests, than on the vital role it plays in the global economy.

OVER THE past decade, one of the notable fronts in the struggle between Islamic extremism and the West has been the oil market. Since the great jump in oil prices at the beginning of the 21st century, Venezuela and Iran have used these prices to harm Western economies.

The Iranian president has even joked that a price of $100 a barrel is like selling an expensive liquid cheaply.

In September 2000, the Emir of Qatar travelled to Venezuela as a US emissary in an attempt to restrain the comments of President Hugo Chavez regarding the price of oil, as well as those of Iran. The rumor circulating in Qatar at the time was that the visit, which was supposed to last three days, ended after mere hours when Chavez insulted the Qatari Emir, even calling him an American agent.

Saudi Arabia is a counterweight to Chavez and Ahmadinejad. Unlike other countries, Saudi Arabia can increase global oil production and thus maintain low prices. This is what Saudi Arabia did during the Second Gulf War in 2003, and this is what it is doing now. When the crisis erupted in Libya, Saudi Arabia announced that it would increase production to nine million barrels a day.

A Shi’ite threat at home, inspired by Iran, could change the rules of the game.

King Abdullah has already announced that he will invest $37 billion to calm matters in his country; should the protests grow, the amount will grow accordingly.

The fact that the US has not been supporting moderate regimes in the Middle East over the past few months will only strengthen the feeling that the Saudi king can only rely on himself, and may cause him to jettison his concerns for stability in the price of oil. This in turn will influence Saudi internal interests, and not the king’s alliance with the West. The immediate result could be an additional sharp rise in the price of oil, which would make 2008’s financial meltdown like a walk in the park.

With this scenario in mind, it’s worth understanding the latest US declarations that America will be satisfied with reforms in Arab countries, even if these do not fully meet the demands of those demonstrating for democracy. No US president can allow himself to lose Saudi Arabia.

The writer is chairman of the Smart Middle East Forum.

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