By Nafeez Ahmed at Middle East Eye
On Tuesday 22 September, Middle East Eye broke the story of a senior member of the Saudi royal family calling for a “change” in leadership to fend off the kingdom’s collapse.
In a letter circulated among Saudi princes, its author, a grandson of the late King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, blamed incumbent King Salman for creating unprecedented problems that endangered the monarchy’s continued survival.
“We will not be able to stop the draining of money, the political adolescence, and the military risks unless we change the methods of decision making, even if that implied changing the king himself,” warned the letter.
Whether or not an internal royal coup is round the corner – and informed observers think such a prospect “fanciful” – the letter’s analysis of Saudi Arabia’s dire predicament is startlingly accurate.
Like many countries in the region before it, Saudi Arabia is on the brink of a perfect storm of interconnected challenges that, if history is anything to judge by, will be the monarchy’s undoing well within the next decade.
Black gold hemorrhage
The biggest elephant in the room is oil. Saudi Arabia’s primary source of revenues, of course, is oil exports. For the last few years, the kingdom has pumped at record levels to sustain production, keeping oil prices low, undermining competing oil producers around the world who cannot afford to stay in business at such tiny profit margins, and paving the way for Saudi petro-dominance.
But Saudi Arabia’s spare capacity to pump like crazy can only last so long. A new peer-reviewed study in the Journal of Petroleum Science and Engineering anticipates that Saudi Arabia will experience a peak in its oil production, followed by inexorable decline, in 2028 – that’s just 13 years away.
This could well underestimate the extent of the problem. According to the Export Land Model (ELM) created by Texas petroleum geologist Jeffrey J Brown and Dr Sam Foucher, the key issue is not oil production alone, but the capacity to translate production into exports against rising rates of domestic consumption.
Brown and Foucher showed that the inflection point to watch out for is when an oil producer can no longer increase the quantity of oil sales abroad because of the need to meet rising domestic energy demand.
In 2008, they found that Saudi net oil exports had already begun declining as of 2006. They forecast that this trend would continue.
They were right. From 2005 to 2015, Saudi net exports have experienced an annual decline rate of 1.4 percent, within the range predicted by Brown and Foucher. A report by Citigroup recently predicted that net exports would plummet to zero in the next 15 years.
From riches to rags
This means that Saudi state revenues, 80 percent of which come from oil sales, are heading downwards, terminally.
Saudi Arabia is the region’s biggest energy consumer, domestic demand having increased by 7.5 percent over the last five years – driven largely by population growth.
The total Saudi population is estimated to grow from 29 million people today to 37 million by 2030. As demographic expansion absorbs Saudi Arabia’s energy production, the next decade is therefore likely to see the country’s oil exporting capacity ever more constrained.
Renewable energy is one avenue which Saudi Arabia has tried to invest in to wean domestic demand off oil dependence, hoping to free up capacity for oil sales abroad, thus maintaining revenues.
But earlier this year, the strain on the kingdom’s finances began to show when it announced an eight-year delay to its $109 billion solar programme, which was supposed to produce a third of the nation’s electricity by 2032.
State revenues also have been hit through blowback from the kingdom’s own short-sighted strategy to undermine competing oil producers. As I previously reported, Saudi Arabia has maintained high production levels precisely to keep global oil prices low, making new ventures unprofitable for rivals such as the US shale gas industry and other OPEC producers.
The Saudi treasury has not escaped the fall-out from the resulting oil profit squeeze – but the idea was that the kingdom’s significant financial reserves would allow it to weather the storm until its rivals are forced out of the market, unable to cope with the chronic lack of profitability.
That hasn’t quite happened yet. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia’s considerable reserves are being depleted at unprecedented levels, dropping from their August 2014 peak of $737 billion to $672bn in May – falling by about $12bn a month.
At this rate, by late 2018, the kingdom’s reserves could deplete as low as $200bn, an eventuality that would likely be anticipated by markets much earlier, triggering capital flight.
