Once again, the media have it wrong. As Obama meets with the heads of the leading Persian Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, yesterday and today, his chief problem isn’t whether to release documents that may or may not support claims that some low-level Saudi officials helped some of the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks — or whether to veto any legislation in Congress that would let families of those killed in the 9/11 attacks sue the Saudi government.
His real Saudi problem is his unacknowledged alliance with Tehran to displace Saudi Arabia as the dominant power in the Middle East. It’s a policy he’s been pursuing since he took office, and it has led to his embarrassingly bad nuclear agreement with Iran. It’s also destabilizing the last stable regimes in the region and may force the Saudis, along with Egypt and possibly Jordan, to seek out nuclear weapons of their own now that they know the Obama administration has largely conceded the bomb to Tehran in the next decade.
But even more alarmingly for now, it’s forcing the Saudis to wage economic warfare on their rival Iran, with the only weapon at their disposal. That’s the oil weapon. By maintaining and even increasing their oil production since prices started to collapse in mid 2015, the Saudis are hoping against hope that they can drown, in a sea of permanently low prices, Iran’s post-sanctions resurgence as a major oil producer.
American companies large and small are shutting down production and in many cases facing bankruptcy. (Houston-based Energy XXI is just the latest.) Meanwhile, oil-driven economies around the world are facing ruin, including the Saudis’ own neighbor and ally Kuwait.
Again, no one needs to feel OPEC’s pain; member countries have dealt out plenty of pain to others over the years, including their own people. But failing economies can also mean failing states, which breeds instability and more extremism, not less.
Meanwhile, bin Salman is Obama’s other Saudi problem. He’s the 30-year old who has emerged as the most influential adviser to his father King Salman and is the one pushing both the oil-production gusher and Saudi Arabia’s current military campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Both are strategies born from desperation, as the Saudis worry that a Shia takeover in Yemen could cascade across the border and trigger trouble with Arabia’s own Shia population — while many hope that the damage the crown prince’s oil policy is doing to America’s shale, oil, and gas sector will permanently crimp America’s ability to challenge Saudi Arabia as a swing producer in global oil markets.
Both strategies are also amazingly short-sighted. A long-festering war on the Arabian Peninsula, like the one in Syria, only benefits extremists on both sides of the Shia–Sunni divide. A long decline in oil prices would eventually hurt the house of Saud by cutting back its ability to use generous welfare payments — bribes, really, sustained by oil revenues — to buy off discontent at home. Both trends make the survival of the Saudi dynasty and other “moderate” Arab regimes look more and more uncertain, which could spell the end of any hope for a peaceful and stable Middle East.
Yet at the end of the day, Obama’s real Saudi problem is himself. By stiff-arming allies Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel while trying to embrace their arch-foe Iran as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, he has turned the Middle East inside out — while also devastating America’s oil and gas patch, the one bright spot on this administration’s dismal economic record. That’s some legacy. And if it ends in the fall of the house of Saud, it could make Obama the architect of an entirely new and explosive Middle East, one that would make today’s look like a New Orleans Mardi Gras.
— Arthur L. Herman is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II.