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  • Writer's pictureThe Red Line

Episode 82. Saudi Arabia: A Global Economic Powderkeg

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Saudi Arabia is experiencing numerous simultaneous challenges at the moment, ranging from royal infighting, a rearming Yemen, a diverging population, and a growing threat from Iran.

Tasked with guiding the Saudis through this storm is Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS), a leader whose track record leaves a bit to be desired. What is troubling most regional analysts though, is that the global reliance on Saudi oil means that if Saudi Arabia were to falter here, it might take down several Western economies with it.


Episode Overview:

Part 1: The Saud and the Stone (4:55)

  • Helen Lackner opens our discussion noting the recent contradiction under MBS of noticeable (if slow) social liberalisation but a higher degree of political repression in modern Saudi Arabia. She also outlines why Saudi Arabia is the regional hegemon of the Gulf region and the significant population creating different economic dynamics to its neighbours.

  • Lackner gives a profile of MBS, an untraditional politician and ruler in Saudi Arabian history, and how he came to power in the Kingdom, including as Defence Minister where he was seen to be the prime decision maker behind the Saudi invasion of Yemen.

  • We discuss the small but sizable Shia population within Saudi Arabia, which are concentrated in the south and eastern oil producing regions, and the dynamic for these Shia citizens amidst ongoing tensions with majority-Shia Iran.

Part 2: Failing the Test (31:54)

  • Roby Barrett muses on the unlikely rise of MBS as Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, given the lengthy number of successors ahead of him earlier in his life.

  • Barrett talks through the strategic threat the Houthis pose to Saudi Arabia and the geostrategic calculus behind the invasion of Yemen, as well as unpacking why the Saudi military situation has atrophied into a costly stalemate that has going on for years and will likely require an unpopular compromise to bring an end to the conflict.

  • We discuss the military threat that Iran poses to Saudi Arabia, and the problem facing the Kingdom independently defending themselves.

Part 3: Accumulating Antagonists (55:00)

  • Jane Kinninmont notes that in the current atmosphere of international uncertainty, Saudi Arabia has re-engaged with its regional neighbours, hedging its bets after more aggressive diplomacy in recent years.

  • We discuss the Saudi failure to bring Qatar to yield after imposing heavy handed sanctions and demands has led towards a need to reembrace diplomacy and multilateral institutions.

  • Kinninmont notes the autocratic style of MBS has overtaken the long-term perception of a Wahabi-dominated Saudi Arabia, and that the geostrategic tension with Iran has been perceived as a failure of the US and Europe to intervene in. In particular, the difference in opinion about the JCPOA is an ongoing sore spot with the West.

  • We unpack the Saudi security situation in a potential conflict with Iran, including the vulnerability to Iran missile or drone strikes on oil fields and desalination plants, and if that vulnerability would keep Saudi Arabia out of a military conflict between Iran and other nations.

Part 4: The Company You Keep (1:17:13)

  • Sanam Vakil breaks down the long dependence of Saudi Arabia on US defence and the degradation of the trust in that security guarantee following Iranian attacks on oil facilities in 2019 that went largely unanswered.

  • This deterioration of the relationship with the US has seen explicit rebukes, including a reduction of Saudi oil ahead of the 2022 US midterm elections. This has lead to an increasing in relations with Russia.

  • We turn to rising tensions with Turkey and the Erdogan Government, with the Saudis seeing themselves in a regional contest about the best form of political government in the region, coming amidst Turkey's warming relations with Qatar.

  • We discuss the potential of Saudi and Israeli relations developing, noting the complexities and potential setback with the re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu

  • We turn towards MBS' commitment to Vision 2030 domestically, as a vehicle towards developing Saudi Arabia and legitimising MBS' future rule of the Kingdom.


Episode Guests:

Helen Lackner

  • Celebrated writer and analyst of Gulf geopolitics

  • Former Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations

  • Former Research Associate at the SOAS University of London

  • Regular contributor to outlets such as Open Democracy, Arab Digest, and Oxford Analytica

Roby Barrett

  • Non-resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute

  • Fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Forum at Cambridge University specializing in Gulf and regional security issues

  • Former Foreign Service Officer with a background in intelligence and special operations

  • Former Visiting Professor at the Royal Saudi Arabian Command and Staff School focused on Gulf security, specifically Yemen and Iran

Jane Kinninmont

  • Impact Director at the European Leadership Network

  • Formerly Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, where she led a research project on generational change in the Gulf Arab monarchies and its impact on Gulf relations with Iraq, Iran and Yemen

Sanam Vakil

  • Deputy Director and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

  • Her research focuses on regional security, Gulf geopolitics, and on future trends in Iran’s domestic and foreign policy.


The Red Line's Saudi Arabia Reading List:

We’ve compiled a list of further reading to better understand the geopolitics of semiconductors.


Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry that Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East

Kim Ghattas

Iran and Saudi Arabia: Taming the Chaotic Conflict

Ibrahim Fraihat

The Squeeze: Oil, Money, and Greed in the 21st Century

Tom Bower


For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here:

This episode is dedicated to Patreon members Matt J, Diana J Austin, Jeff Lippman, Xrim, Viktor Tschepurnoj, and Peter Guilarte.



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