Saudi: A power to reckon with

Macharia Munene

Several countries are emerging as second-tier global powers because they have assertive leadership that deliberately seek recognition as major geopolitical players.

Among them is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a World War I product out of the decaying Ottoman Empire in the Middle East which had sided with Germany.

Britain and France symbolically shared Ottoman territories in the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement while inciting the Arabs to turn against the Ottomans. The exposure of that treaty, which Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin termed "an agreement of colonial thieves", boosted the Russian Revolution and inspired US President Woodrow Wilson to issue his Fourteen Points in 1918 in response to Lenin's accusations. In the process, with Britain defining all borders, the Wahhabi House of Saud acquired a kingdom amidst British Middle Eastern interests in Iraq, Jordan/Palestine, Yemen, Oman, Kuwait, and UAE.

The Arab Middle East remained geopolitically dormant until the late 1940s and 1950s at the height of the American-Soviet Cold War. Strangely, the Americans and Soviets had ganged up in 1948 in the establishment of Israel against European and Arab sentiments and in 1956 when they jointly helped Egypt's Abdel Gamal Nasser to humiliate remnants of Anglo-French imperial pretensions. Nasser became the unifying Arab voice using Radio Cairo, made Egypt the symbolic leader of the Arab world and Saudi Arabia playing supportive roles to contain potential Iraqi and Jordanian Hashemite challenges. Saudi Arabia continued to appear subordinate to Egyptian leadership even after Nasser's death, although it was gaining its own geopolitical muscles.

The growing importance of oil in the post-World War global economy made Saudi Arabia a world power to reckon with. Its oil reserves helped in Western Europe's reconstruction, which the Americans paid for through the Marshall Plan. It was prominent in the September 1960 Venezuelan-inspired creation of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC, as one of five oil-producing countries that met at Baghdad to plot to free themselves from the stranglehold of giant oil companies in the West. OPEC spent the 1960s sending students to the best of Western universities to learn about the basics of the oil industry from exploring, drilling, refining, and marketing. The students returned home to occupy critical oil-related positions and were therefore ready to take control when the political opportunity arose. Saudi Arabia was at the top of that readiness and seemingly worked very closely with Egypt's Anwar Sadat.

Sadat provided the geopolitical moment for Saudi Arabia and OPEC to flex oil muscles and dislocate the global economy. First, on Saudi encouragement, Sadat kicked the Soviets out of Egypt. Second, Egypt launched the geopolitical game-changing 1973 Yom Kippur War on Israel. In all its previous encounters with Israel in 1948, 1956, and 1967, the Yom Kippur War was Egypt's best performance. Besides scaring the West and giving prominence to Henry Kissinger's 'shuttle diplomacy', the war introduced 'oil' as a geopolitical weapon as Saudi Arabia led in the new world economic dispensation.

OPEC took control of the oil industry, cut the supplies to those on the wrong side of the Arab-Israeli disputes, increased the price of oil manifold, and forced countries to reduce contact with Israel in order to get oil. It affected driving behaviour to save energy, such as driving at 55 miles per hour or 80 kilometres per hours. Japan benefitted and increased its clout in the world motor market as people sought to save money by buying such small energy-saving cars as 'Toyota'.

More importantly, the OPEC move devastated economies in different oil-dependent countries as it made Saudi Arabia a global force in world affairs. The United States then pressured Saudi Arabia to cut deals to ditch the 'gold' standard and make the 'dollar' the currency of oil marketing everywhere. This ditching of the 'gold' made the dollar the global reserve currency and increased American ability to control the world economy. The wealth, calculated in 'petrodollars', flowed into American-controlled financial institutions mainly the International Monetary Fund, IMF, and the World Bank, WB, which then induced countries to 'borrow'. Thereafter, the IMF and WB became agents of post-modern colonialism imposing 'conditions' on supposedly independent states. In those deals, the United States committed to provide military aid and equipment and protect the House of Saud from questioning about its governing system which had little room for such ideals as 'democracy' or 'human rights,' The architect of those secret deals was Henry Kissinger who had no desire, as he showed while overthrowing Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, to watch the foolishness of the voters jeopardise US interests anywhere.