To make up for this prospect, King Salman’s approach has been to accelerate borrowing. What happens when over the next few years reserves deplete, debt increases, while oil revenues remain strained?
As with autocratic regimes like Egypt, Syria and Yemen – all of which are facing various degrees of domestic unrest – one of the first expenditures to slash in hard times will be lavish domestic subsidies. In the former countries, successive subsidy reductions responding to the impacts of rocketing food and oil prices fed directly into the grievances that generated the “Arab Spring” uprisings.
Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth, and its unique ability to maintain generous subsidies for oil, housing, food and other consumer items, plays a major role in fending off that risk of civil unrest. Energy subsidies alone make up about a fifth of Saudi’s gross domestic product.
As revenues are increasingly strained, the kingdom’s capacity to keep a lid on rising domestic dissent will falter, as has already happened in countries across the region.
About a quarter of the Saudi population lives in poverty. Unemployment is at about 12 percent, and affects mostly young people – 30 percent of whom are unemployed.
Climate change is pitched to heighten the country’s economic problems, especially in relation to food and water.
Like many countries in the region, Saudi Arabia is already experiencing the effects of climate change in the form of stronger warming temperatures in the interior, and vast areas of rainfall deficits in the north. By 2040, average temperatures are expected to be higher than the global average, and could increase by as much as 4 degrees Celsius, while rain reductions could worsen.
This would be accompanied by more extreme weather events, like the 2010 Jeddah flooding caused by a year’s worth of rain occurring within the course of just four hours. The combination could dramatically impact agricultural productivity, which is already facing challenges from overgrazing and unsustainable industrial agricultural practices leading to accelerated desertification.
In any case, 80 percent of Saudi Arabia’s food requirements are purchased through heavily subsidised imports, meaning that without the protection of those subsidies, the country would be heavily impacted by fluctuations in global food prices.
“Saudi Arabia is particularly vulnerable to climate change as most of its ecosystems are sensitive, its renewable water resources are limited and its economy remains highly dependent on fossil fuel exports, while significant demographic pressures continue to affect the government’s ability to provide for the needs of its population,” concluded a UN Food & Agricultural Organisation (FAO) report in 2010.
The kingdom is one of the most water scarce in the world, at 98 cubic metres per inhabitant per year. Most water withdrawal is from groundwater, 57 percent of which is non-renewable, and 88 percent of which goes to agriculture. In addition, desalination plants meet about 70 percent of the kingdom’s domestic water supplies.
But desalination is very energy intensive, accounting for more than half of domestic oil consumption. As oil exports run down, along with state revenues, while domestic consumption increases, the kingdom’s ability to use desalination to meet its water needs will decrease.
End of the road
In Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Egypt, civil unrest and all-out war can be traced back to the devastating impact of declining state power in the context of climate-induced droughts, agricultural decline, and rapid oil depletion.
Yet the Saudi government has decided that rather than learning lessons from the hubris of its neighbours, it won’t wait for war to come home – but will readily export war in the region in a madcap bid to extend its geopolitical hegemony and prolong its petro-dominance.
Unfortunately, these actions are symptomatic of the fundamental delusion that has prevented all these regimes from responding rationally to the Crisis of Civilization that is unravelling the ground from beneath their feet. That delusion consists of an unwavering, fundamentalist faith: that more business-as-usual will solve the problems created by business-as-usual.
Like many of its neighbours, such deep-rooted structural realities mean that Saudi Arabia is indeed on the brink of protracted state failure, a process likely to take-off in the next few years, becoming truly obvious well within a decade.
Sadly, those few members of the royal family who think they can save their kingdom from its inevitable demise by a bit of experimental regime-rotation are no less deluded than those they seek to remove.
- Nafeez Ahmed PhD is an investigative journalist, international security scholar and bestselling author who tracks what he calls the 'crisis of civilization.' He is a winner of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian reporting on the intersection of global ecological, energy and economic crises with regional geopolitics and conflicts. He has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde diplomatique, New Internationalist. His work on the root causes and covert operations linked to international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.