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News analysis

Saudi turmoil adds to explosive mix

Trouble brewing with royal family strife, regional geopolitical changes

It is a crisis almost a year in the making. The pot began simmering last January with the ascension to the throne of King Salman bin Abdulaziz. Since then, one explosive ingredient after another has been added into the mix.

By the time the pot finally boiled over last weekend with the decision to execute Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, it caught few observers by surprise. Many had already identified Saudi Arabia as a likely hot spot in the new year.

A recent Eurasia Group report on the top 10 risks for this year put an increasingly isolated and aggressive Saudi Arabia on the list, warning that the kingdom would "double down on protecting its interests".

"Even a shooting war with Iran is possible in extremis; the kingdom will push back wherever it views Teheran to be gaining an advantage. More generally, expect an isolated and domestically weaker kingdom to lash out in new ways," it said.

 
 
 

A major part of the problem is the internal strife in the Saudi royal family. A few months after he ascended the throne, King Salman surprised everyone by reshuffling the pack for succession.

EMERGING RISK

Even a shooting war with Iran is possible in extremis; the kingdom will push back wherever it views Teheran to be gaining an advantage. More generally, expect an isolated and domestically weaker kingdom to lash out in new ways.

A EURASIA GROUP REPORT, on the top 10 risks for this year

He sacked his half-brother Muqrin bin Abdulaziz - the next in line for the throne - and made his nephew Muhammad bin Nayef the new crown prince. He then made his son Muhammad bin Salman No. 2.

The move was seen by the Saudi public as an attempt by King Salman to consolidate power around a single family line.

"There is intense speculation that Salman made this change because Muhammad bin Nayef has no sons of his own (only two daughters), which means that Muhammad bin Salman - who some sources say is not yet 30 - will have a better chance of one day succeeding to the throne," Mr Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in a recent essay on the think-tank's website.

The turmoil - which has involved open bickering the likes of which were unheard of under previous leader King Abdullah - has led to some insecurity within the ruling regime, say observers.

The insecurity has only been compounded by the geopolitical changes in the region over the past year.

Low oil prices have weakened the Saudi economy, and the government recently had to slash subsidies. Domestic oil prices shot up 40 per cent in the kingdom.

Elsewhere, Riyadh's primary geopolitical foe, Iran, was strengthening. The battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria was giving it increasing influence in the region, and a landmark nuclear deal looked set to provide Teheran with a big financial boost.

Given America's role in the deal, the Saudis also became increasingly uncertain about their long special relationship with the United States.

The insecurity likely led to the execution of Nimr, said a report from The Soufan Group, a strategic security intelligence firm, as it warned that worse might follow if calmer heads do not prevail.

"If the execution of Sheikh Nimr is intended to take the minds of Saudi's Sunni population off the recent 40 per cent price increase in petrol and point the finger at an external enemy as the cause of current economic woes, it may not be enough," it said.

"To pursue that line of exculpation, the Saudi royal family will have to continue to escalate its rhetoric and action against Iran."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 06, 2016, with the headline 'Saudi turmoil adds to explosive mix'. Print Edition | Subscribe