For roughly four decades, thereafter, the United States and Saudi Arabia stuck to their secret deal for the petrodollar to dominate world currency, for the US to provide military aid, and for the Saudi royalty to do as it pleased. Within that period, the United States maintained faith in the Saudi deal even as it helped to sponsor Arab Springs and impose regime changes in targeted countries. Saudi Arabia was never a target of regime change whether under Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or Donald Trump. Even when Obama's Secretary of State Hilary Clinton went sponsoring Arab Springs, Saudi Arabia was still protected. In Libya Muamur Qaddafi's offence was in daring to dream of an African gold-based currency to replace the dollar and as a result, Clinton decided to destroy Libya and kill Qaddafi and revelled, "We came. We saw. He died." In all the 'regime change' enterprises, Saudi Arabia was uniquely exempted from the mission to promote 'democracy' and 'human rights' as tools of pre-emptive self-protection.

The US-Saudi cosiness came under strain within the last decade. Several factors might explain the current state of constraint between the two previous allies. First, in the 2010s, there emerged new leadership in key countries that appeared to be determined to reshape the global power structure. Obama's eight-year administration had obsessive missionary zeal to turn the world into replicas of the US as symbolised by his Arab Springs, China's Xi Jinping advocated a Chinese Dream of peaceful world power realignment with Chinese characteristics, Vladimir Putin wanted to reassert Russian greatness to erase Cold War humiliation, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan struggles to revive the Ottoman Empire after being rejected in the European Union, and Crown Mohammed bin Salmon or MBS tries to reform the Saudi domestic and global image.

Second, the era of US global dominance disappeared but the Americans, especially under Trump, seem not to know it. The US lost power by losing credibility and even when Joe Biden took office claiming that the US was back to lead the world, few in that world believed in American leadership.

Third, China appeared to lead geopolitical and economic realignment by penetrating every corner of the globe and offering competitive terms of engagement. China is a key player in the emerging BRICS global alliance system that is competing with the Conceptual West.

Fourth, the US and NATO expansionist desires to Eastern Europe, probably to do a Carthage on Moscow, collided with Russia's determination to reassert itself as a global power. The consequence of that geopolitical head-on collision is the mess in Ukraine which has forced and is speeding global realignment.

Saudi Arabia, under MBS, wants to claim its niche in that realignment and it probably is disappointed with the United States which seems to have violated the Kissinger secret deal. In 2028, Joe Biden broke the trust to leave Saudi governance alone when he seemingly blamed MBS for Jamal Khashoggi's death in Istanbul. Biden even thought of imposing 'consequences' on Saudi Arabia due to its lack of 'cooperation' in Ukraine. On his part, MBS ignored Biden and engaged in charting his own path. He received Venezuela's Maduro and Xi Jinping, bought Russian oil, and decided to join the BRICS alliance system which contemplates the end of the petrodollar financial system. Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of 'Democracy for the Arab World Now', observed that "MBS has been spanking President Biden for the last two years."

Among the humiliations to the United States is that MBS was willing to listen to Xi on normalising relations with Iran so much that Riyadh and Teheran patched up their religious and geopolitical differences enough to establish embassies. Washington tends to be jittery when China and Iran are mentioned for, like Venezuela and Russia, represent rejection of American global leadership. MBS does not want Saudi Arabia to appear to be playing second fiddle to any other power. While he wanted and dominates domestic reforms in governance and social consciousness, he has problems tolerating criticism.

The Biden seeming violation of the Kissinger deal, therefore, enabled him to seek a place as a player in the global geopolitical realignment. Although it remains a middling power with great financial muscles, MBS is like Erdogan and France's Macron in struggling to appear independent of the great powers while advancing perceived global interests.